Advent Hot Chocolatetawk topic for the month:
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” For Carrie Fisher’s life, legacy and these words, we are grateful. Discuss…
In this season of short days and long nights, big presents and big bills, biting cold and spectacular snow crystals, smiling lucky kids and sobbing broken hearts, special births and crushing deaths, we look for miracles. Life and our world seems at its most extreme during Advent. The blessings and disasters both require more from us. They require more than anyone could possibly provide. We turn to each other. And we turn more readily to the miraculous for help. Perhaps we do it out of impulsive desperation. We have no answers left. There is room the unexpected, for miracles. And sometimes in Advent, we get miracles. I have.
We need hope. We need hope that change for the better is possible and probable. We need hope that on the other side of the fear which cripples us is the faith which sustains us. We need hope to even try to move beyond what scares us. We need hope to help us move at all, in the cold, dark disappointing winter. We hope and pray that the sun will come back and warm our bones, our hearts and refuel our spirits. We pray for spring. But first there is winter and all of its’ challenges. It is harsh, but not without hope. Advent is full of hope. I believe. I believe there have been more gifts and miracles and hope at this time of year. Maybe we want it, need it and therefore make it so. Who knows? I don’t consider the philosophical angle much. I still believe in Santa Claus. Seriously, I love Santa and swear by him. Try to dissuade me… You’re preaching to the choir right now about Santa.
Enough of the waxing rhapsodic. The contrast of the season is evident to all. What I need are specifics. I believe in miracles and I have hope. I do. And I have been taught that I can help along a miracle and develop hope in my life. So I do. A dear friend, a stroke survivor like me, teaches me many great lessons. Here is one. “Whenever I remove something bad from my life, I have to replace it with something good.” She cannot leave a void for long. The vacant hole would too easily summon negative enterprises. Balance is what she seeks. Positive action is the solution.
I like this. Maybe in the past, before my stroke, as a youth I could talk endlessly about my great ideas. Perhaps then I could exist on that plane of ideals that may or may not be realized, but provided endless fodder for discussion and dreams. I dreamt big. I admit it. And I sought continuously the high-highs of these larger-than-life dreams. In my mind, I could build a wonderful life, straight out of a Hollywood script. It was unencumbered by reality. I never lived those dreams. But boy, I waited for them. Lonely, without ability to make any dream a reality, I waited. And waited.
Since my stroke, I can’t wait for dreams, life, miracles or hope to come to me. I’m not promised a long life. I want to enjoy every moment of the incredible life I have today. I have to act now, making space and moving through life. I gotta be a part of my own life, for goodness sake. In that way, I am my actions. Or rather, the steps I take each day are what I call a life. I DO things and some succeed and some fail. When I am happy with the results, I consciously choose to do more of it. When I fail, or my actions don’t seem to help, I stop doing that action. I take time to think of what I will do next time that will yield better results. That’s how I am. I realize that now. That is how I roll today.
That is VERY different from who I was before my stroke. I have changed, because of my stroke. And I continue to change thanks to my stroke to get the best life for me. I think I change a lot. Maybe I have changed a lot more than/ faster than my peeps. I live in my bubble as we all do and being a stroke survivor is my “normal.” I forget sometimes how different I am. I think that some of the difficulties I’ve been having lately might be stemming from this. My “normal” is not a normal that any of my peeps are familiar with. And that which we are not familiar with, we can have a hard time dealing with. It’s kind of like I am always from a different planet than my peeps. I realize that my stroke is playing a part in my life, everyday, even after all these years. I forget sometimes. But now I need to pay attention. Hmm.
Focus Rachel. I was thinking about the idea of change! I know change is basically undesirable to me. I don’t think I am alone in that. I am afraid of change because I can’t control the outcome. I make room for changes in life because I’ve had to. I wonder if my changes are hard for people in my life to handle? I wonder if it makes them uncomfortable, even after almost 14 years since my biggest shocking change. I wonder.
Afraid or not, ready or not, I act. That can be hard to handle for me and people in my life. I don’t have the luxury of the illusion that life will eventually work out according to my plan. I have the blessing of knowing there is a beautiful plan for my life and all I have to do is show up and live life on life’s terms. What a Christmas gift that is!
My life and who I am could be described as my responses and reactions to what is presented to me. The relationships which sustain me are formed in those “moves.” Life makes a move. Rachel responds. Life makes a move, throws me a curve. I react. Life gives me its best and I respond with my best. And on and on it goes. I am blessed with each day that I can play!
Having a stroke was certainly not part of my life plan. Stroke’s no game and it doesn’t play. Stroke caught me way off guard and changed everything. (Thank God) I had never wanted to change anything unless I was confident that the result would be exactly as I wished. I thought that my “well thought out plan of life,” would unroll and it would naturally evolve. I was living in response to the thoughts in my head and the life I imagined. I was not in relationship with myself, reality or the wonders of this life. I couldn’t. I was too afraid. I was afraid of not having control. I was afraid of the unknown. I was afraid of everything. I had no tools to deal with stroke. I couldn’t think my way out of it. My thoughts didn’t change the reality. But my actions sure did.
And actions bring me back to the quote by Carrie Fisher. For each part of her quote and for every peak and valley of Advent, I have a connection. These connections are what Advent is made of, for me. Here they are: (Yup, I love lists)
- “Stay afraid. But do it anyway.” The American Heart and Stroke Association posted this quote of Carrie Fisher’s the day after she died of a heart attack at Christmas. I had long admired her work, life and family. Growing up with Star Wars, I revered Princess Leia as the ultimate “cool girl.” I loved her in When Harry Met Sally as the endearing BFF. Fisher’s openness about her human struggles with addiction, mental illness and family helped and taught me that there were other folks living in a messy world, just like me. Not everyone’s life was Barbie and Ken at the Club, pinkies up as I hold my teacup. Carrie’s mom, Debbie Reynolds was a funny familial force and their very public mother-daughter relationship was refreshing. It was the real deal, not a Hollywood golden trophy family. Their family was a living, fire-breathing, passionate clan, like mine. Theirs was a family loving loudly and fiercely, like mine. I loved when Debbie Reynolds had a spot on The Golden Girls and when she played the mom on Will and Grace. She made me laugh when I thought my laugh was broken. For her to die so soon after her daughter, actually when she was planning Carrie’s funeral, from a stroke, stopped me in my tracks. Heart disease struck them as it had me. A family unexpectedly ripped apart in this world and perhaps reunited in the next. A child went before a parent and the parent followed, and all during Christmas.
Carrie’s words in the wake of her death, “Stay afraid” were brutal. When I first heard them, I flinched! Stay afraid! Are you kidding me? I’ve been on a path which teaches me to walk through fear, turn over my fears to God and become less fearful as I develop greater faith. What did she mean? Why would the AHA/ASA quote it? Why was it so unsettling to me? As I read on, I understood. “Do it anyway.” A-ha, a light bulb moment for me… I get it. Fear is for most, a part of the human condition. We all have it at some point in our lives. But we take action and keep living even though we are afraid. Fear does not prohibit action, nor is it an excuse to stop fully living. Carrie, in her simple words, acknowledged something all of us can identify with. She validated our fears. And in the same breath, told us life goes on and we can be a part of it. I love that. Comfort and Challenge! (That could be a modern carol title, a spin-off of Comfort and Joy. It could work.)
- “What’s important is the action.” That’s the key for me. I thought my brain and life was over, shot to hell by my stroke. Literally and medically, I feared that the brain cells lost or damage made me deficient, deformed, disabled and better off dead. I felt ugly and useless for years while I nursed that belief. And because I had always been a fearful person and now was scared shi**ess to my core every second of every day, action was an insurmountable feat. There was no way I could do, anything beyond what my doctors and therapists told me to do. I didn’t know what the right thing to do was because I had no plan for myself to anchor me. I couldn’t control outcomes, so assuming the absolute worst would ensue, I did nothing. I couldn’t do what I wanted because I had no idea what I wanted anymore. In a world where God and my own body had so definitively betrayed me, there was nothing I could do. I was frozen in fear, paralyzed by the life lessons stroke was teaching me. For some reason, I don’t know why and I don’t care, I was given a gift of starting over and making a new life, just for today.
I have learned that action rewires my brain. My understanding, of practically everything comes after the action. My body heals through exercise and movement. My spirit is filled and inspired by the life I am a part of. The perfect example is my swallow. I took it for granted. I took youth and health and mobility and independence and a simple sip of water for granted. I had no appreciation of how much the simple swallow mattered. I had no idea that just being human was magnificent. I didn’t get that by myself, just being me I had the greatest gift ever. When I lost my swallow, when my stroke took it, I learned. I learned who was running the show. Not me! I learned how intricate the physical mechanism of the swallow is and how amazing a process it is. Working so hard for something so simple was the lesson I needed to learn to live my life right. It was in the action of the work and it is in the action of that sip of coffee, water, or seltzer that I learn. I appreciate it everyday. Swallowing makes me smile everyday. It is that simple for me. (Going a couple months without it, made me celebrate the days with it.) I don’t have to understand why. I don’t even ask why much anymore. I get busy doing the action and later I know a gift will be revealed to me. It always is.
- “You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” I hear ‘dat! If I waited for that, I might never move. Again, the understanding comes after the action for me, and so does confidence. I try a new recipe for a special meal. And if it goes well I get confident, down right cocky about my culinary prowess. If it goes bad, another recipe always comes along that tempts me to try again. I fake it ’til I make it, as I’ve been taught. Folks that I watch as models of good living, try all kinds of things. They make it look easy to do things so great. So I pretend I am them. I channel their expertise, if you please. Why not? It’s like acting. I pretend I am Julia Child in the kitchen. I’m not, but I have fun. And as she said, parsley or whipped cream can cover a multitude of sins. I like that.
Another thing on this topic, just like Julia Child earned, age gives you great gifts. By right and life, the older you get the more experience you have. You’ve done and seen things that the desperate young, whipper snappers can only dream of. Your fear lessens and confidence increases, if you’re doing it right. I am. Life doesn’t shock you so much. As I get older, I am proud of and confident in my journey. I know what I know. I know that I don’t know much. I know that every day I can learn and do and share. By getting to a certain age, quitting the highlighting of my hair and wearing my grays with pride, I get to be a woman of dignity. I get to be someone that others can look to and count on, just like I looked to my Grammas. I get to be a trusted rock for my students and son. I get to. What a gift.
- 4. Short days– It gets dark so early. Usually, sunset is my signal that I can get cozy and mosey towards bed. I am grateful for night’s restful hours. I rise early after sleeping sparsely. My days are full. I am ready for bed early. But near the solstice I would be heading for slumber around four thirty in the afternoon. That’s not really an option. My answer to the darkness is to bring in a lot of lights. I decorate our house and shed and trees with tons of twinkle lights. Each year I add more. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the holiday movie I most identify with this year. (Last year it was The Grinch.) I aspire to be Clark Griswold and set my neighborhood power grid on the fritz with the magnitude of my display. Someday…
Each year I add a bit more glowing bling. I started with icicle lights on the front porch and one lite-up reindeer in the front yard. Yup. Things have changed. This year we have three reindeer, icicles on the top and bottom porches, a large snowflake light, lit garland around the front door, a red wagon loaded with wrapped gifts, colored lights on the pear tree, front bush and forsythia bush. There are blue and white lights on the lilac to the side of the drive. Behind lilac, there are red and white lights on the young holly bush. The shed is lit with a rotating white spot light, color morphing snowflakes, twinkling snowflake garland, two grapevine lit stars, a string of big, bright colored lights on the pole at the back of the shed and a lit up arctic fox. Other years the shed has been a miniature gingerbread house, like on our logo. It’s had candy cane markers all around. But this year, the inspiration struck to turn the shed into a sugar-frosted gingerbread house. (Inspiration struck when the candy cane lights wouldn’t light.) It is kind of sparkly, white, sugared, twinkling, frosted pastel candy inspired. I love it. That completes the outside of the house light display. I think. With two new trees out front, there is more to do next year. I try to be respectful of my mom and be tasteful about my choices. White lights on Christmas trees, bows on wreaths and candles in the windows are tasteful to her. Beyond that, she thinks it’s a bit much. I have gone way, way beyond that. But I think she likes some of them now. Maybe, I hope so. But I have to practice restraint, or else Tim and Jason know there would be a sleigh, reindeer and Santa atop the shed roof and lights round the rest of the house as well. I love it. I love the lights. I love that kids at Jason’s school, their parents and neighbors say how much they love and look forward to our display. In the bleak midwinter, we shine for them. I love that. Our road is magical for the holidays. I stay awake just to watch the lights. Who wants to go to bed at 4:30 pm and miss the magical winter wonderland that we have created? Not me. In all kinds of winter weather and with every kind of light, they make me smile. Short days rock.
- Long nights – Long cold nights send us indoors for the winter. I personally, like the comparison of bears hibernating in their caves. That’s me. (I also lean towards a likeness to bears with the winter weight I add. Just saying.) We decorate our cave with color and light inside as much as we do the outside, only more so. There are bows and balls and ornaments, stockings, snowmen, Santas, blankets, stuffed animals, from Christmas past and present. Besides the visual decorations, there are all the Christmas movies and music that I adore and crave. I have holiday movies on 24/7 at home. I own it. I have holiday music on 24/7 too. I love it. There are several TV and radio stations that cooperate with my seasonal obsession. WSRS plays the popular holiday songs and is local so I get to hear tunes and stories about my town. They do a food drive at my local supermarket and collect for the Worcester County Food Bank. That’s what the season’s all about. Love that! Then WCHC- The radio station of Holy Cross College does a different set of carols and music without commercials. Love that! There are old favorites and new ones.
I grew up with Handel’s Messiah, so that blasts in my car for the season. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby croon the carols fabulously. As a kid, I fell in love with John Denver and the Muppets’ Christmas album; so sweet every year. We used to play that one when we made and decorated our Winnie-the-Pooh Gingerbread cookies. It was our tradition at my mom’s and it was great! I love the carols sung by English Cathedral Choirs as well. My Dad got me into them. The acoustics, magic and mystery of the choirs singing the traditional hymns is heavenly. I love them sung here at church too. Away in a Manger, O’ Little Town of Bethlehem, The Holy and the Ivy, and the Boar’s Head Carol are among my favorites. Jason and I have found versions in these days that we love, new traditions. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” has been passed from mother to son as a favorite. I am grateful for that. A countryish singer, JT Hodges’ Joy to the World is absolutely brilliant; 2 thumbs up from us. I love that every Christmas season brings new songs, old songs, remakes and reinventions. Once in a while a song comes along that leaves a deeper mark. To me, when that kind of song finds me, I consider it a miracle. It is a special gift that turns out to be just what I needed and never knew. It did not come from me. But, miraculously, I am smart enough and open enough to appreciate it. Nothing I did brought it to me, but I am blessed forever from it. I guess that’s my working definition of “miracle” for this Advent season.
The miracle song for me, and also curiously for Jason and Tim is “A Halleluiah Christmas” by Cloverton. I was familiar with Leonard Cohen and the Broken Halleluiah. I loved it. And we lost him at the end of this year too. But his gifts are not lost on us. His contributions, his music is precious. It reaches our hearts. That is the key. I love that his song inspired so many permutations. Great things plant seeds. His song inspired other artists to use his glorious creation as the roots and origins of their own art. My angel teacher friend who helped me get my spot at my new school and made me love going to work in our team every day, she showed me a different Halleluiah. An Irish Priest made his version of the song for a wedding mass. The video shows the wedding, the bride and the groom, and then the priest breaks into song, rewriting Leonard Cohen’s song for his own gift. He sang of the bride and groom and bearing witness to this union. He winked and smiled at the couple, so gentle and genuine. The Irish priest sang of the blessings for the couple from God and their community. My favorite part is when he sings “they say those most important words, I do-ya.” His glory and humility are truly inspiring.
I was coming down the hall at school one cold, dark, winter morning the first time I heard the song. I followed the sound to my friend’s classroom. She was playing it on her computer, humming and smiling along with it. The song had my heart, but seeing my friend smile was the real miracle. I have shared that song hundreds of times since. I try to practice the message of the Irish Priest in my own marriage, enjoying the blessing.
That version of Cohen’s song is an incredibly close second to the A Halleluiah Christmas. I googled the song of course, and found out that Cloverton is a Kansas band. I think the lyrics are one of the 80 odd versions of Hallelujah that Cohen created. I’m not sure. But the way Cloverton does it is the one for me. The instruments add to the lyrics one by one. The Christmas Story is told and it is always beautiful. One line, I wrote down and posted all year on my fridge. Yup, that’s where all good things go in my house. Speaking about Jesus they sing, “Every breath he drew was Hallelujah.” Imagine, giving glory to God in every inhale and exhale, throughout all that makes up your day. Brilliant. It was a year ago and I was struck by what a tribute to life in that brief line. I put it immediately on my fridge so I would read it every day. To be remembered for living your life in that way, a blessing. I aspire to that. For me to connect with that line in particular, and post it to inspire me daily, that is my miracle. I am grateful. Sharing the love of the song with Tim and Jason, a treasured gift.
- Big presents- I really tried this year to do less Christmas presents. I really did. And I think I succeeded. But wait, there were still too many. I can’t help it. It’s in my genes. This time it is not the Jean genes. Gramma Harriet is who I think I got this from. She would shop for and sew all year our Christmas presents. And she would tell us all year as she found treasures. I’d be on the phone with her in May and she drop in, “Ooooh, Rachel. You’re going to love what I got you for Christmas today. It is so perfect.” And she’d giggle with joy over it. At Thanksgiving she would have us load our car with 4 immense black trash just loaded with our gifts. They’d be all wrapped and labeled. The bags would be tied up tight. We’d take them home and store them in our basement until she came up for Christmas. It was torture knowing they were down there. I admit to sneaking down to the basement and untying the bags. I’d take out the gifts and give em a shake and a sniff. I’d hope and pray and smile. I couldn’t figure out what she had given us, but I knew they were quantity and quality. I knew they were quality because of the beaver hats. That’s right, beaver hats. I can’t remember how young I was when I first heard the story. Gramma Harriet got very serious and sat me, Mom and Cuzzin down for a chat. She told us that when she was a little girl, there was a gift of a beaver hat. “The Five Brats” as she called the kids included her and four siblings. They had an Aunt Catherine. She would come over at Christmas and give them gifts. One year there was a box for each child. Gramma Harriet, Louise, Marian, Bob and Lenny all opened their own. Inside each box was a beaver hat. It was big and brown. It smelled funny. It was itchy. They had to say they loved it and give their Aunt a kiss. They had to wear it whenever they might see their Aunt. Gramma Harriet retold this tale with all due familial love and respect. “I don’t want any beaver hats at our Christmas,” she said most firmly. If we didn’t like the gift, give it back to her and she’d return it. Absolutely, no worries. I loved the gifts I got. I loved her and I love the story. To this day, there are to be NO BEAVER HATS.
With that in mind, I love it trying to find JUST 1 perfect gift for everyone on my list. (Of course on the hunt for the Perfect 1, I accumulate a mountain of second and third place items. There’s the rub. There’s where I fail in the desired make-it-a-simple-and- downsized-Christmas.) The Perfect 1 might be something I make or it might be a shopping treasure. For Tim this year it was the three fleece with crochet edged blankets that I made him. Jason helped me pick out fleece on our Black Friday excursion, to complete our Boston team quartet. Last year he got the Red Sox blanket. This year, the crochet hook flew as the Bruins, Patriots and Celtics Blankies were made. They are bigger this year and if possible, more soft and cozy. And I know Tim love, loves them. That is the best.
- Big bills– cold weather and indulgent holidays and sharing with those who have less is pricey. But I am reminded daily, that this is a quality problem in life. I am lucky to have such a problem. We are all happy and healthy in our home. That is a gift. That is a miracle. I GET to have big bills. I GET to. So many of my nearest and dearest aren’t here anymore. In A Christmas Carol, by Dickens he writes about the empty seat beside the fireside in Christmas Future if things don’t change. I think about the empty chairs around me now of loved ones who aren’t alive for this Christmas. I am lucky to be here. So many I love don’t have the treasure of getting one day older. I GET to, big bills and all.
- Biting cold– “Baby, its Cold Outside,” “I’ve Got my Love to Keep Me Warm,” a cup of tea, my Goddog Gus beside me, Ciro and crochet on my lap is the accompaniment for biting cold. I add extra seed in the bird feeders and lots of fresh suet. I make cocoa in the crockpot at school for the kids. I layer on the long-johns. Cold hands, warm heart, hot coffee are stock and trade for this New England Gal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Spectacular snow crystals– December brings the first real flakes of winter, very pretty and not bad to shovel. By this time, the memories of harsh winter past are long forgotten. I excitedly wait during Advent for the new snow. I love snow. It’s in my blood and bones. From a few flakes gently falling in the morning all the way to a blizzard howling and dumping two feet of snow over night, it’s part of being a New Englander.
I remember the first time I knew what a miracle snow was and how blessed I was to call New England home. It was my first year of teaching, over 20 years ago. I led a line of students at dismissal out the front door. The school, then and now was a mini United Nations. We had children from all over the world. In particular, we had students from Ghana. The families came right over and the children appeared in our classrooms, now calling this brand new land, home. The language and culture is so different, but kids are kids. Their love of laughter and learning is universal. Anyways, it was early December and I led my line out of school and headed down the front steps. I turned to check on my cherubs and saw this child, straight from Ghana, face lifted to the sky and feet still. It was snowing, the first snow. There was a gentle dusting of fresh powder covering the concrete and floating like feathers from the sky. I had barreled outside noticing my footprints in the snow and the flakes that were melting when they hit my face. I never wore a hat in those days and could feel the coolness of snow on the top of my head. The look on that child’s face as he met snow for the first time was a moment I will never forget. Stroke hasn’t erased that memory, nor age dulled the magic of his expression. The contrast of his dark skin with the white snow remains fresh in my mind’s eye. The look in his eye of wonder and awe became the only thing I could see that day. With all the students and teachers rushing on, I remember only the quiet snow meeting a child for the first time. No words were needed for the introduction. Words wouldn’t have worked and weren’t needed. I knew then what a gift I had in spectacular snow crystals every Advent. Sharing the gift of snow with a child, bearing witness to that moment is a treasured moment.
- Smiling lucky kids– Kids live in the present, full of hope and possibility. I see that every day. They possess a resilience and ability to move forward with grace that I try to emulate. James Taylor’s introduction to Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas has lines that stick in my heart, “Christmas future is far away. Christmas past is past. Christmas present is here today, bringing joy that may last…” That is my hope. That is my prayer. That is why I keep Christmas in my heart all year. This Christmas, this day is here now. FACT! Live in it, is what the day wants. And if I do, the momentum and yield may carry over into tomorrow. It is another way, a holly jolly way of saying that my stroke recovery is progressive. Every day I get to live and put in the effort, I am building for a better tomorrow. It is true for me. I see it is true for kids too. Their natural curiosity leads them to try new things. When it feels good to do so and they get better at it, the keep doing it. It is that simple. I can do that too. Some days and some kids have a much harder road than others. Life has knocked them back already. They live in fear. They are discouraged by life. Adults have let them down. Life has already let them down. Finding a way to reach inside the child and show them the magnificent miracle that I see in them…that is the biggest rush going. The smile may be harder to find, but when you do it lights up the darkest night. That light is somehow easier to find at Christmas. I know I am gentler today than other days of the year. Maybe others are too. It is certainly a sweeter time of year that focuses on children. I am blessed that Jason’s life has been gentler than most of my students. He smiles a lot. The village that surrounds him and shows me how to give him the best, is rich in love and experience. (I was pretty good at reaching other people’s kids. I had no idea how to do that 24/7 with my own. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Jason’s world and heart are filled with the best people looking out for him, inspiring him and giving him always a helping hand.) With Advent, the whole world focuses more on kids. (Not enough and not all year. But it’s a start.) I feel like a kid and I look for the smiles on children’s faces that Christmas is real and true. There is a twinkle in the eye that shows the miracle of Christmas. Something good happened in the day and the child celebrates. The child, for a moment knows that they are the best present of the season. They are that important. It is all about them. And “yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.”
- Sobbing broken hearts– Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol speaks in my mind throughout the year. It echoes through my bones and soul for as long as I have been alive. The tradition of my Dad reading it aloud, me growing to read parts with him, watching versions of it on TV, and reading it and quoting it to my students is every present and ever strong. The story is my story. It comforts and inspires me. But in December, the voice is definitely louder. In Stave One, Scrooge is Scrooge. His nephew is hope and his words paint an Advent image.
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by
which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas
among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time,
when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred
name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as
a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I
know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem
by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of
people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave,
and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And
therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my
pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I
say, God bless it!” (Dickens, Stave 1) Rock on! The season meets us where we are at, broken hearts and all. It does not change us. It does not heal us. But Advent is surely a foot in the door for all, to see a flicker of light and love. And we may choose to feed the flame. I have had seasons where the joy of Christmas was not mine. I was Scrooge. I hated God and Christmas after my stroke for leaving me disabled. I wished I was dead at Christmas. I tried to die too. I’ve had deaths that I mourned savagely at the holidays. I cried out to God with my grief and would not celebrate the season without my beloved. I’ve been dumped out of relationships that I believed were true and forever. My heart was raw and felt no Merry Christmas at all. Things have happened in my community, my world and to Earth that seem cover all light from the the planet, from me. Extreme as this view may be, it come from my heart. My heart is passionate. My soul is on fire. (Sagitarrians are fire signs after all.) That’s how I roll. The extreme side of my nature can flare and I lose all perspective. Christmas joy is nowhere to found. I have been there. I still can be. But somehow, with the practice of living life on life’s terms, not Rachel’s, I can find the light of Christmas and smile. The heart may be broken, but there is hope. There is always something good in today, if I look for it.
- 12. Special births, Crushing deaths. We look for miracles. – Once again, the extreme contrasts of Advent abound. I was born in December. So was Jesus. Jokingly, through the years I’ve said, “me and Jesus, we’re like this.” I would show my fingers crossed together. I was due after Christmas but came 11 days before. I’ve always said that I had to come out. I couldn’t miss Christmas! Jokes aside, being a winter baby is something I’ve always seen as tying me to the Christmas season. My aunt has a story too about my birth. She was a lead dancer for the Jose Limon Dance Company. Jose began the company and choreographed the dance. His work inspired so many, especially my aunt. She worked for him, with him and loved him. He died at the beginning of December in 1972 and it was a huge loss for my aunt. The only good thing, she always tells me, about 1972 was my birth. Jose’s life ended and mine began. It comforts her and it comforts me, that Christmas 1972 story. The cycle seems true about life and death running together and apart. It reminds that when we lose a love, look for the new light to be born. We are better for the lives of our loved ones that have died. They pass the torch to us. And we can be that kind of light to a new life just beginning. Really and truly, we can.
- 13. Life at its most extreme during Advent. The weather outside is certainly extreme and often “frightful,” as the song goes. We had a day in the sixties. I walked Gus around the block in my flip-flops. School was cancelled another day due to the cold. It was biting and brutal. The wind raged. The rain was colder. The furnace inside me and the house struggle with the sudden changes. The cold is inside my right arm again. It’s dug in deep and it happened so fast. I forgot it would happen. Or I deny that it will. It did and it hurts. Mostly it feels like you could snap my arm off, it seems that brittle with cold. (I am surprised how normal this has become to me now. It’s good that I recognize how resilient and tolerant of pain I am now. I am proud of how I carry on. But it is not good when I ignore myself. When I disregard how my body reacts to the extremes, my body gives an extreme reaction to get my attention. I get wicked sick. And that is a bummer at any time of the year, especially Christmas. I gotta do better with this.)
That aside, as cold as my arm is, my heart is equally warm. This constant push and pull on the body and soul is stressful. It is impossible for anyone to regulate and get on an even keel. And the even keel is where I do best. The blessings and disasters both require more from us. The births and deaths this season match the blessing and disasters. They are such high-highs and such low-lows. We are yanked on a roller coaster of emotions. We feel more deeply. I have seen babies born this year to friends or announcements that they are coming. What lucky babies they are and how blessed are the families that they join. Babies are a blessing. And happy am I when I hear of babies coming to families that will give them the life they deserve. I stand by my belief; no child asks to be here. Some get lucky and are given the world. Some, not so much. I hate that. I hate to use the word “hate.” But there is no other word that is true. I love that this year I have seen friends ogle their newest family members and share the innocence and beauty with me. I think of the scene in “The Lion King,” where the young cub is held by proud papa high above the land for all in the kingdom to see. All creatures seem to vow to support the wondrous new life as it grows. That is how I think of it. I will be there to help the new lives grow.
The birth is one end of a promise we call life. Death is the other. It is certain. That kind of talk, while I KNOW it is true, scares the crap out of me. I repeat to soothe myself, “may you be happy in the life you chosen. May you be happy in the life you have chosen?” Over and over again I repeat Dickens’ words as a mantra. I breathe in peace and the freak out moment passes. This year many friends have died, and near the holidays and of heart disease: Alan Thicke, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Gary Shandling, Florence Henderson, Mohammed Ali, and Prince, Patty Duke, Gene Wilder, Eli Wiesel, Alan Rickman, George Michael, Janet Reno, Arnold Palmer and Shimon Peres are but a few of the famous people gone this year. Beloved sons, fathers, mothers and special friends were taken before their time. They were gone before we were ready to live without them. I believe that when someone dies, they have done everything they were meant to do in THIS life. My Buddhist Reiki Master Nancy lived this. And through her, I do believe it. Each life makes so much difference. Each life is sacred. And I know that this is little comfort to me or anyone else when our loved one dies. But I choose to repeat the phrase and then focus on what I GOT from having that person in the my life. I count and list the infinite ways that he/she touched me. It helps. It’s hard,- but it helps.
- 14. We turn to each other.- This is so true. I reach out more during Advent. And I feel the hand of others more often comes my way. The season rolls around and I don’t feel alone. One way I feel more connected is through the tradition of the holiday cards. We write Christmas cards and reflect on our year and send love to others. This year we did the cards together. The mens actually did most of it. It feels good to mail a robust stack of bright colored envelopes headed to loved ones near and far. And then to my surprise, the cards start coming in the post to us. Each one, a treasure. Tim hung long red ribbons around the dining room windows. Each card is hung on those ribbons. Each card brings holiday cheer from its sender to us. It’s such an easy way to connect. On a more hands-on note, we bake cookies and treats and share them with friends and neighbors. In particular we make them for Jason’s teachers at school and Tae Kwon Do. IT is a sweet good wish and thank you for all they do to support our son. Fun, Yummy and building connections! Within the home, we turn to each other for more hugs and gentleness. We turn, (I really do try to do this) and look each other in the eye. I try to look right at my peeps and give them a hug, more often. And if I can’t hug, I do bake. Either way, it is my sweet effort to turn and pay attention to my fellow travelers. Marley’s Ghost talks about the lack of connection in his life, his lack of humanity and we know it is NOT a good thing. He begs Scrooge to see his errors and connect in this life. The picture he paints without this action is bleak.
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by
link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my
own free will I wore it. ”
- And we turn to the miraculous for help. Perhaps we do it out of impulsive desperation. – When I am not practicing connection, when I am not choosing to make actions that bring me closer to my fellows, I am isolating. That is an action. I do it and it is NOT a good place for Rachel. I have learned that my lack of participation in the world is indeed my CHOICE. I opt out and I suffer. At times like this, I feel so sad, alone, lonely and just plain gross. That disconnected state is like death for me. Whatever makes a chink in my wall, what ever makes me move back towards life, whoever shows me kindness is a miracle in my book. I cry out for help in my prayers, even though my lips remain silent. My heart aches for the help and love to heal me. When it comes, and I thought no one was listening or cared, that is a miracle to me. It changes everything in an instant. And I am so grateful.
This month, my students made one of my many miracles. It was my 44th birthday on December 14th. And I love my birthday. I am so proud that I get to get older. I get to get gray hairs. So many do not. And I get to get presents. I love that. I own it.
The season of advent was rushing forward and I wanted to love it. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to celebrate my birthday. But I wasn’t. I was too busy with life. I was too caught up in the holiday decorations and planning family celebrations. The to-do lists and piles of half finished projects were mammoth. I was overloading every circuit in my system making every moment a perfectly wrapped, quality time, holiday moment for my family, being there for my students and trying to get through all the curriculum requirements before the break. The rush-rush made me nauseous dizzy and open for every sick bug in the universe. Ugh. Christmas, my favorite time of the year was all around me and I was missing it in my psychotic frenzy. By the time my birthday got here, I was cooked. Stick a fork in me, I was done. (I hated feeling that way but I was whirling so fast…)
I went to school on my birthday, actually just trying to get through the day (ick) albeit with a big smile plastered on my face. I went out on the school yard to pick up my class and as soon as they saw me, the singing began. “Happy Birthday Mrs. Henry” So nice, a bit awkward in front of everyone, but nice. Upstairs in our room, the presents started to pile up on my desk. Yikes. I was over whelmed. The card from one young lady, I still carry in my purse. She thanked me and G2 for helping her learn and love reading. I started to cry. I’d had her sister at my first school a few years ago. She was just to this country from the war-torn middle east. God knows what she had been through. All I saw was this wondrous, beautiful young woman who came to school every day and made me work hard to stay just one step ahead of her. She ended the year being valedictorian of our class. When I knew I was blessed to have another member of the family, I was so excited. Day one of meeting her, I knew she was a wonder in her own right. Full is smiles and games, this girl. She works so hard and has grown more than any other student in class, if I am honest. As serious about her studies, she is joyful and plays, smiling and joking. I smile to think of her. I try to wear my day as she seems to, waiting for fun and to learn. What a gift.
I had made hot cocoa in the crock pot with marshmallows and candy canes to celebrate. My kid’s had informed that I hadn’t baked for them for a long time and my birthday would be a good time to get back in the habit. But then, my G2 (Greek Goddess Assistant) arrived with goodies for the kids and a slice of cake for me from my fave bakery, The Crown. I was made sheepishly humble as the festivities grew and one student brought in a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting he had made with his mom for my birthday. I was digging into my slice of cake at 10:30 am on my 44th birthday when I had to start slowing down and notice what was happening. (I know the sugar from the cake should have made me speed up and whirl, but thankfully the sugar knew which way to help improve my day.) My students were making a long, very sweet moment and I was a part of it. They were laughing and smiling and somewhere in it, I realized this moment was happening in the space we had created, in my classroom. Maybe I was a part of the joy. Maybe I allowed kids to be kids? Maybe. That would be a great thing in my book. I got about the curriculum of the day in between sweet treats and the day flew fast. At the end of the day, in the hustle and bustle of clean-up, the miracle hit me. An avid student, as I call him, came forward with mini cupcakes for the class in my honor, and a CARD. It was the biggest card I’d ever seen. I can’t imagine where he got the red paper. He had folded it, found two gigantic bows and written loud and proud “HAPPY B2 YOU…AND MANY MORE.” It was cool, just like him. And then he’d had our entire class sign it too. The avid student had got up around four in the morning, he said to make the card for me. I met his gaze when he handed me the card. He’s one of a dying breed that will make eye contact and really show you that he sees you and hears you. I try to show him the same respect because he teaches me, that it matters. “Thank you,” was what I read in his big, beautiful eyes. It doesn’t get any better than that. What a miracle!
My husband made another miracle. We were in line at the supermarket one night. Jason was in Tae Kwon Do and we were getting some supplies, probably more wet cat food for Ciro, the elder statesman at home. We probably had vanilla eggnog in the basket for Jason’s mug or more likely my coffee. What a sweet indulgence. I HAD to go to the supermarket and get a few ingredients I forgot for an upcoming family party. There are always a few more things that ya need when you think the shopping is all done. How does that always happen? I was frustrated and rushing and not at all JOY to the World or JINGLE Bells. The mood, my mood and I own it, was Grinch. Tim was in front of me as I got our items ready to check out. The cart was loaded to the brim. How had that even happened? I was just here yesterday? I dashed out of line to get the one last item that I just had to have while Tim stayed with the cart. We had a plan. I had checked my watch and time was ticking to get back up the road for Jason. I was go-go-go and then Tim said, “You only got a bag. You go ahead of us,” to the man in line behind me. I froze and spun. The gentleman was by himself with arms laden. And Tim told him to go before our cyclone of groceries. The man smiled and uttered grateful thanks. I pulled the cart back and the man moved forward. He seemed to be standing a bit taller as he walked by. My husband was already unloading our wagon and moving on with the grocery checkout. I stood still. It took just a minute. I heard the best man I know say this simple line and with it he gave me the gift of Christmas. This simple act of kindness, connecting with his fellow and helping, changed me. My husband does this kind of thing all the time. He really does. Amazing! I am in awe. In that moment, I stopped spinning and smiled. I stayed smiling for days and even now when I think of who has chosen to walk through life with me, I smile.
- Scrooge taught me what my business is in life and what taking care of business really means. Well really it was Marley’s Ghost, but Scrooge and I both got it in the end.
“Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly
in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short
for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret
can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I!
Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge,
who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was
my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy,
forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of
my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my
business!” (Dickens, Stave 1)
So, when we have no answers left, we are ready. It is then that I know I am teachable and the world opens to me. When we are sick of crying “why me, why me” and never getting an answer that works, we become open to new questions. When the question became “why not me?,” I found peace and joy in living. I got right sized and that size fit right in with my fellows. When miracles can’t possibly occur to a person like me in a world like this, and then I find myself catching snowflakes on my tongue, smiling and singing, I am proved wrong. It is a miracle whenever I stop fighting the world and myself, accept reality, breathe a prayer and then feel the magic and love that was always within and without me. Then I find the joy of Christmas in every action, every day. That is my gift, in the present.
- I still believe in Santa Claus. -More and more each day. Some parts of life and this world get raw and nasty as I GET to get older. I could get discouraged and depressed. But I can’t do that. It is no longer in my nature or practice to do that. And the fact that I spend all day, every day around my kid or yours, I gotta do better for them. They are here and I have a responsibility to make the world better, for them. They deserve it. They are so worth it. I need the tangible figure of the white bearded, twinkly eyed, gent in a red suit who obviously enjoys sweets to keep me focused on the good. I need to consider my status on the Naughty or Nice list, on a daily basis. I need that system of checks and balances to direct my next steps. I am easily distracted by trinkets and woes. I am influenced by media and men. I am restless and frequently irritable. But I can’t get that way with Santa before me. He brings out the best in me. He is always there for me. And when I know I am doing something good, I feel like I’m working for Santa. There is no better action for me.
The month starts out with my blood running like lava; hot and fast and not at all healthy. Welcome Advent. I am on only 5 mgs. of Coumadin a day until the end of the first week of the month. Ah well. I had really hoped that I was leveling out with the blood work. I had really hoped the levels would get stable, stay stable and that I could get off the Coumadin. I had hoped it would be normal. I wanted to be normal. Ah well.
Appointments with OT, PT, Carole and counseling continue every day of the week. There is no rest. THEY are gearing back to send me back to work for January. In a month, I will be a teacher again. So this is the final push to get me ready. Ready or not, here I go. They trained me. They employed me. Then another They, saved me and now it is time to start paying THEM all back. Back to the old life I go. But how is that possible? I don’t fit in that world. How do I go back before 4/4/03 at 10:10 am and be who I was then? No one in those places notices that I am not the same girl. No one from THEY and Them really sees me. No one really looks at me! I think they are scared of me, like having a stroke is catching. They are afraid they will have to take care of me when they are old, not the other way around. I think they are disgusted by me, like I should have died rather than slowly rot. They don’t know what to do with me, old person’s disease in a young person’s body. They feel bad for me. They have no idea that you can change so much so fast. They don’t want to know. And They don’t have to, I guess. This Advent Season is for “the teacher formerly known as Rachel” to wait to go back to the old life in the new year. Their world will be back to normal. That’s what is the next step, I guess. That’s what they tell me.
The only Christmassy thing happens at the end of the first week of December. It is all thanks to Farmer Ken. He was such a gift at the Blues Thanksgiving. He delivered wreaths to seven different families that day as well as enjoying the feast at my house. What gifts. I only know he did this because of the thank you card he wrote to me on Thanksgiving night. He confessed that he was really a very shy person and apprehensive about coming to my house that day. Amazing that he could share that with me. He is honest. No one else is, certainly not me. He did overcome his fear, show up and he said that he had a great time. But he went on to write, “You’ve been pretty unlucky this year, but you’re really very lucky in many ways-you have a great family. I can tell how much they love you- and that makes life bearable and worth living.” Thank goodness somebody said 2003 was not my year. No dancing around it, Farmer Ken was honest and that made me realize how much I have actually been through and that it hasn’t been good stuff. It’s been a big load of unlucky crap that sucks. For my 30th freaking birthday, I had my life and hopes and plans trashed. Seriously, screwed up! This truth didn’t hurt me, it freed me.
It was good to hear that he felt welcome and saw love in my family. I know that they love me and I should think of them more as a source of strength right now. I don’t because I don’t want to be any more of a disappointing, draining burden-downer than I have been. Maybe I should reach out to them more. I think Farmer Ken thinks that is a good idea. I think he sees me withdrawing. I don’t know how he knows, but I have been. I haven’t gotten together with my friends at all lately. I don’t even call them. I don’t really reach out to my family either. I just don’t have anything to say.
Somehow he knows this and his words tell me that he really sees ME as I am now. He’s not stuck on the image of me before. He invested in who I was in the hospital. He got to know me then and seems to care about that person. Farmer Ken makes me feel almost good about who I am and how far I have come since 4/4/03. I almost feel proud of what I have survived when I am with him. That acceptance is a gift. I feel so invisible and unnaceptable most of the time. Then Farmer Ken goes on to talk about things that make life “bearable and worth living.” It is not the Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy, B.S. line of goods that I hear so often. Nor is it the Poor Rachel, I feel so sorry for poor disabled Rachel look that I see in everyones’ eyes. Again he is honest. And this time it makes me cry. I have been trying to be happy since the stroke. I try to be joyful and grateful and elated because that I have come so far. But that is not where I’m at. Life is not bearable for me anymore. I don’t consider this MY life. I don’t know whose life or what it is. I keep thinking I need to be happy even though I am not. I want to feel on top of the world again. I want that rush from being young and free. Farmer Ken’s words show me something different. He does so much good in life and he is able to do so many things . And yet he doesn’t claim to be ecstatic 24/7. He doesn’t say that I should be off my head with joy, ever. I hear him saying that right now, I just need to bear with the life I have. Maybe life isn’t about joy and passion. Maybe life isn’t about marriage and family. Maybe it’s about bearing the stroke. Maybe it’s just about surviving. Maybe. It’s a much more low-key way of thinking. I mean he is older than I am, but still. I don’t know. But his note, his words and who I am around him, is more bearable than the rest of my life.
And so of course, the most Christmassy part of this Advent season, comes from Farmer Ken. He is gifting a tree to Mom for Christmas from his family farm. Delivery is included. I guess I am not up for a tree of my own. I don’t know. I’ll put Gramma Harriet’s little ceramic tree with the colored lights. I’ll put it in the living room and leave the light on until Epiphany. It can’t hurt to keep a light burning. Anyway, fate says that the real tree will go to Mom’s house. I will go along for the ride. But it turns out to be so much more. Lola is my constant companion so she is included in the trip. There is snow on the ground and parking is tough, but Farmer Ken finds a spot at Mom’s for his little white sleigh/pick-up truck. He comes to her door and escorts Mom to the truck. Lola mushes along with me making ever smaller tracks behind Ken’s big boots.
The afternoon light is fading fast as we pile in the cab together. Ken in the driver’s seat, Lola’s on my lap in the middle and Mom next. It is a tight and cozy fit. Snug seating and heat blasting, we head up through the hills to the farm. North and west into the hills we go. The temperature drops fast and the roads narrow all the way to the wee village of New Braintree. I haven’t heard of the place and certainly haven’t been near it until today. It is like Farmer Ken, full of life and light and love. It must be where he gets it and I am glad to be going to the source. Maybe some life will get in me. At the very top of the highest hill I can see, two roads cross. A church is on the right corner and the farm on the left. The farmhouse fills the corner. It reminds of Wessyfoo. That is a good thing. There are green wreaths and roping, red bows and flickering candles adorning the ancient farmhouse. It almost looks like it is smiling at us and welcoming us to hallowed ground. I feel it is happy we are here. That is a good feeling. We walk up to the kitchen door on the side of house. Inside, Ken’s mom welcomes us to come sit by the fire, have a cup of coffee and a scone. The warm lights and special grace of that room, that mom and that place are like magic. It’s like being inside the snow globe. You know the snow globes that sit on the mantle at Christmas? The ones we all have with the idyllic scenes inside that you shake and the snow falls perfectly everytime. I used to collect them. I felt powerful when I shook them and made winter happen inside the globe. Now I feel the peace that must be inside the globe. The snow and cold world whirls around outside me. For once in the past nine months, I am not outside life, looking in. I am not cold and scared. I am not shaken up by life. For just a moment, this moment, I am inside. I am safe with Lola, in Farmer Ken’s golden home, warm and snug. I feel alive for a moment. I feel every part of me smiling and warm for a time. I wish this moment would last.
It is a generous spoon of sugar in my hot coffee and real cream too. The scone appears magically. It is fresh out of the big country oven as if it was made just for me. Farmer Ken’s mom serves the flaky biscuit with butter and whipped cream just like he told us she would. It’s a magical combination. Every bite I took was heaven. It slides down my throat easily every time. I made sure that every morsel had biscuit and butter and cream. It was sweet and creamy and flaky and fed my soul. It was so strange to feel as good as I did in that kitchen, savoring that scone, with those angels. I made it last as long as I could. Lola got a bite too. I shared with her of course. The twinkle in her eyes told me she was happy too. She knew this place was special. She also was hitting me up for another bite, soon. When every last crumb was gone, we headed out to get Mom’s tree. Just down the walk from kitchen side of the farmhouse, Farmer Ken’s Sugarhouse sits, frosted with snow and quietly waiting its turn in the spring. Dark now, but just resting. The spring sap will wake the little Sugarhouse. All burners and boilers will fire for days making the liquid gold. That maple syrup challenged my swallow to rise and shine. Of that and the magic that comes from this spot, I am sure.
All the lights and attention tonight are on his brother’s tree farm stand across the drive. Cars are parked out front and families are packed inside, picking the perfect tree for Christmas. I smell mulled cider with cinammon in between the pine scents. IT is over in the corner, waiting and warming. That is where I head while others look through the trees. I am not sure what kind of trees they are. Farmer Ken’s brother told me, but I forget. They are sharp needled trees, fresh and quick to draw blood if you touch them wrong. I like that. This is not the year for our usual soft and gentle fir. Lola and I cozy up together near the cider. I love to huddle with her, imagining we are warm and strong while we watch the families get their trees. Small children with ruddy red cheeks find the perfect tree and beg Moms and Dads to buy that one! They make their choice known loud for all to hear and back it up with a tug on a coat sleeve, securing the deal. Mom is around with Farmer Ken finding her perfect tree. Pitch darkness has fallen hard outside the tree shed, and biting cold too. But in here, it is Christmas twinkle lights and happy hearts lit up with hope. I can feel their spirit of the season trying to come through my heavy winter coat. It tries. Lola’s warmth and fur is what makes it through. I love to watch. And I love Farmer Ken for giving me this quintessential Christmas moment right now. It is bright and cheery and filling every sense of mine.
Somehow he gets the tree in the truck and secures it. We pile back in and sing carols all our way back to Mom’s with our own cold reddened cheeks and twinkling Christmas eyes. (In reality Mom sings out loud, Farmer Ken too. Me, not so much. I don’t sing anymore.) Being next to Farmer Ken, I feel Christmas in my heart. Thank you. No one knows what this means to me or what I feel like right now, except Lola of course. She knows all, without a word from me. I offer no words tonight, but take in this moment. There is no way I could explain it and my face is too twisted to even try. I won’t bother. I gave up on that road months ago. But there is a moment of Christmas peace, nonetheless.
And when we are back and the spirited sleigh and Farmer leave, so leaves my Christmas spirit. I felt it go with him. But I am glad for it. It was perfect. I will treasure it. I go about the business of the tree set up and help Mom decorate. Lola and I head back home and I get right into the shower. It takes three long showers that night before the bones on my right side begin to thaw from the chill of the hill top farm. But this time it is a good chill. That night when I close my eyes, I have a beautiful scene to go to. Thank you Farmer Ken.
A week later it is my 31st birthday. And there is no beautiful scene to go to. I see myself in the mirror and I hear myself too. What a gross concoction I have become. I have morphed into half twisted barbed wire like muscles and half slackened, oozing, puffy puddy. Not pretty. But I was once. I really was. I can see that now. Nine months ago I was actually almost beautiful and I never knew it or appreciated it. I was young and strong and so very stupid. What a waste. Now, on my 31st birthday, I am ancient like that farm on the hill. But I don’t have the luster and beauty. I am an old, deflated, lifeless mess. It happened so fast. And I skipped over the glory days. I see that now. Why does every one deny this is real? Why don’t they see the truth of Rachel now? Why? I get no answer from this question I beg to god.
So on this day, and for the rest going forward, I’ll lie. It’s just easier. Others don’t get it. Others won’t really see me. And I am too tired to give a crap. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I really don’t want others to feel what I feel every day. It is too horrible. So I will lie. Others congratulate me and want to celebrate my birthday. They that knew me before the stroke and them that have helped me since the stroke wish me Happy Birthday. Ick and Smile and Thank You. My mother says we must celebrate my life,especially this year. I know my birthday was a big moment in her life. The day your child is born is significant and special. I get that. I understand how much my stroke has put her through. I know it has been a very sad, unexpected and exhausting time for her taking care of me when she should be relaxing in retirement. I know this is true for my entire family, but only my mom lives in Worcester. So I have to muster up the goods to eat cake, open presents and hear Happy Birthday sung to me. They can’t make it better and I don’t want to make them feel worse. So with Lola at my side, I go. And I smile. How can they not see what I am really today? I can’t celebrate my 31st birthday. I am not who I was.
I breathe easier with my blessed freakin birthday behind me. Eleven days until Christmas and there is much to keep me busy. My Dr. S has written back to work orders that include an assistant for me for the rest of this school year. I am 31 years old, no family or kids of my own and I need help to make it through my work day, when that is all I will have in my life. Humiliating. Why is this my life?
I have appointments will all my people to set up things to do when I am back at work. Glenn wrote me a Home Program with 6 simple sets of exercises to do every day. At the top of the order he wrote my reminder, “DISCONNECT NECK.” I totally focus on my neck and what is happening at the site of my stroke at the back of my neck. I think about it all day. I obsess on that body part. And Glenn knows it. He knows that when I am back to work, I am supposed to focus on the children and teaching. He says I will be okay and to try not to worry about the next stroke. Try to be present in today, he says. And I roll my eyes. Really Glenn? Easy for you to say. So the reminder line that he follows up my eye roll with is printed on my Home Program. If I say that line and disconnect my neck, maybe I can focus on the job I am supposed to do. It shouldn’t be that hard. I mean, the right side of my body is pretty disconnected from me already because I can’t feel it much at all. That leaves the left side and my head. If I disconnect my neck, then I should just go on autopilot through my day. That’s it! I will disconnect totally and go on autopilot.
I have Carole on Christmas Eve. Christmas is on Friday. The weekend passes and I finish out the last week of the year back at all my therapies. Autopilot works. It’s not so bad. No one seems to notice.
The box of “gratefuls”
All year we continued to say our “gratefuls” at every meal. It’s a good practice. And this year, we wrote them down once a day. It was easy to find things to write. Each day was full of great goodness and we had been practicing. Our “grateful” muscles had been used and stretched over the years. The twinkle in our eyes, much of the time is proof of this successful family action. The scraps of paper accumulated inside the wooden trunk that my brother-in-law made.
Even Rondo admired our efforts. He was included in many of our “gratefuls.”
The holiday season came and is going past. Winter is in full swing. Three seasons came before it. Moments, days and months went by. But it wasn’t a blur. On December 31st, 2016 we opened the box and read the slips. OK, we made a start. It’s going to take a month of meals to read them all. Jason, Tim and I took turns reading “gratefuls.” Once we got past the fact that Tim and I have hideous handwriting while Jason’s is essentially calligraphy, we could attend to the heart of our year. With each day, we remembered. “Oh yeah.” We all said. And more details spun off the slips of days throughout our year together. What a gift. The holidays psychotically whirled and we were all battling bugs. I thought I’d missed it. I knew my Christmas Mojo was gone, until we opened the box. Now it overflows like slips in the box, like wrapping paper flung about on Christmas morn.
Some of the slips we have read so far:
February 1- Jason played basketball with Dad. All were glad for a visit from our teacher friend who has retired to Florida. I was grateful for Women’s Heart Health Month and Jason’s great report card. Tim was glad it was Monday, new week and new jobs, and basketball with Jason.
September 18- Jason played catch with Dad and played with his Baba. Rachel made chili (of course food is in our gratefuls), did some writing and reached out for help with her medical issues. Tim did work, the Patriots won, we had chili, got to play catch with Jason.
March 12- Jason was grateful for soup, candy, playing with a friend and seeing a Red Tail Hawk. Rachel got Pansy’s for FX, went to Emerald Meats and saw a teacher friend. Tim loved the soup, and hung out with a friend too.
August 31- Jason was grateful to go to the park, had gym at school, it was Dad’s birthday and had a good day at school. Rachel likes her new team at school, loves that it’s Tim’s birthday. Tim- “It’s my birthday, apple pie, sesame chicken, this family, presents.”
March 16- Jason played at the park with his friends. Rachel won “Foodie Foto of the Week” for David Venable on QVC with Corned beef dinner. Tim worked, helped a friend and it was his plate of food that won the Foto!
June 16- Jason went to Tae Kwon Do and worked on cleaning his bedroom for its redo. He is proud to test for his next belt on Saturday. Rachel worked on the garden and Jason’s room, Coffee with Tim, tea with Mom and Jason trying FIRE CIDER! Tim is grateful for grilled shrimp dinner, work, and this family.
July 16- Jason had fun with Baba and went swimming in Rutland. Rachel is grateful for chili made with veggies from Fran Farmer and swimming with Jason in Rutland. Tim is grateful for work and chili.
January 30- Jason definitely grateful for Wessyfoo. Rachel loves Passionfruit peach Polar Seltzer is back and a bonfire in Wessy. Tim is grateful for Wessy and family.
January 21- Jason “It’s my birthday.” Tim said Jason’s bday, spaghetti and meatballs and less snow. Rachel said Jason’s birthday, a tree house birthday cake, Jennifer and LOLA.
July 28- Jason is grateful for the beach and Tae Kwon Do. He had a “very fun day at the ocean.” Rachel- Salisbury beach with Jason and Tim. Tim was grateful for the beach, hanging with the family and seeing friends at Tae Kwon Do.
April 4- Tim is grateful for Bone Broth Chicken Soup, Spring snow and Mom’s anniversary. Jason is grateful for school, library and science. Rachel is grateful for her 13th stroke anniversary, snow and Tim’s help with the blog.
Rachel’s Advent “Gratefuls”
November 25- It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Bring on Christmas. The first thing to get is the big box from the attic with all the Santa and Christmas sweatshirts. My teacher friend who retired to Florida left me her collection. And today I am so grateful to start wearing them, every day and night til February. I am grateful she gave them to me. They remind me of her and how blessed I am she is in my life. I am grateful that my grandmothers taught me how to rock this festive wardrobe. Gramma Harriet taught me to be comfortable and cozy and wear cheerful colors. Each top in the collection does that. Jean Granny showed me to own my style. Walk it and work it. Love it and others will too. I do. I am a mixture of my Grandmothers. I am so proud to be old enough to wear what I want, pay tribute to them and that’s that! Here’s to a stylin’, old-fashioned, Christmas collection.
December 10- Jason got to build a real, big, yummy Gingerbread house with his Auntie. He had a great time. Tim and I got to have four hours together, just the two of us, awake. Tim has lost 35 pounds this year. He looks fabulous and feels better. But his clothes were falling off him. We were very generously gifted a Department store card. Off we went to the mall before Christmas to get him a few fitted things. The gloves have “misplaced” already, but they are warm and styling, wherever they are. The skinny jeans were on sale and Tim looks mighty fine, I must say. I am so grateful for him. He took care of himself. I love that. This day was about taking care of him. I love that. Of course, we left the mall very hungry and that led to fresh, hot French fries just over the road. The air was cold and the fries were smoking. I burned my lips. Who cares? And we didn’t have to share any fries with Jason, a selfish moment that we thoroughly enjoyed.
December 22- The concert at Jason’s school is totally worth using a Personal Day from school in December. The concert is at 9am. The school is over 120 years old. There is no gym to hold the concert. The students stand in the hall, outside the library. Parents seat down the wide wooden floored main hall. That is not enough room to hold the holiday cheer. Proud parents and families flood the wide staircases going up left and right. The acoustics rock. There is not a bad seat or stand in the house. The smiles are contagious, most kids there love school. And their families love the school too. The music teacher is a gem and the kids sound like angels. It’s perfect. It is my quintessential, Norman Rockwellesque dream of childhood and school and Christmas. But it is real. I am so grateful. By 10am Tim and I have four hours together to talk, get breakfast and do Elf-work. What a gift. We have a gift certificate from our niece for a diner near-by. Off we go, without Jason again for a yummy breakfast. I love watching people and I get my fill. We both love breakfast and we get our fill. Afterwards we can do some Elf work together. I love spending time with my husband. I love showing up for Jason. I love working for Santa. I love my life.
December 24th-Christmas Eve. I got the day in Wessyfoo with my Dad and Jenny and Uncle Richard. I got the night with Cuzzin and my mom. Greatest food all day. Too much food. Quality Problem. We are a small but fierce and loving family. That is true.
Santa provided gifts after supper of new P.J.’s or mugs or aprons for Christmas celebrating. It’s a new tradition. Jason loves it. We baked off 4 kinds of cookies for Santa. I thought we were out of carrots for the reindeer. Jason wondered if reindeer ate apples. We googled it on the way to Wessyfoo and sure enough, reindeer love apples. After supper and games and laughter and music, Jason and I set Santa a plate of cookies, with apples for the reindeer. We toddled off to bed soon after. I am so grateful for Jason’s smile at Christmas. He loves it. I love him. And I love my small but mighty, wild, wacky and wonderful family.
December 29- I had to put my Big-Girl-Panties on today, as Jennifer taught me. And it scared me shi**ess! And I avoided it since Christmas Day. We came upstairs on Christmas after spending the day downstairs at Mom’s for Christmas. Ciro was in his usual spot on the kitchen table waiting for a snack. The table, and his bowl on it, were barricaded by 3 chairs and a stool to try to prevent Cuzzin Greyhound from snarfing the lot. C.G. fears cats and therefore the food was in minimal danger if Ciro was right on top of it. We came in the kitchen and I looked at my baby. His right eye was brown. It was solid blood brown. My breath became quick and shallow and my chest started to clench. NOT my baby! NOT now! I’m NOT ready! In my mind he’d burst a blood clot, was blind and soon would be dead. And I froze and then I melted and just wanted to cry. I felt a cry in my throat I never get. I don’t allow myself to get that far. I just wanted to sob and not stop. My love for Ciro is pure. It is not complicated, at all. I just love him and he loves me. He is the only one who lived through my stroke and dark days with me. He is the only one who knows. It was hell for me. It was hell for him. Thank God he had Lola, I neglected them so. I don’t know how they made it. But they did. I did. It was a miracle. He is my miracle and I was not ready. I had done the big-girl-panty thing with Lola. She didn’t have one BAD day at the end. She had her bacon and we let her go. But not Ciro. Please. All this was screaming and sobbing in my head. I looked at Ciro. I focused on him and not Tim, Cuzzin, Jason or C.G. Ciro wanted food. Ciro was waiting. I gave him food. He ate. He cuddled. He swatted Rondo. He drank water and went to his litter box. He was acting fine. OK. I gotta chill out. We’ll see in the morning. If it is a clot, if it is his time, he’ll be gone in the morning. I knew I was riding a ridiculous roller coaster in my head. I would do the right thing, of course. He had lived a full life, yes. It wasn’t in my control, I know. But I also knew that he was the simplest, purest love in my life. In the familial and world Christmas Chaos, I was hit in the Achilles heel. I was vulnerable. I knew it. Breathe Rachel.
In the morning, there he was on top of his table waiting for food. The eye looked better. It did. He ate. Ciro drank and cuddled and was just the same. The whirlwind in me and my house with Christmas was swirling. It was busy 24/7 and so I just bounced Ciro up to God and let it lie. I attended to my Cuzzin and avoided what could be happening with my angel. The eye went back to greenish and then brown again over a couple days. The family was very chill about it around me. We went to Wessyfoo for Christmas there and Cuzzin went home down south. In Wessyfoo, I had a quiet moment and was asked why not take him to the vet? If it was something that they could stop from getting worse, couldn’t I try? She was right. In my head I knew Ciro was worth $40 vet visit. I knew what lengths we would take and what we would not do. I knew. And so I called the vet.
This morning, at 920am, I took Ciro to the vet. I went by myself. Tim and Jason went on a job. I knew what to do. I told Tim and Jason to kiss Ciro before they left. I kissed Ciro. I breathed. I told him I loved him. I prayed. I drove to the vet and waited. If it was his time, I was ready to do right by Ciro. He would not suffer. I would take of him. I prepared myself that the carrier would be empty and my heart broken on the way home. And then reality hit. The vet said she wasn’t sure what it was. She was going to treat it as a trauma to the eye. She suggested he could have fallen and hit his eye. I pictured him boxing with Rondo on the dining room table upstairs, while we ate Roast Beef downstairs on Christmas Day. Rondo got him good and this was his fight wound. The bill was $72. I left with Ciro and antibiotic eye drops to give him for two weeks. That was it. It was that simple. My heart stayed in my throat all day and when I think of Ciro that day, I still cry. There is no tough love or strife or family malarkey with Ciro, just love. My heart to his and back. And I am so grateful for another day with him, green eyes and all.
December 30- Jean Granny’s birthday. I always like thinking of her after Christmas. She was an extra gift that came a few days late. This year I got to spend the day with Tim and Jason in Wessyfoo. It was cold and raw outside. I enjoyed sitting by the wood stove and cooking and having tea and a couple of my Dad’s mini mince pies by the Christmas tree. What I enjoyed the most was the laughter. I think it was giggling really, from the gut. Jason and Granddad were taking a hot tub. Both had been battling winter chills and the tub was just the medicine. The vents needed to be cleared so both went under water, submerging to scrape gunk off the vents. Jason went down for 7 seconds and my Dad for 20 seconds under the 104 degree waters. HOT! They gave me these stats when I walked in. I just had to follow the laughter. Some joke between them in the steam set them off. And I got to hear it. The laughter of my Dad and son combined and me there to hear it, a perfect moment. This is why I survived my stroke.
With Advent and every day, my hope is the same. Dickens wrote it and I live by it, “May you be happy in the life you have chosen.” I make a choice and do the action. Over and over again I practice. The gift I get from it, is a life that I love. It’s been the hardest lesson to learn. And it is difficult to keep it in the present. But it is that simple. Every day on those terms is a Christmas Miracle.