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.



I saw an old pair of boots today sitting next to the free box in the laundry room at the ashram. My heart leapt. Oh, what lovely boots!

They smelled of earth, wild strength, and animal. They were leather, worn and marred, a statement of a well-walked, well-traveled country life. I slipped my foot inside hoping they would fit, but they were too big. Just as well, I thought, I have a pair just like them at home. They are irreplaceable. I thought about my husband and slipped my foot in one more time. They don’t fit me, but maybe he would like them, maybe he would wear them. That way I could still see them, and have them beside me as we walked wooded trails. But no, too small for him as well. Besides, he is a city man with little use for country boots. And so I left them, like I was leaving a kindred spirit, like I was pulling away from an old friend I could not invite inside.

My daughter was in the art studio putting the finishing touches on my book design.

Kristen, did you see those wonderful boots by the free box?

She stopped what she was doing, lowered her head and shook it hopelessly from side to side.

I knew you’d like those ratty old smelly things, she said. I would have stuck those in the trash years ago.

Kristen does not have much country in her. She is the fashion conscious model on the cover of Elle Magazine. What she wears matters very much. She has trained her daughter to have her careful eye and gift for beauty. Isabella, however, has been known to slip a gear, propelling in my direction. I want to wear Carharts just like Ma, she says. Poor Kristen feels she has been cursed by an unjust God. You want to use Ma as your standard for fashion? Isabella! God help us all!

I left the boots in the laundry room by the free box. Maybe someone else will find them and be overjoyed. Or maybe Isabella snatched them up when no one was looking, and is wearing them around the house as we speak. Most certainly Kristen is questioning her lineage and pulling out her perfectly fashioned hair.


bass-playerSomething in me does not know the difference between an AK47 and a camera lens. When I look up and see a metal box where a person’s face should be, I freeze. Vacate. It’s automatic. Others comment on it. Gee, your picture doesn’t look anything like you. You’re so much more vibrant and fun. When people look through photo albums they can’t find me. Is this one you? No kidding. How about this one? I wouldn’t have known. It’s because I’m not there. I don’t know where my spirit goes, but it’s definitely absent. It’s the firing squad effect.

That said, you can imagine how thrilled I was to hear I needed a photo for my website, the close-up kind that shows all the wrinkles. Vanity aside, I’d just as soon be scheduled for dental surgery. I was complaining loudly to my daughter, Kristen, who is a professional photographer, when she and her nine year old, Isabella, came for dinner. Kristen has pretty much had it with me because I make her job impossible. It’s only duty and the umbilical cord that keeps her from doing me in. I was getting ready to ask her anyway, when Isabella sprang into action. I’ll handle this Ma. (She calls me Ma, which means teacher in the Buddhist tradition and royal pain in the butt in the daughter tradition.) Isabella grabbed me off the couch and took me into the closet, decisively pulling clothes off the rack. Here, hold these, take this one, put that on. Next we headed for the bathroom so she could do a make-over, which is not easy with the handful of cosmetics I own. She sat me on the toilet while plastering my face with powder. She gobbed my lips in color, browned my eyelids, rosed up my cheeks, dripped black from my lashes, combed my hair and pronounced me done.

Let me back up. Before we girls met for dinner, we met at the Goodwill to see if there were any treasures among the grunge. Kristen and I found nothing, but Isabella walked away with roller skates – great roller skates, exactly her size, in perfect condition roller skates. She put them on as soon as her feet touched my hardwood floors, becoming a peripheral blur. Isabella was doing my make-over while gliding, spinning, and doing a trick called shooting the dog, no pun intended.

When I was deemed beautiful enough, we went next door to my neighbor’s house for a change of scene. Bella sat me down in the library next to the books, posed me at the Grandfather clock, moved to the bedroom which looked like I was drumming up business for a brothel, then finished with a meditation pose on a circular blue rug.

I was playing with her, with no expectation of result, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t get a picture. Having spent all nine of her years on photo shoots with her mom, the girl’s learned a few tricks, plus she doesn’t hate me yet for being impossible. She was gliding by, sitting on one skate while extending another in front of her, when I asked how much money she’d like for her time. She looked at the ceiling and decided five dollars would due nicely. I gave her a three dollar tip.