Thursday, December 24, 2009

I go home for Christmas

(for my sister Laurie and all the Christmases we've shared)

On Christmas Eve I revisit other years, other places. Tonight was an authentic Kelly marathon of Charlie Brown, the Grinch and a Los Angeles interpretation of the holiday season, written and directed by Shane Black, called KISS, KISS, BANG, BANG. Robert Downey, Jr. I rest my case. You might call us semi-traditionalists.

Most often I replay scenes from my childhood, though the reveries may veer into last-minute wrapping marathons his father and I shared when our son was wearing footed pajamas.

Tonight I see my younger sister and me; we have gotten into our bunk beds, too excited to sleep even for a minute - or so we believe - and our bedroom door is closed since it opens right onto the living room, site of the tree, the fireplace, Santa and the presents. Five years separate us, which can be a vast gulf when one is 10 and the other 5, but on Christmas Eve we are just girls, filled with wonder and anticipation. Our brother's room is in another part of the house...too far for whispering. I wonder if it was a bit lonely for him, especially on those nights. I will remember to ask him.

Eventually we gave in to a light, reluctant sleep and awoke to find that our stockings had been left at the feet of our beds. Whichever of us woke first let the other one know that Santa HAD been there and in the dark, being as quiet as we could while describing every surprise we pulled out, we explored toys and sampled candy.

I think of her tonight, several thousand miles away. We have only shared one Christmas - and no Christmas Eves - in the past 20-plus years, yet under our tree sits, as her gift tag describes it, "the most beautiful purse I ever saw" and hints of the creams and potions for our aging skins which it contains. Over the decades she has unearthed objects of amazement; the jointed, handcrafted rat with the sweet potato-shaped nose and articulated tail, the flea market photo album and post card collection. This year's flowered purse reminds me of a stocking already laid at my feet and I feel how much I miss her, I miss our girl selves and even our grown sisterly exchanges in the days when Joseph Magnin existed and had its annual collection of figural gift boxes. There is a mixed sense of curiosity, longing, gratitude and loss as I look at the lovely presents she has sent, yet know that, given the chance, I might trade them all to be those young dream believers again.

May all your Christmas wishes come true while absent loved ones nestle in your hearts. And do not doubt this: the magic endures and we are part of it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You are so beautiful

Have I told you lately that I love you? Have you told anyone lately that you love them? We are the instruments of blessings for one another or as my Sunday morning television companion, one-man pep rally, Pastor Joel Osteen, says, we need to speak favor over each other. To which I add we also would do well to speak favor over ourselves. Those critical, fault-finding voices which hatch inside our minds are not our friends; the words they parrot (for they had to come from somewhere) were not spoken by friends or those who could see and cherish our good, the occasional poor choice and human frailties notwithstanding.

It is from Pastor Osteen that I learned the notion of speaking favor over someone as a way to catch God's ear and enlist Divine support for all of us with aspirations - for success, for the willingness to try, for a way of seeing our lives as works-in-progress rather than failures. Which is to say everyone, each being a worthy candidate for blessing and the future promise we came here to fulfill.

In his telling of the process, Pastor Osteen extends our power to bless to all whom we encounter. The kind word, the compliment, the appreciation, taking the time to find what is splendid, pleasing, noble and magnificent - on a grand or more modest scale - lets it be known that this person IS blessed, is treasured and seen not only for who they are but who they may become.

To think that each of us has the power to shape or direct the life, or lives, of those around us is humbling and daunting. It calls for mindfulness, attention to our words and intentions; it is responsibility and gift. Will we accept this assignment, gravitas on a daily schedule, or will we disbelieve, disregard the fact that we have been called to be a messenger of empowerment and love?

Revisiting my past, there were voices that spoke only favor over me, grandparents who attended every dance recital, hired me to paint Christmas scenes on their picture windows every December, who took my child self with them most everywhere, from Veterans' picnics to beach vacations. There were other voices as well which spoke faint praise only conditionally, which raged and found fault, spoke sarcasm or no words at all. The difference between them may not actually haunt, but each cell still holds the memory of the effect.

Whose praises will you sing today, whose beaming face will fill your eyes and heart as you speak your delight at their simple existence? In addition to lessons from Pastor Osteen, I have also learned from other sources that the over-spending of time in regret and recrimination is to fall into the past, sink beneath the shame of critical voices, self-applied. Whatever we may have neglected up to this minute, whatever words we long to undo, our only real choice is to let that all go and start anew here, where we stand.

As I accept this mantle, for I know it to be true, I silently, for the moment, compose a list of names and attributes, bringers of gifts and grace, illumination and encouragement, love without requirements, humor and generosity and knowing, that have placed me here. My wish is to acknowledge that nourishment with gratitude and reciprocation while being alert for the openings where my words may make the difference. For today, may favor be our only language and love our only song.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To teach imagination is to teach everything

(for my brother Mike on his birthday)

Even Einstein told us that imagination is more important than knowledge. How do we know where one begins, leaving the other to follow? I know as well as I know anything that without imagination we might still be cave-dwellers or fishermen terrified of the Earth's flatness. In a not very original comparison, imagination feels like flinging open the school doors and letting everyone run free, trusting they will find their place, acquire the information they need to reach their destination, realize there are no walls and no limits.

To dream BIG is an adventure. If the lands we seek are only in our minds, what of it? The realms of Tolkien or Baum or Bradbury may not exist on any maps, still they are as real to us as the corner drugstore in our hometown, much more real than what we may have had presented to us as the system's version of history - pick an era. If our brains were skyscrapers, imagination would be housed on the top floor. Not difficult to reach - there are express elevators - but easily missed because gravity or the status quo or someone's expectations or fears kept us from venturing that far from what we thought we knew. Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called "Heroes and Heroines," in which she tells of risk-takers, people who are unfamiliar with the word impossible, and speaks of our American pioneers, choosing "...a life that's never safe and dry..." and I found those words resonated for me as epitomizing reasons why we may wish to stay uninformed, unenlightened. Imagination carries the possibility of risk and reward. Yet staying put has never been a guarantee of that safe, dry life, for I don't believe it exists. Fiction has given us examples that appear in everyday language, like falling down the rabbit hole, finding the entrance to Narnia or the road to Oz. Rod Serling's introduction to "Twilight Zone" episodes mentions imagination, in almost the same breath as he speaks of worlds "...as vast as space and as timeless as infinity."

Two of the three children in our family had imaginary friends and the third sibling lived a vicarious life through a sizable stuffed bear who had a flourishing literary career. I spent years writing dialogue in my head and wondering why, when the people around me spoke, they never used the words I'd prepared for them. Our parents followed creative paths, yet were not wildly outside any norms for their time. I no longer believe in ordinary as an inevitable state; I believe we each possess the capacity for the exceptional. One may choose ordinary but I don't think anyone who wishes to escape can really be stopped. In our minds we discover there are no limits, no walls too high, no thorn hedges too impenetrable, no world which could not exist if we gave it breath and light.

Dream huge. Stare out the window and let your thoughts run everywhere. Let the dam burst, the gargoyles take flight and twin suns rise in the morning. We are so much more than we know, unfettered, unhampered by time. We are the stories and the tellers, we are enormous, we are endless, heart-breakingly beautiful, fierce and wise. We will never be small again.