Vital signs

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In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood still hard as iron, water like a stone.

The past few days, I feel as if I’m walking around in bulky work boots as I hear something cracking under my feet. I’m stepping on shards – the broken pieces of a brutal year.

I think my post-election rage probably delayed the arrival of my annual holiday blues but now that it is simmering on a slow boil, the thick familiar fog is settling in. The song is cute and catchy but this is not the most wonderful time of the year for me and at least a bazillion other folks.grump-cat-christmas

Perhaps I over-prepared for this year’s attack of melancholy. After the reality of #notmyprecedent sunk in and I pulled myself out of the electoral sludge I’d been drowning in for a month or so, I went on the offensive. I decorated with more vigor than I have in several years – even making – yes, making – a wreath for our mantel. My dear wife and I live in a small condo so a little Christmas goes a long way but we even got a tiny live “tree” this year and I decorated it with some of my favorite Santa ornaments.

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Christmas: Tiny Trees Edition

I was feeling downright festive in spite of the impending apocalypse of January 20th. And then it hit me – the big empty of the holidays. It’s pretty much been this way for me since my parents died in 2002. Until then, I was one of those obnoxious Christmas people who started talking about it in September. I mean, come on, who doesn’t love Christmas?

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This year I made an addition to my Santa collection.

I want to punch myself in my own throat when I think about being that person – completely tone-deaf to the realities of so many others. I’ve been humbled to my knees in the years since then and my heart feels tight when I think about what some friends are going through this holiday season. Cancer – always fucking cancer. And “firsts” for a couple of friends – the first holiday without a dear spouse.

Estrangements loom larger at this time of year, too, and I certainly have a few of those on my list – some related to losing my job at the start of the year. There are a few (former) friends who deeply disappointed me in ways that I’ve had to just let go of ever understanding and other alienations, some election related but most a long time in the making – just too many years of not feeling seen and heard. All of them are painful and add to my bleak midwinter.

I had a little breakdown in my car the other day as I left the UPS store. I had taken my sister’s Christmas package to ship and after going through all the scenarios of how many days it would take, how much it would cost, etc. – it hit me how very far away she is now in California.

She’s my little sister and I am often mother/sister to her but she always rises to the occasion when I need to hear the calm reassurance of a mother’s voice. She listened to me sob while I was still trying to talk. That’s never pretty. And she did the thing no one else can do when I’m in that place – she made me laugh. I can’t even remember what she said but I know that I was smiling as I tasted the tears on my lips. Her presence from even 3,000 miles away can be palpable at times.

I felt so much better after talking to her – still blue but a lighter shade for sure.

We made a pact to never be apart at Christmas again. She has some grand plans about spending next Christmas in London. Note to self: Get BIG job quickly. I think she’s on to something, though. It might be easier to navigate the emotional minefields of the holidays in an exotic locale – further away from the memories that can crush me at this time of year.

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Me and my brother and our dog Taffy, Christmas 1960.

Christmas is quiet, almost somber for me these days – but it hasn’t always been this way. Mine used to be an exuberant holiday spent with parents and siblings and years of traditions. My wife and I have started some of our own traditions now, which is amusing because my wife loathes ever doing the same thing twice. Her idea of hell would be to own a time share where you had to go to the same place at the same time every year.

She teases me now when we do something for a second time and I call it a tradition. I don’t understand her point. Anyway, our tradition is to go to a movie on Christmas Day – usually one just released. Our first Christmas together it was Les Miserables and it was perfect. Okay, maybe not the Russell Crowe singing part, but you know what I mean.

This year’s movie will be La La Land, a musical comedy-drama that’s getting rave reviews. The film is a throwback to the lavish musical spectacles of years gone by where people burst into song at the breakfast table and literally dance on air.

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Yes, please.

Please take me there. Now.

And then it will be the 26th of December and I will no longer feel anxious – at least not until Inauguration Day.

We’ll spend New Year’s Eve with an array of dear friends and then I will stumble out of 2016, stepping on those shards. I think it will sound like walking on a frozen lawn – a muffled crunching that only I will hear – like those rare hushed times when you become aware of your own heart beating.

And what an utterly life affirming feeling that is.

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Cheer to all Whos far and near!

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This one is for Barb and Jen. Two women, like my girl Venus, who shined through their brokenness this year  with style and grace.

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Do you hear what I hear?

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The Scream

“I have passed through the initial five stages of grief: Denial anger bargaining depression and acceptance. Now I am in fascination–cobra hypnosis, newly apoplectic every day by the latest. I believe I have actually keened within recent memory. At this rate, i may have a flickering tic in my eye by sundown.” ~ Anne Lamott in a recent post-election Facebook post

As usual, author Anne Lamott writes what’s in my head only it sounds almost lyrical instead of the ALL CAPS RAGE AND DESPAIR that marinates inside me these days. Oh, and my eye tic has manifested as a pain in my right arm. No, not the heart attack kind of arm pain. It hurts the most when I undo my bra. Sorry, if that’s too much information from this nasty woman. My doctor, Web MD, says that this could indicate stress in the rotator cuff muscles. My symptoms started shortly after FBI Director James Comey released his now infamous letter to Congress regarding Hillary Clinton’s damn emails 10 days before the election. Coincidence?  I think not. Case closed.

Lamott also writes about stress eating during these troubling times. I have no doubt that Weight Watchers will be inundated with an influx of chubby liberals come January. Carbs are one of our sole/soul comforts these days. If it weren’t so unbelievably frightening, it would be funny. Lamott prefers Oreos and Cheerios. I feel for her because her options are limited. She’s been in recovery for over 30 years, so wine is not a viable option for her. By the way, did you know that Aldi’s carries some decent wine? What? A friend told me – just putting it out there.

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Limiting myself to just one glass a day.

I ran into a dear and much admired colleague right after the election. I was leaving a professional function as she was pulling into the parking lot. She put her window down and we lamented together about the results and she picked up a McDonald’s cheeseburger sitting on the passenger seat next to her, took a big bite and garbled, “Look, I’m stress eating!” She’s a very petite and trim woman which made the whole thing even more amusing to me.

I’m trying to practice good self-care so I’m pretty much in a news blackout, which I guess is not really that different from the actual campaign, right? There was so little news about policies and issues. It was Reality TV at its very worst and it helped elect the least qualified presidential candidate in the history of our great nation. We were punked. Bigly. Faux news is the new news. (I just got one of those shooting pains in my shoulder.)

So I’m under a TV blackout except for every liberal’s lifeline these days. Yes, on the eighth day, God created Netflix. And it was good. And ironically, the show saving me in this post-apocalyptic election world is one about a monarchy – The Crown. If you’re reading my blog, you’re most likely watching The Crown, too, but for those in the royal dark, the series is about the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes look at her marriage to Price Phillip and her relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill. And it’s a glorious diversion from the reality of the Park Avenue president-elect only without as much gilded furniture.

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Who needs term limits?

I haven’t been able to give up social media but I’ve made my Facebook world a kinder, gentler place. And for the record, I think “unfriending” is a misnomer. We can be friends in REAL life and not be “friends” on Facebook because in real life, I might not ever know that you get your news from Breitbart or that you really think that all Muslims should be deported. Another irony – people are more their real selves behind a keyboard than in actual conversation. Social media is like HD TV – it makes all your warts and blemishes that much bigger.

And honestly, it makes it easier for me and my wife to worship with you at church if I don’t know that you supported a ticket that opposes our marriage. What I don’t know can’t hurt my heart. And spare me the “how can we ever find unity if we don’t talk about our differences” crap. Tell me what I should have said to a friend I have known since the 7th grade when she accused Michelle Obama of being a “race baiter” because she talked about the White House being built by slaves. There is no middle ground to find on scorched earth.

I haven’t slept through the night since the Cubs won the Word Series. Granted, that was a short night since the game didn’t end until after 1 AM. I’m not much for drugs but Tylenol PM has been my constant companion. But even with my version of the little blue pill, I still wake up at 2 AM and immediately start worrying about so many of the things I care about. Many – most actually – of the folks closest to me are feeling the same way and while often comforting, it can be an exhausting burden, too – trying to be present to their pain while holding my own.

My best friend from college is a chaplain in California at a large urban hospital. She is a woman and she is gay and she is Muslim. Damn, there goes my shoulder again. She’s struggling and she has to be available to everyone she encounters in her work – there can be no “others” in her day. She has observed that it is only white people who ask her if she’s okay – because she doesn’t seem “like herself”.  She’s come up with a brilliant response. She tells people that she is “soul sick”.  And there ain’t enough chicken soup in the world for this kind of sick.

I’ve been going to the movies – always a balm for me. I can highly recommend Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Fantasy is so superior to reality these days. And I just want to pinch Eddie Redmayne’s ginger cheek. Spoiler alert: Love really does trump hate in this movie.

But I made the mistake of going to Costco the other day. How can it be time for Christmas again already? The decorations made me feel disoriented – like going into a Christmas shop on the boardwalk when you’re at the beach in July. They seemed garish and out-of-place. Bell ringers are out now, too. I have plenty of valid issues regarding the Salvation Army so I’m never excited to hear those bells, but this year, the tone sounds almost ominous to me. It’s a tolling, not a ring.

A few days ago, my mourning changed to anger – white hot anger about what has happened in our country. My shift was not subtle. It came the moment I read who Trump had appointed as his chief strategist – Steve “Darkness is good” Bannon. Let’s be clear – the term “alt-right” should only ever be used with the word DELETE. Even Sarah Palin knew that if you put lipstick on a Nazi, it’s still a Nazi.

Yep. That was my tipping point. That day I signed up for the Women’s March on Washington – the Saturday following Not My President’s inauguration. Initially, I didn’t think I had it in me – to be in our nation’s capital at such a deplorable time. The last time I marched in Washington was 23 years ago for gay rights. That march changed my life in immeasurable ways. It made me feel empowered to live my life out loud. I hope this march empowers every woman, man and child there to go home and speak up for all of those that this new regime would diminish if given carte blanche. Hell, I might even burn my bra since I may not be able to clasp it anymore by then.

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Resistance, my friends.

Jonathan Capehart, a gay black journalist, had a great piece in the Washington Post last week about the palpable fear that many of us are experiencing post-election. A fear that some of our friends – mostly white, mostly male, mostly monied – don’t feel – the fear of being targeted under the new administration. Capehart sums it up here really well: “But here’s what our well-meaning friends, especially those who have not felt the sting of discrimination or even otherness, need to understand. President-elect Trump has made promises that represent a threat to real lives and livelihoods. Some are unconstitutional. All are immoral.”

So, yeah, we others are kind of worked up over all of this. But we still enjoy your pictures of puppies.

Truth be told, it’s all Hillary’s fault that I’m going to the march. Damn her. A week after the election she honored a long-standing speaking engagement at a celebration for the Children’s Defense Fund, a cause near and dear to her broken heart. And God bless her – she showed up looking like – well, me, a few days after the election – no make up, regular going to the grocery store hair and a weary looking face. Twitterverse went wild with commentary – someone saying Hillary had “no more fucks to give” and another speculating that she was raising a middle finger to patriarchy. Whatever, I’m still with her. And it wasn’t how she looked but what she said that kicked my sorry ass.

“I know this isn’t easy, I know that over the past week, a lot of people have asked themselves whether America is the country we thought it was. The divisions laid bare by this election run deep, but please listen to me when I say this. America is worth it. Our children are worth it. Believe in our country, fight for our values and never, ever give up.”

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Truth.

I don’t have super powers like Hillary but I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

So in January, I will march but what about those damn holidays before us?

Pray for peace, people, everywhere.

And pass the cookies.

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I’m still with her and our power’s turned on.

I wish I had a river

I just read my bestie Carla’s Christmas blog post and my eyes are moist from a duet of bittersweet tears. She loves Christmas and her joy for the season is as palpable as her sister’s molten chocolate lava cake.

One of the things that makes Carla such a good writer is her gift of memory and I adore how she can recall the tiniest details of her mother’s holiday decorating routine from the smell of the cloves in her cookies to the fake snow on her wreath. She says, “My mom did Christmas right.”

My mom did, too.

Magnolia leaves. That’s what I remember most about my mother’s Christmas decorating. She would scour neighbor’s yards for leaves at all hours of the night and any flat surface was fair game but the mantle in our living room was her real masterpiece. As a child, I’m not sure I knew what elegant meant but I did know that our decorations were fancier than most of my friends and that made me feel oddly proud.magnolia

It’s funny what you remember – like the crackling of the hard frozen leaves touching each other as she meticulously made her arrangements. It’s a soothing sound to me now and I think I use magnolia leaves more to hear that familiar noise than anything else.

I’ve been through a blue Christmas or two with Carla when we were both recovering from loss and contrary to the Muzak in the mall, it’s just not “the most wonderful time of the year” for a lot of folks and I can still feel like a grinch for how oblivious I used to be to this reality – until it became my reality.

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Simpler times with my brother and our dog, Taffy. I still have that Santa.

Humbling, I think that’s the word for it.

Christmas for me has changed over the past decade as the loss of parents and a partner also brought about the loss of traditions. It has taken me a long time to be “okay” with that and I still approach this time of year with a sense of weary resignation.

My dear wife likes to gently tease me about calling any holiday thing we do for the second time a “tradition.” I can laugh at myself but the truth is that these new traditions make me feel grounded and connected in ways I haven’t felt in a very long time.

movie posterGoing to the Christmas Day opening of a big new movie is one of these tradtions and this year’s entrée is “Into the Woods” with Meryl Streep. An amusing aside – I always run into some of my Jewish friends enjoying their tradition, too.

It’s a delicate balance – remembering Christmas past and celebrating Christmas present and I’m grateful to have found some ways to honor both.

My mother had a large collection of heavy glass Christmas trees that she loved. Her tastes were more modern than mine but when she died, I kept them. Last Christmas was the first year that my now wife and I shared a home and when I pulled out the glass trees, she was smitten and insisted we put them out on our mantle.

Tradition...

Tradition…

Yes, Mom, I did marry well.

I’m so happy Carla will be with her whole family for Christmas. I’ve seen that sad puppy face when she couldn’t be there and well, it’s just not a good look for her. I love her family – they are warm and loving and loud and funny and remind me of the family I used to have.

I always say that Carla is an old soul and my heart ached a little when she cited Joni Mitchell’s “River” in her post – “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”

Me?

I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

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It’s coming on Christmas

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I love this time of year.

In my house, everything seems to slow down in December, creating a calm, a stillness, less urgency. There is more lounging on the couch, snug under chenille blankets that feel like rabbit fur. There are holiday movie marathons, while wearing polka dot flannel pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers. There is sea salt caramel hot cocoa and glasses of heavy red wine. And there are meals that take longer to cook, warm our insides and bring us comfort. Tarragon tomato soup, stuffed cabbage rolls, crusty garlic bread.

IMG_3123December is like a long pause. A deep breath before another year begins and we start all over again. So I try to savor this month as much as I can and take advantage of this “pause.” I will read more, write more, reflect more. I will listen to Joni Mitchell’s “River” about 100 times – and cry 100 times – because it’s the saddest, most heartbreaking Christmas song on this planet, but also the most beautiful. I will not make many commitments or attend too many social engagements. This pause is sacred to me. For now, I just want quiet.

And I want Christmas decorations. Lots of them. Christmas in our new home feels warm and cozy – more so than other places we’ve lived. I wonder why that is? Our new home has inspired me to buy some holiday decor, which is not something I usually do. I’m all about buying ornaments and strands of twinkle lights, but I never was one for buying holiday decor outside of tree trimming. But this year, Christmas feels different. I’m happy and I want the space that I live in to reflect that, so I bought some mini Christmas trees and these adorable little birdies, in other words, simple things that make me happy. Every night, when I turn on all of our Christmas lights and light the candles on our mantle, our house feels . . . magical.

See what I mean? Magical, isn't it?

See what I mean? Magical, isn’t it?

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These two birdies were longing for a third little tree. So I gave in.

These two birdies were longing for a third little tree. So I gave in.

Growing up, I loved when my mother would bring up from our basement giant cardboard boxes filled with Christmas decor. In one day, our entire house would be transformed into a winter wonderland. My mother had red and pine green candles that she only displayed at Christmas and a beautiful white and gold painted ceramic Santa. She put candles in every window and hung on the side of the house a gigantic wreath with white lights, gold ornaments and fake white snow that clung to the branches. And on one Saturday, she’d bake all of her Christmas cookies, filling the house with the scent of buttery cookie dough, toasted walnuts and cloves. Between cartoon breaks, I’d walk into the kitchen to sample her latest batch of cookies, and she’d load them on a paper plate for me to take back to the living room. My mom did Christmas right. I guess that’s where I get it from.

When I became an adult, the holidays brought up mixed feelings for me. I have a tendency to get a little melancholy, especially when I see others spending the holidays with their families. It’s the worst feeling in the world when your family texts you a group photo on Christmas Eve and you’re the only one not there or when your heart aches from just seeing your little nephews in their striped footie pajamas, opening their presents on Christmas day.

087Since I moved to North Carolina nine years ago, going “home” hasn’t been an easy option. It’s too far to drive, too expensive to fly and getting enough time off from work has always been a headache. The last time I flew home for Christmas was four years ago during the middle of my divorce. My luggage was lost (and later recovered), my flights were delayed, and, oh yeah, there was that blizzard that cancelled my return flight and left me stranded in New Hampshire for five days. The upside? I got to spend my sister’s birthday with her and bake her a chocolate cake. The downside? The morning after I finally arrived home, I was shivering in bed with a 102 fever. After that trip, I instituted a five-year rotation plan.

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My sister, nephew, and chocolate cake.

This year, however, the five-year plan has been trumped by a longing to be with family. I just can’t spend another Christmas on FaceTime. It will be the first time in four years that our whole family will be together. I cannot wait. No more FaceTime, no more photos texted across the miles, no more lost luggage and flight delays (we’re driving!). Just family – and my sister’s famous chocolate molten lava cakes. What more could I ask for?

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Christmas-Eve Eve shenanigans, 2010. My brother-in-law loves this photo, even though a quarter of his face is cut off.

Yes, please.

Yes, please.