Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas, 1989

This is what we save.

Christmas of 1989.  

You’d think I wouldn’t remember the specific Christmas when I was 17, and to be honest, I had to do some rough calculations to come up with the year.  In my thoughts I don’t remember it by the year.  In my thoughts I remember it as the first Christmas of we celebrated separately after my parents divorce and the first Christmas I was able to drive.  So it must have been 1989, but don’t hold me to it.

I don’t know how I got home from Andover that year, and I have a vague recollection of bringing a boyfriend home with me (Chris Swihart, if you came home with me that year, I’m sorry for a thousand reasons).  I remember arriving in the dark, driving down our black driveway and climbing the path of stairs made of railroad ties to our glass front door.  I remember that the house was not decorated for the holiday.  And what I recall most clearly is a flood of of indignation, disappointment, and heartbreak that nothing had been done.  

This emotional cocktail, the contempt shaken up with sadness, I predict will be the quintessential misery of parenting teens--the way the child’s heartbreak gets braided up with disdain for the failures of the adult world--will make for a painful hormonal kick out of the nest for the whole family.  I don’t have a teen yet, but I’ve been one.  And, in 1989 I was in the thick of it.  I was a rulesy kid, which made for a heavy dose of disdain.  Really, it’s humiliating to remember but it’s true.

The next afternoon, fueled by self-importance and boredom, I stepped into my mom’s two door sedan (with the boyfriend I’m pretty sure), and drove to the Christmas Tree Farm to save Christmas on my own.

The sky was gray and dimming, drifting into a raw, cold New Jersey winter evening.  Men with dark jackets and knit beanie hats stood around waiting to help people.  One of them was smoking a cigarette.  Christmas trees tilted against a fence, lined up in a row, and there was a pile of trees still bound in twine off to the side.  I scrutinized each tree, finally picking one that I was sure would be a good one.  The men helped me tie it to my car and I (or we, if the boyfriend was there) drove home.

At home I put the tree in a stand and began the project of stringing white lights on it.  But no matter how I turned it or cleverly arranged the strands of bulbs, it looked all wrong.  It was too tall, too fat and tilting; in my eyes it looked like a dissolute house guest had moved into our broken home for the holiday. Tears welled in my eyes.   And as I teetered on the brink of the emotional Grand Canyon truth of my life at that moment,  I was struck by the idea that I didn’t have to keep this tree.  I could return it, exchange it for something better, less dysfunctional as Christmas trees go.

So I did (Chris Swihart, do you remember this? I think you might).  I pulled off all the lights, dislodged the trunk from the stand, and dragged the tree out to my mom's two door sedan.  We wedged it into the trunk of the car and returned it to the tree lot.

The men in beanie hats looked at me like I was crazy, but they kindly let me exchange my tree.  With a little less scrutiny and a dizzying feeling of desperation, I picked a small, more modest tree.  And like deja vu, the tree was tied onto our car again.

At home I strung up the lights again.  I got out our family’s lifetime of Christmas ornaments and decorated the tree piece by piece.  I liked this second tree better, and by the time I was done, in my mind it was maybe one of the best Christmas trees we ever had.  In my mind I did this all by myself, the myopic lens of my teenage eyes, still alive and well all these years later.

This is one of those family stories that we remember this time of year.  The year I returned the Christmas Tree.  There is a way we tell it in which I am a crazy, funny, control freak, perfectionist.  All of which, I am afraid to say, people might accurately still say about me.  These are the behaviors I turn to when I see the ship sinking, when I am afraid and ashamed, and have used up all the other tricks up my sleeve.  

At the time, I really did think it was one of the best trees we ever had.  I think I needed that--to feel that at least one thing was more than ok.  But looking back, I can see that the tree was not one of the best trees we ever had.  It was the tree that we had that year, and that still counts for something.   It was the tree that carried me along through a spasm of grief and confusion.  It was the final product of a ritual that could handle what my family’s life brought to the process that year, not the least of which was my own heartbreak and contempt.  

And despite all that was riding on it, on the darkest nights of 1989 it was beautiful.  It twinkled magically, dense with lights meant for a much larger tree, my family’s history dangling from the tip of each limb.  I remember standing in front of it. Just standing there, as the winter night silently blanketed our house, dazzled by all that light.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

November Palo Alto

My neighborhood astounds me, 
when I take the time to actually look at it.  
Glimpses of Palo Alto in November.

Reflections on our journey

Graham and I had known for months that he had a business trip to Chile.  We had thrown around the idea of going as a family, but we couldn't get traction on the idea. We dodged and and put off the final decision for as long as possible.

And then one morning I woke up possessed, we were just going to do this thing, and like holding my nose and plunging into cold water, I bought five tickets from San Francisco to Chile, continuing onto Boston for a family reunion, and then back to san Francisco.  

It wasn't until the money had been spent, that I woke up to the fact that the reason I had been dodging was that I was scared, which surprised me.  

The ten hour evening flight, that mysterious gravity defying journey through the dark of night at 35,000 while my children and I slept (or tried to sleep) felt impossibly vulnerable.  The fear was magnified by the fact that we would be landing in a city and a country I had never seen, and in a combination of ignorance, and old fashioned americanism, had never thought about at all.  

I had no stories to tell myself about what Chile would be like.  My mental formation of the place was totally blank, a gray airless void of thought that I could not gussy up, no matter how hard I tried, with pleasant memories or associations of landscape or people or food or smells.  The result was a kind of forced zen.  Not the air blown, cover of Yoga Journal zen, but the disoriented, unresolved, nothing to bump up against zen where you can see yourself being skittish, neurotic, vulnerable and slightly unhinged.  

If you were someone who chatted with me before the trip, this would surprise you.  Because right up until we took our seats on the plane, I managed to cover over this fear with a glaze of excitement and and a repeated joke about the only thing I could visually imagine--our tight connection in Miami on our way to Boston the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  I told way too many people that we could end up having our Thanksgiving meal at an airport Burger King in Miami.  

The fear subsided about an hour into the plane ride, and over the course of our eight different flights, we were blessed with smooth travel.  

Learning that mild resistance, in the form of procrastination, indecision and the feeling of just slightly shying away from something, is actually a version of fear for me is learning that I can put to good use.

Upon arriving, we settled into a nourishing rhythm.  Breakfast, morning adventure, lunch, and quiet school work in the afternoon before another short outing and/or dinner.  It was such a good break from driving in so many directions in Palo Alto, and fulfilled the Amanda Soule style homeschooler in me.  Despite the magnitude of the miles travelled, this trip refueled and replenished all of us I think.

Our morning adventures included a lot of walking.

One day we met a local fisherman who was tending to a two week old littler of kittens.
He shared the unbelievable cuteness with us!

One surprise was that in Chile, many restaurants serve Nescafe instead of coffee.  But the beauty of the place more than made up for the lack of robust caffination.


On our one day in Santiago, we toured with a guide named Jaime (pronounced HI-may).  And we were able to absorb a lot of social learning about some of what happened under Pinochet's dictatorship.  Jaime lived through those years.  He had not been forced to leave Chile, but followed friends who were.  He told us that many artists and intellectuals fled as soon as Pinochet came into power.

And he said one other thing that delivered a cold splash of awakeness.

He told us that Mount Aconcagua, which is north of Santiago, was the highest mountain in America.  I was disoriented when I realized that the place "America" was being dramatically reframed for me.  For my whole life I equated the United States with America.  It never occurred to me that America might actually, realistically, be thought to include BOTH North and South America.  

It was humbling to recognize this ignorance.

I spent the rest of the trip calling myself a Californian, or saying I was from the United States, because we don't even have the language yet to address this particular ignorance.

It had the effect of helping specify my place, our place, in the family of things.  We are smaller than what we think, but we belong to something much, much bigger than we allow ourselves to imagine.

At home in California, I asked Gwendolyn, what the biggest difference was between Chile and California.  And she said, "You know mom, I'm surprised.  It wasn't that different."

And, 16,000 miles later, I agree with her.  We are all Americans, after all.  

A Chilean dandelion.