Jesus Saves

stained-glassThe first thing I ever stole was from the Baptist church. It was Christmas. We were given sugar cookies shaped like stars, steaming hot chocolate and bible lessons. Brightly colored packages circled the tree in the entryway, one stacked on the next. Those were not for us.

After the final prayer the other kids exploded with freedom, pushing against tall wooden doors that opened into snow and afternoon light. But I stalled in the lobby, mesmerized by the tree. Surely, one of those presents was meant for me. I was drawn back to them full of longing and larceny. The lobby was still and quiet. Perhaps, I thought, I could take a tiny one, one that would not be missed. I bent down and helped myself to a small rectangular box. It was wrapped in green paper covered with snowmen wearing black top hats, buttons of coal, carrot noses and big smiles. Yes, I decided. This was the one. I buried it in the well of my pocket, deep beneath my mittens. Then I sprang from the door like Satan himself was chasing me. I ran through snowdrifts up to my knees, went bounding up the stairs of my home, down the hall and locked myself in the bathroom. I was breathing heavy, afraid the God police had been alerted. I listened for footsteps but no one followed. The house was empty, so I tore open my surprise and……. my heart sank. Inside was a tie clasp that said, JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters. A tie clasp – for a man! I couldn’t take it back. What on earth could I do with it? In a moment of generosity, I rewrapped it.

My dad was tending bar in the restaurant below when I climbed on a bar stool and told him to close his eyes. I have a gift for you, I said.

Where did you get it?

From the Baptist Church. They were giving out presents for dads.

I placed the torn green snowmen in his hands.

Looks like you opened it.

I wanted to make sure it was right.

He lifted the tie clasp with JESUS SAVES in shiny silver letters out of the box and bellowed, Jesus Christ! What the hell am I supposed to do with this? For crying out loud, Karen. JESUS SAVES? What were you thinking?

There was a moment of tense silence before he clipped it against his shirt and tie.  What the hell,  he said and went back to mixing drinks.

An Introvert’s Christmas

 

Snow is falling quietly and softly outside my window. It is light and undecided, on the border between snow and rain. My husband rose early, eager to make the long drive to his daughter’s house, where his children and their children will gather to celebrate. The house will be full of loud people with big voices, competing with an immense television blaring football and commercials. Children will scream for attention, squeal with delight, and play with noise-driven toys.

I have baked sugar cookies, cardamon-orange sweet rolls, and sent raspberry jam from last summer’s crop. I placed a hat on my husband’s head, stuffed gloves in his pocket, and watched him pull from the driveway, his tires chained and crunching ice.

Now it is my time. I go immediately to the stereo and put on Louie Armstrong. His voice fills the space, like a kiss from the past:

I see trees of green,

 red roses too.

 I see them bloom, for me and you,

and I think to myself,

what a wonderful world .

I see skies of blue,

And clouds of white,

 the bright blessed day,

 dark sacred night,

and I think to myself,

 what a wonderful world.

 As I listen, I sponge the coffee table clean, open windows for a blast of fresh air, clang a Tibetan bell to clear the space, and place a match against the wick of a candle, watching its light move into a tall steady flame. Finally, I fold a warm brown shawl across my shoulders, sit on the couch and silence the stereo. I breathe in the quiet, wrapping it around me like a welcome friend. I am old enough now not to feel guilty about who I am and what I need, or to put myself in situations that feel wrong or abrasive.

It is a great pressure being different in a society that has traditions and rules about what holidays mean, and how they are to be celebrated. Thanksgiving makes sense to me, because it’s a time to be thankful. But Christmas follows too close on its heels, and escalates into a kind of material carnage and shopping frenzy full of pressure and disappointments. It seems a day set aside to magnify family issues, and the difference between how our lives are, and the ideals we hold. Add to that my sincere dislike for material accumulation and the incompatibility grows.

I did have a moment yesterday, when I slipped into parental guilt, knowing how much my daughter, Kristen, has always loved holidays.

I’m sorry I live so far in the country, I told her. I should have a big house in town, where we can more easily gather as a family, and do a traditional Christmas.

Her answer was kind and real. Mom, don’t do that to yourself. That is not who you are, or what you really need or want. Just be you on Christmas day and enjoy it.

Kristen is busy cooking for the nearly one hundred residents who live at the ashram, fulfilling her dream of living with a large spiritual family.

And so, I sit in this peace-filled room, alone, watching snow and birds, and allowing my writing to surface with abundant time and space.

I’m sure many would judge my holiday sad and deprived of humanity, but I have a deep calm and a welcome communion with myself in not wishing to be any where else, or doing any thing else. Perhaps next year, I will be surrounded by quiet loving friends, but this year I am content, and delighted beyond measure to find that I can allow the richness of what I need, without pretending to be other than I am.

Christmas Present

 

bead1It was going to be a meager Christmas. My son was five years old and my daughter, seven. I spent money on fabric, trims, buttons and dowels to make them each a tapestry for their room. I worked at night after they went to bed, clipping along measured lines to fashion a golden ballerina for Kristen and a Star Wars character for Clay.

Every year I imagined the next Christmas would be better. I promised myself that I’d have more money, more stability, and resources. Every year as I fashioned another homemade gift, I wondered what it would be like to go into stores and buy whatever I pleased. I wondered what it would be like to stop being a student, an artist and single mom. I was determined to change my essential nature, so I could fit into society’s shoe. I believed I could have a better life, if I only tried harder, worked longer or pushed in another new direction.

One holiday, I gave them mugs with hot air balloons painted on them, to tide them over until I could supply the real thing. I told them stories about the adventures we would have, someday, when things got better.

When things got really hard, I stole left-over pizza from a near-by restaurant to feed them. I’d have a small salad, then wait for the fleeting opportunity between customers getting up to leave and the waitress clearing the table. I needed to move quickly and unseen, storing food in the container inside my pocket. I taught myself to do without, to fast, so my own hunger could have purpose and form; so I could make peace with working so many hours and still having so little to live on.

It was in this vein that I decided a Christmas tree was an indulgence, yet in my heart I wanted one. I remember driving home and saying out loud, Damn it! I do want a Christmas tree. I want a big one that fills the whole house, not some wimpy thing that suits my purse.

And so I got my wish.  It was midnight. I had just finished performing in a downtown Portland theater. The streets were stark, the glow of lights against soft rain the only reflection. I remember thinking how odd it was that there was no traffic on such a normally busy street. No one at all. I was getting ready to turn into my neighborhood when I saw something in the lane in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, swerving just in time, and there it was –  the biggest most perfect Christmas tree I had ever seen, right in the middle of the road, like it had dropped from the sky. I pulled the car over and waited for someone to come back for it, but no one did, so I pulled, shoved and muscled it into the back of my old SAAB, then drove happily home, excited to show the kids in the morning.

That was a long time ago now, but last year my son’s wife sent me an email: Do you remember the tapestry you made him when he was a little boy? Is there any chance you know where it is, or could make him another? He still talks about how much he loved that.   I guess hot air balloon rides and store bought gifts aren’t everything.