Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy New Year (A Week Early)

Yesterday was Christmas, and it was all that Christmas should be. On Christmas Eve we had our traditional buffet dinner at 4:00, so that Christopher could head off early to church to finish rehearsing for his role as pianist for the high-profile Christmas Eve "carols and lessons" service. This was a "bucket list" item for him - to play on this most holy evening - and his proud mother can report that he performed beautifully.

Christmas morning two little elves appeared in matching elf pajamas.
Great was the joy as we opened the mountains of presents left by Santa and ate cinnamon rolls from the recipe of my mother (who so loved her Christmas birthday). We then played with the presents until Christopher, Ashley, and the girls left for THREE more Christmas gatherings with Ashley's extended family, and Gregory and I assembled the jigsaw puzzle he had gotten me as a gift: a covered bridge-in-autumn scene to reflect my abiding love for the covered bridges of my adopted state of Indiana.
(I still can't stop some of my pictures from appearing rotated despite saving them a thousand times in a re-rotated position!).

Now it is the Day After Christmas, and I'm totally ready for it to be New Year's Day. I'm ready to start my Whole New Life. I'm planning for January to be Buy Nothing Month, where I purchase absolutely nothing except for food and a minimal amount of gas for the car, to offset the money hemorrhage of the holidays. I'm planning for January to launch a year of dazzling writing productivity where I've set myself the goal of submitting one substantial manuscript (creative or scholarly) every single month. I have my little notebook for 2017 all ready to start listing my year's goals in every aspect of my life. I wish it were 2017 right now!

So I decided: why not start my new year today? If Auntie Mame could sing of needing a little Christmas, right this very minute, candles in the window, carols on the spinet, I can proclaim my own need for a little New Years's, right this very minute. Instead of hauling out the holly and slicing up the fruitcake, I'm going to take a good long healthful walk, read a mentee's manuscript, and - gasp - face revisions on a major manuscript of my own. And spend nothing, not one cent! And eat leftover broccoli instead of leftover Christmas cookies! (Well, maybe just a few leftover Christmas cookies).

Happy New Year! May 2017 be a year of love and joy - and if you're enraptured by work like me, promise and productivity - for all of us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

"Sing we now of Christmas"

I have two self-assigned seasonal "jobs" I take on each year in our small church, St. Paul's United Methodist Church, about half a mile from my house in Boulder. I'm in charge of our "Mitten Tree" decorated with warm socks, hats, gloves, scarves, and yes, mittens, for the homeless. And I organize and lead caroling to a nearby retirement community and to our church shut-ins.

Both involve singing, and both remind me of how much the joy of Christmas is celebrated in song.

The Mitten Tree involves singing because I "wrote" a song to accompany this ministry. Our first ministry of Christmas giving to the homeless was started by a former member who moved away perhaps twenty years ago. It was our "Shoebox Gifts for the Homeless" ministry, which involved handing out empty shoeboxes on the first Sunday of Advent, to be filled by the congregation with small toiletry items, warm hats and gloves, and little candy treats, then gift-wrapped as presents for individual homeless persons at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.

I have to admit that this ministry was a huge pain for the person in charge - that is to say, for me - because it involved asking various local shoe stores to save empty shoeboxes, then going to collect the boxes (usually on Black Friday, when the parking lots were at their most jammed and the stores were at their most crazed), and finding out the stores had just given the boxes away to someone else who showed up first for their shoebox ministry or holiday craft project. I was worn to a frazzle with shoebox stress.

But I did come up with a song for the ministry, which the congregation sang with me each year. You can guess the tune. Here are the words:

Deck the halls with old shoeboxes.
Fa la la (etc.!)
Fill the bottoms and the topses.
Fill with gifts to give the homeless.
Thus, we share the joy of Christmas.

It was a relief to me when the shelter told me they no longer wanted individual wrapped gifts, and we switched instead to the Mitten Tree, where all I have to do is collect the offerings in trash bags and take them en masse to the shelter instead.

Of course, a new song was needed. You can guess the tune for this one, too.

O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill your branches.
O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill your branches.
With hats and scarves, and socks and gloves
We give to share our Savior's love.
O Mitten Tree! O Mitten Tree!
We come to fill  your branches!

I  noted yesterday that the branches are indeed filled completely. I'll gather up the "ornaments" and take them to the shelter tomorrow.

The church caroling is its own jigsaw puzzle of coordination, as places don't want us to come during residents' nap time (so preferably not before 3) or during residents' dinner time (which can be as early as 5 or even 4:45). And the places we visit are not all that close together. And we want to be able to linger and chat and share holiday cheer. And yet to hustle on the next stop. I never know if anybody from the congregation is going to show up to sing with me, given the busyness of schedules in December. What if it's just me, in my scratchy, squeaky, altogether irritating sort-of soprano?

But it always does work out, as it did yesterday. We started out at the Meridian, doing an actual performance for half an hour or so in the living room, accompanied (brilliantly!) by my son Christopher. I handed out song books, and everyone sang their hearts out for two verses of every single classic carol.

Next we visited Mildred, sharp-as-a-tack at 102 (!), and always so warm and welcoming when we crowd into her small and beautifully decorated room to sing.

Last stop was our visit to Arline, in a memory care unit at a place we had never visited before. Our instructions said not to come in the front door, but the back door, where we should ring the doorbell for admittance. But there was no doorbell! And it was ten degrees outside! By the time all that was sorted out, we were running even later and feeling even guiltier.

Finally, though, we were inside, and it was warm, and a few residents were there to hear us. There was  a  worn upright piano, and Christopher played to assist our tired voices.

And the magic happened.

Residents who remember so little of who they are and where they are could still remember the lyrics to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night." They sang with us, word-perfect. One, pushing several teddy bears in her walker, even started dancing to "Jingle Bells" (a resident's request).

The Nativity story in Luke 2 related the angels "saying" to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men." But I'm sure they sang it. As I learned again yesterday, Christmas is the season of singing.

Friday, December 16, 2016

An Experiment in Frugality

My car is totaled. The Geico adjuster estimated that the repairs would be in the neighborhood of $7800; I bought the entire car (previously owned) five years ago for $8000. Spending so much on repairs would make little economic sense. I gave the adjuster man the title; he gave me a check for $5307.26, their calculation of what it would cost to purchase a vehicle equivalent to the one I just wrecked.

I looked at that check - a fairly paltry one for the purposes of car shopping, but quite a nice one in its own right. Ooh! If only I didn't have to use that check to buy a car! If only I could just HAVE that money to refill my ever-depleting coffers and fatten my ever-shrinking purse!

Then, as I drove home, check tucked into my purse, I started to think: what if I DIDN'T buy a replacement car? What if I DID just hang on to that money?

Double ooh!

I thought some more. My son and daughter-in-law, and their two little girls, live with me. Both Christopher and Ashley own cars. Christopher uses his to go off to work every day. But Ashley is a stay-at-home mom and plans to be a primary caregiver for the foreseeable future. She's taking courses, but online. She hardly drives anywhere. Even when I had my sweet little Chevy Aveo, I hardly drove anywhere. When feasible, I greatly prefer to walk or to ride the Skip, one of Boulder's extremely excellent buses.

Did our extended family really need TWO cars sitting around for 90 percent of the time, costing us money that we'd just as soon spend on something else? What if Ashley and I shared both the use of her vehicle and the costs associated with it? Wouldn't this be a win-win situation for both of us? And, if this gave us an incentive to drive less (which it definitely will, for me), a win-win both for us and the planet?

So this is our plan for now, to be a two-car rather than three-car family, to coordinate, to share, to take turns, all of those good things. If we don't like it, that $5307.26 is right there in my bank account, swelling the balance but pledged to remain untouched.

I've been saying that I want to make 2017 a year of greater frugality, with more mindful (and just plain less) spending. The slushy stretch of road last week that totaled my poor little car has just given me that chance.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Lucky Unlucky Person

I have come to think of myself as a Lucky Unlucky Person.

Case in point: two years ago I was hurrying to the mailbox to get the mail, tripped, fell, and broke my foot. Unlucky! But then it turned out that I was non-weight-bearing only for two measly weeks (which admittedly felt more like two years). Lucky!

Second, more disturbingly recent, proof of my Lucky Unluckiness. This morning I was happily bustling off to do some Christmas shopping when I lost control of my car on a stretch of slushy road not too far from my house and careened head first into a four-foot-diameter concrete utility pole. Unlucky! If only I had zoomed off the road just a little bit on either side of the pole, I would have skidded to a bumpy stop in an open field. Double unlucky! The whole front of the car is smashed in, and I think my sweet minimalist 2007 Chevy Aveo with the roll-down windows (the reason I bought the car) is going to be totaled. Triple unlucky!

But right now I have to say that I'm feeling like the Luckiest Unlucky Person in the world.

I didn't hit anybody else's car.

My precious granddaughter wasn't in the back seat with me.

I'm completely uninjured.

It's still hard to believe that this happened. I'm shaken, stunned, haunted by the specter of what might have been. But what might have been DIDN'T happen.

So I'm weak with gratitude for my Lucky Unlucky Day.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Expecting Unexpected Gifts

One of my projects this fall, extending through the winter and into next spring, has been serving as a long-distance thesis adviser for a student in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I taught in that program for a blissful summer in 2014 and will teach there again for what is sure to be another blissful summer in 2017. The student whose creative project I'm currently advising was a beloved member of the small class on "chapter book" writing that I taught at Hollins two years ago.

Amy's thesis involves writing two different picture-book biographies as well as extensively revising the charming chapter book she began in my class. I was delighted when she asked me to work with her again. Over the past few months we've devoured a huge heap of picture-book biographies and analyzed them together (via phone); I've also read through several drafts of Amy's two biographies and her 12,000-word chapter book and made suggestions for revision.

It's a joy to advise such a super-smart, super-motivated student. It's also a lot of work, not something that one takes on lightly. But I have found that whenever I do a project like this one, just out of love, I get back not only the joy of the project itself but other unexpected gifts.

This time the first gift I got was inspiration to work on a picture-book biography of my own, returning to an idea that came to me several years ago on which I had done precisely nothing. I won't share the idea yet, because it's still a bit too new for public announcement , but it had the potential to grow into something lovely - provided, of course, that I actually sat myself down to research and then write the actual book.Thanks to my entering on this picture-book biography journey with Amy, this is what I finished doing last month.

That was unexpected gift number one.

Unexpected gift number two arrived this morning. I had shared my manuscript with some writing friends for their feedback and received some encouragement, but I had the uneasy feeling that some things were just plain not working in the text as written. The friends who offered comments are terrific writers, but without experience specifically in picture-book biographies. Oh, well, maybe the text was fine as it was. But something about it still seemed off.

Amy knew I was working on a picture-book bio of my own and asked to read it. I felt shy letting her see my flawed manuscript because, frankly, her two books-in-progress are in my view considerably stronger than my own, and it seemed a sad state of affairs for the teacher to be SO much less advanced than the student. But Amy truly seemed to want a peek at what I was working on, so I made myself send it off for her comments, trembling with trepidation.

I read her critique an hour ago. It's brilliant. It's insightful. It gently locates every spot that needs more attention with fabulous thoughts for how to revise the book to its full potential. Fixing the manuscript is now going to be a piece of - scrumptiously delicious - cake.

So I got not one but TWO unexpected gifts from this labor-of-love.

I now know to expect unexpected gifts. I never know in advance the exact form they will take: that's why they are unexpected gifts. But I know they will come in one form or another, unknown blessings already on their way, for which I will be forever grateful.