Monthly Archives: December 2012

It wasn’t real. It was absolutely wonderful.

A snow globe, a Hallmark special, our own sitcom,
A Christmas card by Norman Rockwell–well,
It’s true. We had perfect holidays back home.
Our schedules, our stockings, our hearts—full, full, full.
We always had to eat before we opened presents,
We ate too much, and THEN distributed the loot.
We took our turns opening, youngest to oldest, we oohed
And ahhed and made jokes. Gran’mommy’s perennials:
“Boxes can fool you,” and “Pretty paper,” (which she saved).
Everyone played nice. It was nice. And it stayed that way
Because the grownups held their breath. I am grateful
For the effort I didn’t see when I was a child. I do grieve
It wasn’t sustainable. We didn’t sustain it. I won’t say
It wasn’t real. It was absolutely wonderful.

Jodie and me talking to Santa. Jode's not too sure about this guy....I'm probably being really specific about what I want.

Jodie and me talking to Santa. Jode’s not too sure about this guy….I’m probably being really specific about what I want.

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We were so lucky. It wasn’t perfect–of course not. Not one person involved was perfect, so the gathering couldn’t have been. But it sure seems perfect in my memory.

Santa visited a lot of years when there were youngsters. This appears to be a Les Hutchison year, and I’m somewhere around three, so it predates my cousin Rob. I was the youngest, so I’d have opened my presents first. Poor Jodie–she had one year to go first, but as long as she remembered, someone else went sooner. (She probably didn’t mind too much.) Then Rob was the youngest for a very long time, 10 or 12 years, anyway. (My mom and her next youngest sister had their children very young; my Mom’s baby sister had her babies much later, right when my brother’s daughter was born, in the early 80s–so the late 60s and all the 70s, Jodie and Rob and I were the kids. My brother is six years older than me, so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind not being listed in this particular lucky cluster, though he’d have opened his presents right after Jodie.)

I remember the food(Aunt Wessie’s cinnamon bread), I remember the decorations (a creepy Santa like this one, I think)il_170x135.388388796_hm64

I remember the bad, bad jokes, and I remember the laughter. We laughed A LOT.

I remarked to a friend once that I never, ever laughed harder than when I was with my family (by which I mean this branch of the family, my Mom’s branch, the Roane/Marlow branch).

This friend had an insightful response, “Well, yeah, laughter breaks up tension pretty well.” Or something along those lines. And that’s partly true. As I got older, I had a stronger and stronger sense of everyone holding their breath, which I’m not nearly as good at (though I’m better at it than I want to be).

Keeping secrets and keeping up appearances. Pretty standard family stuff.

So, sure, there was tension. There still is.

But the truth is, I come from funny people. I just do. Some of it’s corny, some of it’s mean, but it is a constant, and it’s varied, and it’s smart, and it’s just a huge part of who we were. And are.

So whatever else there was, there was humor, and there was love, and there was phenomenally good luck.

We had an extraordinary run of people staying pretty healthy and grownups being mostly employed and marriages working relatively well. No one drank at these family gatherings (that I knew of), and no one fought (that I noticed), and everyone seemed to have a great time, and typically left to go home (we almost all lived in a one-mile radius) only when we’d planned our next gathering (which was never very far away).

On Christmas, that meant making plans for Gran’daddy’s birthday on December 26. If he were still with us, he’d be celebrating his 97th today. By the late 70s, we’d gotten in the tradition of someone giving him fancy collections of sausage and cheese for Christmas, and we’d gather for his birthday the next day and eat them. The numbers and varieties of cheese and sausage grew over the years, and we’d pass them around and around, shouting back and forth about which ones were best, spiciest, etc.

And in those pre-Google years, we nearly always had these two conversations: What is Boxing Day? And does “second cousin” mean the same as “first cousin, once removed?” I actually don’t ever want to look those things up–it was always too fun confusing each other with our answers.

There is no more one-mile radius. We have health problems in all manner of stripes and stages. We’re no longer exempt to national averages on marriage and employment.

Gran’daddy has been gone a year and a half and Gran’mommy seven more years than that.

So much is gone. Over. Done.

But what we had was real. And it was absolutely wonderful.

Keep the Protest in Protestant and/or Get Over It

Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth

First, a re-run: I published an op-ed called “Keep the Protest in Protestant” four years ago in Madison’s Capital Times. You can’t find it in madison.com’s online archive–apparently the Cap Times pieces don’t stick around that long. (Weirdly, an even older 2007 op-ed of mine from the Wisconsin State Journal is still available, in which I talk about merit pay, dilatory legislators, and skid-loaders, which, at the time, my son called “baby scoops.”)

Fortunately (I think), “Keep the Protest in Protestant” is still available online, but at a tea party-ish site that apparently keeps tabs on the Cap Times. You could Google it, but if you did, you’d see the comments, and I don’t want to link it here, because I don’t want to connect to them even by pinging. The comments were pretty tame, though, all in all. At the time I was attending Plymouth Congregational Church in Dodgeville & I did, and still do, appreciate the United Church of Christ as a denomination. Whatever it was I said, there were enough markers for several in the comment thread to assume I was going to hell and to hold me responsible for abortion.

Here are my favorite moments in the piece:

I’ve no doubt there is passion and sincerity on the part of some of those who choose, for example, to shop at a store where the decorations say “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays.” I’m related to some of these people…..

Never mind that “holiday” traces its roots to “holy,” whereas we all know that Christmas is a pagan cake with Jesus icing on top. If you’re hunting for your Lord’s birthday, hunt for the date astronomers estimate there was a great star in the sky or when the census would have been taken or when the shepherds would have been out tending their flocks by night. You can run the numbers six ways from the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday) and you won’t hit Dec. 25. The Puritans knew this. They didn’t like the maypole in spring, and they didn’t like the pine pole in winter. (But they did like beer. Go figure.)

Four years ago, I wasn’t seeing other people make this argument. Someone’s made it way better, now: “The Puritan War on Christmas” was just published in the New York Times. Lots of people have picked up the “Keep the _____ in ______” idea. My favorite on Facebook is “Keep the Han in Hanukkah,” with a young Harrison Ford brandishing a menorah.

And lots of people are, of late, pointing out that the X in Xmas stands for Christ–even this fellow, R.C. Sproul, in a post from a couple weeks ago, says “There’s a long and sacred history of the use of X to symbolize the name of Christ, and from its origin, it has meant no disrespect.” That’s R.C. Sproul, a CALVINIST, (whose name I recognized from my evangelical roots) who publishes with Tyndale (a noted Christian publishing house, well respected in the land of evangelicals, even THOUGH, we talked a lot in my church, in the 70s, about how that the guy who did The Living Bible, which Tyndale published, was struck silent for seven years because the Living Bible was a PARAPHRASE, not a translation.)

So some people are offended by being wished Happy Holidays. I’m offended by their taking offense.

And, if they knew, they’d likely be offended by my being offended at their having taken offense.

Round and round and round, like a train under a Christmas tree.

Would it help if I were Labiche, and blew up the tracks?

Of course not. This isn’t a real war. It’s a peaceful protest against the warriors who see themselves as defending Christmas.

I wish I thought none of this mattered. But when someone blames Jon Stewart for a massacre, it begins to matter, right?

My favorite response to the crazy talk that began almost immediately after the shootings in Newtown is by Rachel Held Evans, ANOTHER EVANGELICAL, called “God can’t be kept out.”

I know I was remembering Rachel’s words as I was snuggling with my son this morning, looking at our Christmas tree, telling him how happy I was he knew the Christmas story, how in a very dark time, God decided to make herself known on earth, starting out as a baby.

She gave Jesus to poor parents, and made him a Jew, which was a very scary thing to be in the Roman Empire. “The Romans were just jerks,” I told him.

And when we’re feeling at our lowest, at our most vulnerable, when things seem the darkest, we can remember that’s what Christmas is about–that God is with us.

However important I think it is for people to be historically accurate in what they complain about, however much I wish we all cared more about substance than surface, however big a gap there is between the right-wing and left-wing members of my family on this and other matters, I do know what’s more important.

So I’m trying, at least trying, to save my biggest protest-mojo for what really matters.

We are in a world of hurt. Whatever love we have access to, we need to share it. Now.

Merry Xmas.

(Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

Sustainable Chaos (Two Week Sonnet, Day 14)

Riding the line between abundance and chaos,
My stupid focus is on lack, lack, lack.
I try gratitude, but follow the switchback
Back toward loud whiny-assedness–
Too much. Too much! There really ought to be less
Except of course when there needs to be much more.

A good friend named my mountain bike “Pathfinder”–
However much I blazed my way off trail,
I only once rode my bike off the dock into the lake,
and only once or twice required stitches,
Got poison ivy only in the tiniest patches–
I somehow always got somewhere close to on track.

Somehow always somewhere close, like now.
My amen’s so hard, so real, it feels profound.

_____

Sunday, 12/16/12
Ah, the best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘Marnie gang aft agley (and definitely bleak December’s winds ensuin).

Wednesday the 13th should have been Day/Line 12, and then one post a day with today as the last. The week before finals proved ungainly, however, and I found myself–as we all did–profoundly disturbed and dislocated by the shooting on Friday–so far beyond my normal distraction….

In turn, I will try to process and then write about the heartbreak, the grief, the fury, the impotent rage, the pragmatic actions that this particular shooting moves me to. Today, as a finish to this poem particularly, I can only attest that at the moment my focus in not at all on what I lack.

Two Week Sonnet, Day 11

Riding the line between abundance and chaos,
My stupid focus is on lack, lack, lack.
I try gratitude, but follow the switchback
Back toward loud whiny-assedness:
Too much. Too much! There really ought to be less
Except of course when there needs to be much more.
A good friend named my mountain bike “Pathfinder”–
However much I blazed my way off trail,
I only once rode my bike off the dock into the lake,
and only once or twice required stitches,
And poison ivy only in small patches,

Two Week Sonnet, Day 9

Riding the line between abundance and chaos,
My stupid focus is on lack, lack, lack.
I try gratitude, but follow the switchback
Back toward loud whiny-assedness:
Too much. Too much! There really ought to be less
Except of course when there needs to be much more.
A good friend named my mountain bike “Pathfinder”–
However much I blazed my way off trail,
and only once rode my bike off the dock into the lake,

_____

Two Week Sonnet, Week Two Begins

Riding the line between abundance and chaos,
My stupid focus is on lack, lack, lack.
I try gratitude, but follow the switchback
Back toward loud whiny-assedness:
Too much. Too much! There really ought to be less
Except of course when there needs to be much more.
A good friend named my mountain bike “Pathfinder”–
However much I blazed my way off trail

_____
12/10/12

Wondering about “blazed,” if it’s a cliche, given “trailblazer” as a really common concept. Will consider that today.

What I’ve been doing in the blog as I’m writing this two-week sonnet, one line a day (and I really haven’t let myself anticipate much, although I am wondering if I’ll tell the story of riding into Thompson Lake at SIU when I blazed off the trail there) is sort of written-out/online version of what is called a “think aloud,” which I learned from Lendol Calder, a genuinely inspiring guy.

[Description of the first seven days can be found here.]

Two Week Sonnet, Day 7

Riding the line between abundance and chaos,
My stupid focus is on lack, lack, lack.
I try gratitude, but follow the switchback
Back toward loud whiny-assedness:
Too much. Too much! There really ought to be less
Except of course when there needs to be much more.
A good friend named my mountain bike “Pathfinder”

_____
12/9/12
Well, that’s it. It was a sestet after all. Moving on! With the same basic back and forth theme. I’m piggy-backing “less” on the ABBA rhyme scheme from the first quatrain. So, once again, I’m in the land of nonce sonnets (a sonnet that meets the basic rules of the form but doesn’t follow a famous/established pattern). I’ve always been pretty noncey. It’s the “ballpark” notion of prosody–my first prosody teacher would say fairly often, “Well, let’s call that a ballpark sonnet,” as in, it’s in the same ballpark. I try to be a little more precise than that, but for me, a poem has to follow some sort of rules, even if the rules are brand new. There has to be some kind of surface tension holding things together. I wonder if it’s surface tension I mean?

In any case, once I said “switchback” in line three, I was back in Missoula, so the mountain bike was bound to show up.

Terrific picture NOT taken by me--go to this website: http://www.mesenko.com/Landscapes/Missoula/14933008_mVjHV3/1904593193_MZGcfRk

Terrific picture NOT taken by me–go to this website: http://www.mesenko.com/Landscapes/Missoula/14933008_mVjHV3/1904593193_MZGcfRk

Two books I’m reading, well, three, are in my mind in terms of content or theme here (beyond the basic back-and-forth theme, which is more of a structural principle): Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow, Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Instead of being all monkey-minded, whiplash-mooded, and spiritually spastic, I’m aiming for some measure of mindful equilibrium. “And how’s that working for you?” I say to myself…. I’m tentatively calling this poem “Sustainable Chaos,” even though I already wrote one other poem called that. Listen. If George Foreman can name every child “George,” I can use the same title more than once. But “Sustainable Chaos” appeals to me in terms of how I want my life to feel and be.
_____
12/8/12
Decisions, decisions. Today we reach the end of a sestet–a little six-line cluster. If we’re going traditional Petrarchan, we’ll push on for a couple more lines to complete the octave (8 lines, if you didn’t know) and THEN shift gears. The rhymes seem to indicate I’m in an octave, not a sestet. I was kind of mis-remembering, forgetting I’d set up “whiny-assedness” to rhyme with “abundance and chaos,” only remembering that “less” rhymed with “ness.” I thought briefly about trying to rhyme with “less” so this could decide to be a sestet.

I’m a little worried that the two less/more lines are too obvious, but I like having them as end words there in the early-middle of the poem.

Well, really, it’s tomorrow’s decision, where to go from here. Just feeling the impendingness of it today.

p.s. I told my husband last night what I was up to with this and he totally got it, how hard it is for me to do this just one line a day, since I often write a sonnet, or most of a sonnet, in the car on the way to work.

Fortunately, this isn’t the only writing I’m doing.
_____
12/7/12
So, no Babe the Blue Ox in the Slough of Despond yet. But there’s time. We’re only five lines in. A whole universe of crap can happen in 9 lines in a sonnet. Right now I’m thinking the next line will begin

Except for when

but I could totally change my mind by tomorrow.
_____
12/6/12
I decided I’d try to write a sonnet over a two-week period (14 days–seemed liked fate), one line a day. Curious if I’ll do it–I’m trying not to anticipate what I might write the next day or later, though it occurred to me this is kind of a version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which made me think of Paul Bunyan, so they might show up, with Babe in the slough of despond or something. Or not.