Thursday, December 31, 2009

Recalled to Life

The last day of December is here, and snow is finally falling in earnest. This year, instead of greeting us by flinging ample handfuls of snow across our rooftops, Winter clenched his fists and blew long, icy breaths over the wheat fields, leaving the landscape grey and parched. He blasted the streets and yards with dry, bitterly cold wind—the kind that freeze dries your lips when you inhale; the kind that quite literally takes your breath away, sending it skyward in toothpaste-scented clouds.

We spent the first weeks of Advent wrapped like mummies in layer upon layer of apparel, our scarves, like unraveling grave clothes, trailing behind us in the lifeless breeze. During those frigid days in early December, when my fingers and toes felt as cold and lifeless as those of the walking dead, my heart miraculously kept up its warm and merry march somewhere underneath all those wrappings.

Here, in the bleak midwinter, we are all dead men walking; we are all Lazarus come from the tomb, with warmth and breath and lifeblood in motion where no motion should rightly be. What a shock to find ourselves alive and on our feet, our shame covered and our limbs warm. What can account for it? None of our wilting fig leaves, however artfully arranged, could have held up against the wind rising from the valley of the shadow. We have been recalled to life, and we step out of our tombs, blinking from the brightness, wrapped up in apparel not of our own making, clothed in skins not our own.

Lazarus's grave clothes may not have been the bright blue parka and striped wool scarf that I wear, but to live and breathe is nearly as startling for me as it was for him. Finding life in winter is like finding a shiny quarter on a muddy street; a red cardinal on leafless branch; a sudden peal of laughter on a sleepy afternoon; a Bethlehem star and a chorus of angels in a black sky. It's an orange stroller, a blue coat and five pairs of pink cheeks splashing color along an icy sidewalk.

I am surprised to discover that the dark and deadly cold outside is no match for the warmth I and my children carry with us. There in the midst of December's biting breath, we could laugh in the face of the cold and dark and step confidently out the door, armed with nothing but coats, gloves, and life itself. Even so, when the temperatures dipped below zero, I wrapped my scarf a little tighter and stepped a little faster as the dry winter wind wound serpentine trails close upon our heels.

And then came the rain. The iced melted, the mud softened, and a mock-Spring arrived. But no birds sang. And nobody was fooled. December can dress himself like April, but he cannot make the flowers bud.

Christmas arrived, and a white one, at that—white in the way a chocolate cake dusted with powdered sugar is "white." And all the warmth and color and brightness of that festal day sent true Spring-like hope through the frozen earth. How fitting that we spangle the streets with white and multi-colored strings of stars; no other time of year is in so much need of color and light. Christmas is nearly the darkest day of the year. And yet, save one other day, it is the brightest. In the midst of wintry death, we find life of the truest kind.

Now, as December draws to a close, snow is falling at last. It covers the yard and the trees and the roof over our heads. Although it is growing dark outside as I write this, I know that tonight will be bright with six-pointed stars. And in the morning, the earth will be clothed in a white shroud, waiting to be recalled to life. On the first morning of the New Year, the earth will be wrapped in a pristine blanket, waiting for color and warmth and laughter to burst upon it, to roll across it, to breathe life into the glittering air.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Eine Kleine KidMusik

A couple of videos of our budding musicians.

In this performance, Paul (age 3) is perfecting his musical skills on a K'Nex banjo. Note how he incorporates elements of J.S. Bach & Johnny Cash with the postmodern lyrical storytelling style of Bob Dylan. This video includes a post-performance interview in which Paul discusses his artistic inspiration. (This is from August, but it still makes me smile.)

Paul's "Banjo" on Vimeo.

And on a slightly more serious note:
We had another successful recital on Tuesday, thanks to the boys' terrific (and patient!) piano teacher, Lydia F.
Jonah (7) plays "Humming Song" by Schumann.
Jude (5) and Jonah play "Bingo" as a duet—a picture of what I hope will be brotherly harmony throughout the years.

Piano Recital, December 2009 on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On rummage sales and lilies

This Saturday, our kids' school held a rummage sale fundraiser. I contributed three large boxes of excess shoes and picture frames and sweaters and candle holders that had been stacked for months in storage containers, awaiting a summer yard sale that never happened. It felt good to deposit the contents of those Rubbermaid bins into the school gym. And it felt even better knowing that I was cleaning house for a good cause.

Yes, it felt good. But as nice as it was to open up some closet space, and as useless as those goods now were to me, I still had a voice in the back of my head telling me that each thing I was giving away might yet prove valuable, might come back in fashion, might fit me again. I've always been a pack rat. My blood pressure rises a bit when I relinquish anything that has the remotest possibility of future utility. Shouldn't I keep it just in case?

I (and my mother and most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins) grew up with a "waste not, want not" outlook on housekeeping. My grandparents, who, like the rest of that generation, lived through the lean years of the War and the Depression, went on to raise nine children on a dairy farm that eventually went bankrupt. My grandmother had neither the time nor the resources to spend on domestic bells and whistles; she did what she could with what she had. Meanwhile, my grandfather spent much of his time jerry-rigging a whole assortment of machinery to avoid having to replace it. Frugality was a means of survival. Frugality seems to be in our blood on that side of the family; we don't throw things away easily.

Shortly before I was married, one of my mom's dish sponges tore in half. It wasn't one of those "expensive" ones with the Teflon-safe scrubby stuff on one side. Nope. Just a basic, 50-cent yellow dish sponge. But it had scarcely had the chance to perform its humble duty before being rent in two. The average American would, I think, have sent it to an early grave in the city landfill. But we are not the average American.

My mom had to restore that sponge to the life for which it was intended; she took a needle and some sturdy grey thread, and with nurse-like care stitched the torn halves back together. And when that sponge got dirty, did she throw it out? Oh, no. She sent it through the laundry and brought it back on kitchen patrol next to the sink. When no longer fit for kitchen service, it did time in the bathroom. How long it remained in this degraded position, I don't know. But in the end, worn, tired, and scarred, it took a ride to its final resting place amongst the tuna cans, banana peels and spent coffee grounds of our fair city. However, none can say that it met an untimely demise. Not at our house.

It's not that any of us thinks we're still living through the Depression. The lean years have passed, but the habit of frugal living hasn't. My parents have always been careful with money, while at the same time keeping an open hand and a generous spirit. My mother, who will sew a 50-cent sponge back together one day, will the next day be cheerfully writing substantial checks or preparing lovely meals to give to people she's never met. Her frugality and her generosity do not conflict; if anything, her frugality has made her generosity possible.

I hope that someday the same could be said of me.

I may not have inherited quite the same degree of waste-nottishness as my mother, but enough of it remained in the gene pool that I still tend to hang on to things that most people would throw out in a heartbeat. When loading up those boxes for the rummage sale, I nearly kept an out-of-date, hand-me-down baby blanket none of my kids had ever used. It had no aesthetic value. It had no sentimental value. It had no practical value. Its only value was in the "just in case" of the thing—just in case I have another baby and our 34 other baby blankets get ruined before the child outgrows them. Ridiculous, I know.

I, of all people, should realize that, on the day when "just in case" actually arrives, we will have all we need—and probably much more. I have never asked for bread and been given a stone.

When we lived in Dallas, our annual household income (including our "income" from student loans) was well below the Federal Poverty Line for a family of 5. When I look at our tax returns for those years, I have no logical explanation for how we got by, let alone for how we lived so comfortably. Not even my ├╝ber-frugality seems to account for it. The figures don't add up. But the figures didn't add up the time when that boy handed over his five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd, either. The math was all wrong. Statisticians would have predicted significant food shortages. And yet, there were leftovers. When we moved, I gathered up box after heavy box of our worldly goods. We filled a huge moving van full. And even then, with nearly all our belongings out of reach, we continued to live in relative comfort and ease. One pan to cook with. Paper plates to eat on. A few changes of clothes to wear. Running water. A roof over our heads. We lacked for nothing. The experience made me see how much of a luxury all those other things were that I thought I needed.

Today, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, our household income is still many thousands of dollars below the "Low Income Limit" for our county. Low income? True, we won't be buying a vacation home in Bermuda anytime soon. But we drink wine. We eat almost too well (cinnamon rolls and bacon!) Our kids are enrolled in a private school. We have many, many, many toys, games, clothes, gadgets, pairs of shoes.... Low income? Really?

As I said, I donated three large boxes of excess belongings to the rummage sale. I'm sure I could have come up with several more without noticing the slightest change in the way we live. Our "low income" American family has more stuff than we can possibly use. We're wealthy enough to just give it away. If I decided to count my blessings, to name them one by one—even if I limited myself to counting material blessings only—I would have no time for doing anything else.

I will probably always be frugal. I might even catch myself sewing dish sponges back together. (It's in the blood, you know.) But I hope I would do it with a sense of gratitude and with the knowledge that I am, quite literally, rich. Rich in every way. So why waste any more time worrying about the "just in case" scenarios? Better to consider the lilies and start clearing out the closets. They'll be filling up again with Christmas gifts anyway before I know it.

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