Taking flight

I don’t know about you, but for me, this pandemic has been a daily roller coaster ride. And I hate roller coasters. I try to start out most days with a moderately positive attitude so I can navigate the deep dips that may come – as they invariably do. Yesterday, was a most pleasant reversal of this ride – more like a Ferris wheel. And I love Ferris wheels.

Yesterday morning, I was below ground level after my weekly trip to the grocery store. And honestly, it had nothing to do with the grocery store, but the unmasked shoppers I encountered. I just don’t get it! What is so hard about wearing a mask? I had a running conversation with myself as I passed person after person without a mask. The twenty-something guy without one – stupid or just arrogant? Probably both. The old – like really old people – not wearing one. Death wish? Resignation? I had no answers, but plenty of side-eye as I passed the unmasked. Unfortunately, my side-eye, rather legendary, has apparently been rendered ineffective behind the veil of a mask.

I was just so damn mad and disgusted when I left the grocery store that I decided I needed what my dear wife likes to call a “corrective” experience. I ran home to give the groceries a quick Silkwood scrubdown and decided to take a drive to a local strawberry farm to pick up some seasonal deliciousness. This farm advertised drive-thru pickup, so I felt relatively comfortable with the outing.

It was a magnificent spring day – a Tarheel blue sky that NC is famous for. I made myself not listen to MSNBC on my Apple CarPlay on the ride out to the country and went with the Joni Mitchell channel on Spotify. Good call, right? I could feel my mask malaise dissipating as I turned down the little dirt road to the farm. I was greeted by a young man – wearing a MASK, thank you – holding a box of beautiful strawberries. He greeted me kindly and asked what I would like. I said, “Those.” I gave him my debit card – he ran it – and just like that I was driving home with my strawberries riding shotgun.

Mother Nature is a remarkable thing. As I looked back at the field of strawberries, COVID-19 felt far away – sort of like when you look down at the ground when you get to the top of a Ferris wheel. It was a feeling as sweet as those berries on the seat next to me.

I kept listening to music on my way back to town and decided to really live it up and go through the Starbucks drive-through for a cappuccino. I pulled into the parking lot and there were just a few cars ahead of me. I was on a roll. I ordered and when I got to the window, a very friendly young man – MASKED, thank you – handed me a perfect dry cappuccino – just like I like it. For the uninitiated, a dry cappuccino has less milk than a standard one and is topped off with a thick layer of milk foam. You can tell immediately if it has been made correctly when you lift the cup – it feels half-empty – just like the one in my hand. How high could this day go?

I was feeling so good that I decided to leave my bestie Carla a Marco Polo message. Marco Polo is a video chat app that lets you send messages back and forth with folks. As a dinosaur, the only Marco Polo I was familiar with was that annoying tag game we played in the pool when we were kids, but Carla keeps me young and on Day 2 of quarantine, she made me download the app. It has been our most used mode of communication these past two months. I like that it is so in the moment – good, bad, and ugly – and it has really kept us connected. A few weeks in of Poloing (our word) – Carla upped her game and started sending me videos of her playing the guitar and singing. This was a surprise to me because I didn’t know she could do either of those things, much less so well. We call these videos “Kiki’s Coffeehouse” – and I love them. It’s so fun to get a personal tiny desk concert now and then.

My last few Polos to Carla had been rather blue, so I wanted to share my up morning with her. While I was recording my video, I noticed that a lot of people were pulling into the parking lot next to Starbucks. Then I noticed two firetrucks and several police cars. I finished my chat and looked around to see lots of people standing by their cars staring up at the sky. Did I miss a pandemic eclipse? Then I remembered that the NC National Guard’s Airlift Wing was conducting flyover salutes to medical staff and other frontline workers. Somehow, I had landed smack dab in the perfect viewing site. Could this day get any better? Yes, it would.

I got out of my car – with my MASK – and surveyed the crowd. And it was a crowd. Families with little kids, lots of law enforcement as spectators, but running the lights on their cars to make it all a bit more festive. There was that excitement in the air you feel on the 4th of July while you’re waiting for the fireworks to begin or the parade to start. People were happy and talking to each other in that benign friendly way we speak to strangers. I had a nice chat (socially distanced) with an older man wearing a Marine baseball cap.

I looked over across the street to the parking deck of Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and saw a huge group of hospital workers (DEFINITELY MASKED) standing by the wall looking up toward the sky. And that’s when I got the first lump in my throat. Then I heard a loud roar from the sky and there it was – coming right at us – a huge C-17 airplane. Disclaimer: I know less about planes than I do about cars – which is nothing. I looked it up. The C-17 is a large military transport aircraft.

It was so close I felt like I was ducking when it raced over my head. And then I heard people clapping and cheering. And that’s when the lump in my throat came out as tears – lots of them. What was this familiar feeling that started in my toes and rose to fill my heart? It was that feeling you get when the National Anthem plays before a football game. Goosebumps. That feeling of being an American. God, I haven’t felt that feeling in so very long. It was glorious and I didn’t want it to be over. No one did. Everyone lingered long after the plane was gone – not wanting to go back – to where we are now.

This pandemic has felt so different than 9/11. I mean, of course, it is different, but there has not been that tsunami of unity that a lot of us felt after that unspeakable tragedy. It might have been for just a few weeks, it’s easy to romanticize compared to our current shit show, but it felt like for a very long time, we were connected as Americans. I wonder if those not of age then will ever experience such a feeling. Honestly, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever know that feeling again.

But I did – yesterday. And after I had sucked in every breath of that magical moment, I finally got back in my car to drive home. I turned Spotify back on and what song was playing? Carolina in My Mind. Even I couldn’t make that up.

I stayed in the top car of that Ferris wheel the rest of the day, letting my feet dangle with not a worry in the world – smiling down at what I had been so deeply missing. My country.

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.