Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #12 - CREATION

I grew up playing in my father’s studio. Holding the brush together, dipping it in water and paint and watching it disperse color across a pristine sheet of textured paper, he babysat me through my first few paintings. Later, as I developed more confidence with the medium, he was very trusting and generous with his supplies, allowing me to sit at his desk, on his stool, and use his own brushes and paints. Studying and imitating his gorgeous paintings, experimenting with his tools, I learned a love of watercolor that has lasted throughout my life, and I always hoped someday I’d grow up to be an artist like him.

There in his home, I developed my gift, worked extremely hard in school, and eventually set off on my own. The big test came when, as a young bride, I moved to Los Angeles, determined to prove my worth both in our fledgling family and as an artist. I was away for nearly twenty years...nearly equal to a lifetime at that point.

Then I remember one summer when I returned home for a visit. My dad invited me to his new studio...a larger, more accommodating one, the entire top floor of an old pioneer house. He showed me some oil paintings he was working on, and invited my opinion. I was a little surprised. I was always the one who had learned from HIM. And now he wanted my input. Wow.

I suggested a warm glaze over one of the landscapes, an English countryside. He handed me a brush. “Go for it,” he said. “Really? You trust me to work on your painting?” I asked incredulously. He nudged me toward the canvas and I dipped the brush into the thin glaze, adding just a trace of alizarin. Then gingerly I touched the canvas and carefully glazed a section of the surface. He approved, even became excited as he saw the results, and dipped in his brush as well. There we stood, side by side, collaborating, painting...creating. And in a way I lack the words to describe...synergy?...transcendence?...I suddenly felt a whole new kind of alive.

It’s an image I’ll never forget, working side-by-side with my Artist-Dad. That whole experience rings not only true, but significant: First being with him, being taught at his feet, then leaving for what seemed like a lifetime to go out on my own, prove myself. Then finally returning as a professional, a colleague, and a collaborator. I suddenly understood with greater depth why God calls himself Creator, and why he wants to share that incredible gift with His children.

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.*
Thank you, Dad, for giving me the opportunity to
create with you.

*Pres. Dieter Uchtdorf, "Happiness, Your Heritage" 2008.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #11 TOO WONDERFUL (Gifts of such extraordinary value they have to be shared)

When I was in college, my not-very-well-to-do parents gave me an extraordinary gift. I was studying art with an emphasis in graphic design, and every single time I had to do a finished project I’d go trekking out to the Holladay Library, schlepping an unwieldy arsenal of art boards, pencils, triangles, erasers and T-squares (unfortunately I did not go to school during the Digital Age!) to use their projector. I’d transfer my sketches onto the final art board this way, blowing them up to four-or-more times the original size, so the final art would reduce down to pristine perfection when it was shot for reproduction. (So much for your dinosaur lesson in graphic design).

So that year I was completely amazed to discover a gigantic present from my parents. This gift wouldn’t even fit in one box, and it weighed a ton! As I tore open the first package, my parents told me it came with a caveat: This was something so big and so valuable, it to be shared. There, in that box, in our very own house, ready for my very own makeshift studio, was my very own projector, an Art-o-graph. I was stunned. It was probably 5 times more powerful and heavy-duty than the one I’d been using at the library in the neighboring town. This was the top of the line. I’m sure it cost a small fortune, probably close to a thousand dollars...even in the paleolithic era in which I was raised.

This wasn’t something I’d talked about, hinted at, even hoped for. It was completely outside the realm of possibility, and I knew that. Yet my parents had made this enormous investment in my future. They gave me something I needed now, that I could use forever, knowing how valuable it would eventually be to me. And all that they asked in return was that I share it...with Dad, with my siblings, maybe even with fellow students at times. How could I say no to that? This was an AMAZING gift. Of COURSE I was willing to share.

As I finished up my degree, then through all those years running a design studio in Los Angeles, I used that projector all the time. It contributed a great deal to our family’s livelihood. And I still have it, ready to set up in our newly-remodeled basement in my new workspace there.

. . . . .

About five years later I met a guy. Not just any guy. An AMAZING man with a superhuman heart. (You can read about him here, here, and here.) I gradually fell head-over-heels in love with him, and could scarcely believe he was falling in love with me too. Because this man is BRILLIANT. He somehow has an ability to recall everything he has ever read, in vast detail. He is a creative GENIUS. He can come up with a clever new twist on anything, and does so as naturally as most of us flop out of bed in the morning. In a way that adds depth and meaning and resonance.

He is also HILARIOUS. Everyone LOVES to be around him. The first time my dad met him he said, “Wow, adding that guy to your guest list is like inviting five extra people to your party!” And he’s right; Jeff really is THAT fun. In fact, after our first date he had completely raised my fun scale several notches. I’d go out with other guys and my mom would ask, “Did you have fun?” and I’d be compelled to answer, “Yeah, but not as much fun as with Jeff.”

Beyond that brilliant and hilarious exterior, I wanted to find out what really made this guy tick. On our very first date we talked for hours, and I gradually saw piece after piece of his outer shell fall away and realized how deeply sensitive and spiritual a man he is as well. This guy was pure gold. I felt completely honored just to be in his presence.

Then one August night he asked me to marry him. Could it be that this guy was actually going to be MINE? Forever? I threw my arms around him and said yes, without even a moment’s hesitation. I’d be a complete fool to let this guy get away!

So now we’re married, he’s mine and I’m his, and we’re still in love. That’s all good. But I realized early on, this guy has a highly involved life, constantly running in a million different directions. Not only is he working on his film projects, often into the wee hours, he also spends a lot of time helping people out, listening, counseling, serving. That’s just who he is. Every once in awhile this is a struggle. And then I remember that gift from my parents, the projector. And a light goes on. (No pun intended). My husband, too, is a gift that needs to be shared. This time my Heavenly parents offered me a gift that is, like Job said, “too wonderful for me,” a gift that is so essential to my own progress, yet so valuable now and in the future, he needs to be shared. And so I do. With the film community, the church community, friends, and even strangers. I share him with his colleagues, his students, and aspiring others. I share him with our extended family and our children. And he always comes back to me, eventually.

Tonight is our anniversary. And I’m sharing him with our oldest son. They’re on a male-bonding road trip, on their way to a film festival. And I’m strangely okay. Because I’m used to sharing him. And he always comes back to me. Eventually. And he really is mine. Eternally. That’s totally worth all the sharing I have to do now.

Happy Anniversary, Honey. You are one of my very most amazing gifts.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #10 REMEMBRANCE

The Christmas after my mission I received an abundant stash of gifts from friends and family, but I can only remember one: It was a beautiful surprise from my mother. She had compiled a scrapbook of all the letters and photos from my mission. I had absolutely no idea she’d been working on it, could not even imagine the number of late-night hours she’d put into it without my knowing. But I was now leafing through a complete set of memories of my missionary experience, made tangible in this handmade folio. There was nothing “cute” about it -- no trendy cropping or die cuts or even colored backgrounds. My mom wasn’t that kind of mom, and this wasn’t that kind of scrapbook. But it was rich with memories, and with a kind of reverence. This was an unbelievable treasure. I was overwhelmed. This was the first time I realized what an amazing gift Remembrance could be.

. . . . . . .

Fast-forward to Christmas 1992. I lost both my mother and my magic “Mrs. Santa Claus” grandmother that year. We’d been through the Rodney King riots, and a series of earthquakes and fires and mudslides in Los Angeles. Life felt like it pulled the rug right out from under me.

We went to Utah for Christmas so 1-year-old Josh could see his grandparents, and we could be nurtured by the security of Home. As we gathered around the tree at my in-laws’ house to open presents, no one could miss the stunningly-wrapped package tucked off to one side. It was enormous, and wrapped in the most gorgeous mauve foil adorned with a magnificent, multi-colored bow. There was even a little silver key tied on as an ornament. Jim, my father-in-law, always gives Bonnie the most stellar gifts (one year it was an ankle-length leather coat) and we couldn’t wait to see what was inside this box. Surely he’d outdone himself this year.

As the ribbons and paper flew and the squeals of delight rose up, there was no question people’s gift lists had been matched and spirits were high. Nearly every package had been opened, but the mystery box still remained. Jim went over to read the tag. “Charrette” he said. I’m sure everyone was shocked, but no one could have been struck with as much disbelief as I was. I felt like the girl in Grandma Winters’ Christmas story, when the “little rich girl” reaches for the big, beautiful package and the kind, older gentleman gently says, “Oh, no. That’s not for you, it’s for Cozette. Go ahead, Cozette. It’s yours. Go ahead and open it.”

So I carefully undid the beautiful ribbon and set the little silver key aside. I tried not to rip the shiny pink paper as I lifted the tape. And then I could not believe my eyes. (I’m trying hard not to bawl my eyes out just writing about this now.) It was a spray of flowers from my mother’s casket. Somehow Bonnie had managed to secure a representative sampling of blooms and taken them to a florist friend of hers who arranged them very artistically. They were framed in a beautiful glass box, along with the program from the funeral -- including the portrait I had drawn for the cover.

Remembrance. A most wonderful gift. At a time when I wanted to remember every little thing about my mother. Every little scrap of paper with her handwriting took on enormous significance now that she was gone. I wanted to surround myself with anything that reminded me of her. And here was something spectacular and meaningful to hang on my wall.

I still have the little silver key from that amazing package I opened 16 years ago. It reminds me that people I love found the key to my heart that year by going to extraordinary lengths to give me the gift of Remembrance. And I have never forgotten.

. . . . . . . .

I learned another great lesson about Remembrance that year. I learned that when we lose someone we love, any opportunity that allows us to remember them is an extraordinary gift. This gave me a whole new appreciation for the Sacrament...a weekly ordinance designed to help us remember Someone we love very deeply. (“That we may always remember Him, that we may have His spirit to be with us...”) That year I realized that that remembrance, too (not unlike Christmas) is a gift from a loving Father. And I cherished it like never before.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #9 ETERNITY

“I think I’m broken,” I told my friend on our ritual morning walk. Two months earlier I delivered a baby that was stillborn, and I didn’t know if I’d ever truly recover. Sure, I had survived the ordeal, but as time wore on I found myself plagued with feelings of failure and self-doubt. If I couldn’t keep my baby alive, what kind of mother am I?

This was my hardest Christmas so far (even though Christmases are usually compared in terms of joyfulness rather than hardness.) We still had boxes to unpack from our move, and decorating the house for the holidays became a low priority. Then the fact that Christmas is all about a baby -- and I had lost mine -- made the season poignantly painful. Singing about the baby Jesus in choir practice was now so emotional I could barely get through a rehearsal without tearing up. And during “Mary, Did You Know?” I usually just had to get up and leave.(“Did you know that your baby ...has walked where angels trod...When you kiss your little baby then you’ve kissed the face of God...this child that you delivered ...this sleeping child you’re holding...”) It was all too much for me.

We spent Christmas in Utah that year. We got there early and Bonnie (my mother-in-law) had already turned our beds down and run baths for the kids. She is a natural nurturer. Just before we went to get ready for bed, she invited us into the family room by the tree and said she had a gift that she wanted me to open early. She handed me a small box, and I imagined maybe a sleep mask...or better yet a bottle of anti-depressants! Instead, what I discovered inside took my breath away. She had taken the diamond from her original wedding band, along with her mother’s wedding diamond, and had them set as pierced earrings. And she wanted me to have them. “I want you to wear them every day and never take them off,” she said. And I never have.

Every day when I look in the mirror I see two diamonds sparkling back at me, symbolizing generations of everlasting love. I see loyalty, honor, commitment. I see the word’s hardest material, symbolizing my own strength and potential. I see eternity.

I couldn’t wait to show them to my friend when we got back to Pasadena. Not for the bling or the glitz. For the symbol. “Maybe,” I pondered aloud, “Maybe I’m not broken after all. Maybe I’m being cut.” She nodded knowingly, like she’d been waiting for me to discover that for myself all along.

That year, and to this day, I’m grateful for a wise mother-in-law who intuitively knew I needed that symbol of eternal love to help heal my broken heart. And I’m grateful for a Father who chose such a loving way to tutor me about my own potential. I’m grateful for a pair of diamonds -- and my own, making it a threesome -- that carry the power of transcendent love, and the whisper and hope of eternity.

Twelve Gifts: #8 MUSIC

Grandpa Bennett lived the entire twentieth century. He was born in 1900 and died in 1999. He never lost his health or his mental faculties...or the license to drive his Jaguar. Just quietly died in his sleep one night, at age 99-plus. Amazing.

They lived in a gorgeous English Tudor house with a stream and a waterfall in the back yard. (And a swimming pool for most of our growing-up years.) Our favorite room was the library. Glass doors opened into a quiet study with a giant dictionary on a stand, a big antique desk, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
Just beyond that -- on the other side of the glass doors -- was the grand piano. The one my mother learned on. It stood silent most of the time. But you could tell Grandpa’s first love was music. And that is my favorite gift from him.

At one time he had his own radio show. He would sing a favorite hymn, then present a beautifully-crafted personal essay on the meaning and text of the hymn, then sing the hymn again. One year when I expressed a particular interest, he presented us with tape recordings of every single one of his radio shows. What a treasure! I’m fairly sure I’m the only granddaughter who scored that entire collection.

For years he was the baritone soloist in the Messiah. His rich, golden voice was legendary. By the time we were old enough to appreciate such wonders, he was too old to sing in public, but he would ALWAYS sing for his grandchildren, once a year, at Christmas. Some of my favorite memories were the family parties we held in the top floor ballroom of the McCune Mansion. There our patriarch would gather his family, and (with my mom or me at the piano) conduct his 100-plus descendants in a rousing four-part sing-along of the Hallelujah Chorus. It was the highlight of the holiday.

Another highlight was caroling. We’d join as cousins and follow Grandpa through the neighborhood, an 80-voice choir, singing our hearts out from door to door in the freezing cold as he delivered gifts to his friends and neighbors. Best caroling ever!

But there was one more tradition, so sweet and so priceless it takes me right back to my earliest childhood days, with a memory so tender I lack the words to describe it. At the end of every family party, Grandpa would gather the children around him and sing the Christopher Robin Songs. Suddenly this dignified old gentleman was transformed into a young English lad. His eyes twinkled, and grew large and expressive. His mustache twitched under a boyish grin. His diction, demeanor and decorum were all that of a young London schoolboy. His real personality came through when he sang those songs. Meanwhile, my mother sparkled on the piano behind him. She had accompanied him for so many years I think she practically knew all the Christopher Robin Songs by heart. Everything was electrifying and magical when Grandpa sang.

After I was first married and moved away, I coerced Grandpa to sing the songs for me one more time, so we could record them for our children. I wish I could post a little video clip from one of those recordings. It’s a blustery day outside, but this is even better than a big jar of honey!

What I learned from Grandpa, and again from my mom, is that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without music. I love singing about the baby Jesus at Christmastime. Singing helps me access the deep crevices of my heart and offer up gifts I didn’t even know I had tucked inside. I can sing love and testimony and gratitude and grace that I can’t express any other way. I can rejoice as I lift up my voice with choirs of angels. Life doesn’t get more jubilant than that. I think any other ritual or tradition could come and go (like the residents of Whoville when the Grinch took all their presents) but music makes Christmas. And I’m glad I’ve been blessed with so many wonderful ways to participate.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #7 – ANONYMITY

When I was in high school I had a friend from work who was older, in college, and already had her own apartment. When she went home for Christmas, she asked me to house sit for her. I LOVED “playing house” over there, having a quiet place to sit and read or listen to music. I even had fun cleaning.

She had left in a bit of a rush, so every day when I went over I tried to put a few things away for her, wash the dishes, scrub the stove, sweep, dust vacuum. At the end of the two weeks I brought her home from the airport and when she walked into her apartment she exclaimed, (and I quote) “Thank heaven I cleaned before I left!” That was just about my favorite thing ever. At first I thought, "Now wait a minute..." But then I saw the happiness and relief on her face, heard it in her voice. And that was recognition enough. It actually made me extra happy that she had no idea I’d done all that for her. My service was anonymous. And there was a certain joy that came along with that I’d never really experienced before.

About seven years ago I felt it from a whole new perspective. Design work had been slow (sometimes non-existent), and being self-employed, there was no steady income. Jeff had been out of work for about six months, and we were really feeling the pinch. We miraculously scraped together enough money to cover the mortgage every month, and put food on the table, but little else. It wasn’t looking too good for Christmas.

But on the 14th of December a package showed up on our porch...and then another. Two different people delivered “Twelve Days of Christmas” packages to our doorstep every single day for the next 12 days. Reading the notes and discovering the surprises was delightful! The children loved it too. We couldn’t wait to come home and see what had been left for us each night. Some of them were funny -- like ten rolls of toilet paper! Others were so thoughtful: My favorite lipstick. Matching mugs for hot chocolate. One day it was a collection of Christmas poems and stories. Another day it was a gift certificate to a favorite taco stand! So much fun!

On Christmas Eve I literally wept as I opened the door and found not just a dozen doughnuts or some other trinkets, but gifts for everyone in the family, wrapped and ready to put under the tree. I was stunned. Overwhelmed.

Now, here’s the best part: We never found out who the givers were. I have my suspicions. But it remains a mystery. And here’s what happened that I never could have predicted: As we started to guess, “Could it have been her?” “I wonder if it was THAT family” “Maybe it was our neighbors down on Topeka Street...or those friends from church...” All those musings caused us to reach out more, to be a little bit kinder. Because we loved our mysterious givers, whoever they were, we wanted to be extra kind and gracious to them. And because it could have been virtually ANYONE...we felt this humbled, grateful sweetness toward EVERYONE. It was the best feeling in the world.

No wonder Jesus said, “...let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” promising that whatever we give in secret will be richly and openly rewarded. As usual, He wants us all, givers and receivers, to be deliriously happy. And it works.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #6 ROOM in the INN (Entertaining Angels)

We arrived on the scene in Los Angeles homeless and jobless. We weren’t being utterly foolish. We had both a job and a home lined up -- managing an apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley. But when we arrived in L.A. and called to pick up the key, we got the unbelievable news that they’d sold the building right out from under us while we were on our honeymoon. Welcome to L.A.! The battles there are far-flung and hard won, as we were beginning to discover. But thankfully, we were not friendless.

Jeff called some friends from church, and they invited us to stay in their back bedroom, rent free, until we could find an apartment. I came down with a flu that first night and was in bed with a high fever for most of that first week. Our hosts didn't seem to mind at all, made us feel completely welcome and comfortable. In fact, our first apartment was a studio space that opened up in their complex. Thanks to Dave and Elizabeth, we didn’t have to spend our first two weeks in Los Angeles without a home. They were good to us, and we were very grateful.

. . . . . . . .

A couple of months ago we had the opportunity to open up our own little inn to some road-weary travelers. Jeff's cousin (who we'd barely crossed paths with a time or two in the past twenty years) needed a place to stay, and for who knows how long? But it felt like the right thing to open our doors, and our hearts, to this virtual stranger. A few days turned into a few weeks, and the inn remained open. The amazing thing is, after a few days I’m usually more than ready to see our house guests on their way. But this cousin was different. She was here, off and on, for about six weeks, and I was actually sad to see her leave last weekend. My office doubles as our guest room, and I often have a hard time giving up that space, and that computer, even for a night or two. But somehow I was completely content to be displaced. Hardly noticed any inconvenience. (As many of you may have noticed, the blog went dormant. But even that didn’t seem to matter.)

This wonderful guest in our home, despite her own family crisis, quietly went behind the scenes looking for ways and places to serve. She and her daughter helped the children with their homework, folded loads of laundry, cleaned out the food storage room, replaced the lights in the master bathroom, helped fix the kitchen sink, assembled my new drawing table...the list goes on and on. Somehow, too, she captured just the right balance of spending time with us without ever getting in the way. She didn’t expect us to babysit or entertain her, yet was always willing to engage if we wanted company or needed a listening ear. Normally, I expect houseguests to bring with them a certain amount of chaos, but this one brought calmness in her wake.

Initially I thought we were doing them this huge favor, letting them stay with us for an indefinite amount of time, but it ended up being such a gift to our family in ways I never imagined. The renewed friendship. The calming influence. The quiet determination to help out. The laughter, understanding and love. Just amazing.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of that night in Bethlehem when Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay. Turned down by countless others, the weary couple finally settled in a stable for that night of all nights. I’m sure at first the Innkeeper thought he was doing them a favor, letting them spend the night in his stable, but can you imagine the blessing it would have been to house the Christ child, the Holy Family, even for one night? I’m sure the stable-owner was blessed in ways far and above the little manger he offered the weary wanderers: The light. The spirit. The miracles. The love.

I keep thinking about our lovely guests, and how very Christlike they were in the way they occupied a space in our home, and what an unexpected blessing it’s been to have them here. It makes me want to recommit to make more room, both in my home and my heart, for the Savior. Every day. Because I realize now that making room in the inn is not just a gift we provide, it’s also, in the very act, a gift we receive. And it’s one of my favorites.

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (Heb. 13: 2)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #5 – PERSPECTIVE

Our across-the-street neighbors were the coolest people! They were tag-team parents: She worked the day shift as a television producer, and he was a stay-at-home dad who worked the evening shift as an actor. I marveled at the way this close, Christian family worked everything out so seamlessly in a dog-eat-dog metropolis and such fiercely competitive industries. They were an inspiration. Bill entertained the boys, kept the garden looking great and also cooked like Martha Stewart...then transformed in the evening, playing major roles in touring Broadway productions like Ragtime and Lion King. Lynette had wild curly hair and a loud voice and a grand sense of humor. At work she hunted down human-interest news stories (often involving the neighbor kids), and at home she loved to hunt down vintage collectibles at yard sales and swap meets. Their house was decorated with a theme for every room. The boys’ room was nautical, the family room was bedecked with antique toys, and the kitchen -- my word, the kitchen! It was a pink-and-gray monument to 1950’s space age chic -- every appliance was streamlined pink enamel with diner-esque chrome trim, including the formica-topped dinette set. Fabulous!

Every once in awhile Bill would have to go out on an audition during the day, and asked me to watch the boys for him. When Lynette came to pick them up one afternoon, Nick started to whine, “I had a bad day.” I, somewhat mortified, tried to explain, “We actually had a lot of fun. We made cookies and they played pirates on the swingset and...” Nick cut me off. “I did. I had a bad day.” Suddenly his older brother Noah started clapping his hands over his ears and called out urgently, “No, Nicky, No! Don’t say it, Nicky. She’ll tell you the Christopher Reeve story!” And sure enough, Lynette launched in emphatically as if on cue, “You did NOT have a bad day, Nicky. Christopher Reeve had a bad day. He went out horseback riding and came home a quadriplegic. Now THAT’s a bad day!”

And who could possibly argue with that? I guess for most of us, when you put things in perspective, there ARE no bad days! What's more, Christopher Reeve became more heroic in the trials of real life than he ever was in his role as a superhero. Inspiring.

Thank you, Lynette, for the gift of perspective....

Of course the most important outlook to grasp, yet also most fleeting and difficult to hold onto, is infinitely positive --eternal perspective, the ability to see “things as they really are”, as God himself sees. That rich, expansive point of view that shrinks our sorrows and broadens our joys is truly among the greatest of gifts.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Twelve Gifts - #4 The PRESENCE of FRIENDSHIP

“Go outside and look at the moon,” she’d call to say. And I’d step away from the chaos and clutter of the kitchen into the brisk night air and see this luminous orb, sometimes full, sometimes a sliver, sometimes shrouded in clouds of angel hair, and feel reconnected to the universe. There was something so calming and healing about seeing the moon on a clear night.

We spent countless hours walking the pre-dawn streets of Pasadena, by the light of the moon. If you put all those hours end to end, year upon year of walking three miles a day, they might actually reach the moon. Add to that the miles of trails we covered every Saturday for five years, and all that walking and talking would probably reach, like the big nutbrown hare’s love, to the moon...and back again.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, she and I, literally -- wearing out our hiking shoes, and figuratively, emotionally as well. This is the friend who, when I was on prescribed bedrest, would put me in her car and take me to rest on a blanket in the park because she knew I needed to be outside. This is the friend who, when tragedy struck, just decided to show up. Every day. For weeks on end. Uninvited. Because she knew I wouldn’t have the strength to ask, yet she knew her presence would matter. And it did. I knew if I could just hang on until the afternoon, when she was through school, she would come. And everything would be okay. Most of the time on those days when it was really hard, we didn’t even talk. But having someone there, even in the silence, still managed to divide the sorrows and multiply the laughs.

One year I had gall-bladder surgery just a few days before Christmas. I also had a 7-month-old baby whom I was instructed not to lift because his weight could tear the incisions. So there I was, recuperating from surgery, trying to care for an infant and prepare for Christmas. And it all seemed so impossible. Until she showed up. Took the baby with her on her errands. Held him for me while I wrapped presents. Fed and entertained the children while I rested. And finally, at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, laid him in my arms. I wept. I wept while she held him, for the relief I felt knowing the baby had been in such capable hands. And I wept when she left, feeling the wholeness of that burden resting back on my shoulders. But mostly I wept out of gratitude and amazement. She always knew exactly what I needed. And then acted unhesitatingly. Holding that baby for me at I time when I literally couldn’t hold him myself was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I have a small handful of friends who are family-close, and highly prized. I know they’ll be there for me to listen and care, even if they live too far away to be here in person. And some even remind me to look at the moon. (Not unlike the wise men, who probably called each other to say look at the star...and then set off on a long journey together to find what it symbolized. Sure, they came bearing gifts, but their very presence might have been the greatest gift.)

Happy Birthday, CB! Thank you for holding my baby that Christmas Eve. Your presence and friendship (plus a small handful of others’) is one of my all-time favorite gifts.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #3 PARTICIPATION (requiring of course a letting-go of perfectionism)

One Christmas – when I was very little – my mom let me help her with all the holiday preparations. I don't know whether we were especially strapped for cash that year (children are rarely aware of things like that) but it was a year when Mom decided to make EVERYTHING...from the gifts we gave to the paper we wrapped them in. I spent that December merrily dipping potato stars in tempera paint and stamping them on rolls of kraft paper, hammering away at chunks of broken candy canes under layers of grocery sacks, drizzling chocolate all over the kitchen and myself, and taping paper around secret surprises. This was kid heaven!

What I know now that I didn't fully appreciate at the time was that my mother was a consummate perfectionist. She liked everything neatly sorted and labeled, pristine, organized, clean. (People who know me must be laughing right now...I clearly did not inherit that gene.) She liked beds tucked tightly with hospital corners – and packages wrapped even tighter, with just the right amount of tape, neatly placed. She liked carols sung in four parts, right on pitch. She liked our bedrooms neat and tidy, with our clothes sorted by size and season. I'm telling you, Mary Poppins had nothing on her!

It must have been sheer agony for her to watch me wrestle with a crumpled mass of paper and hold it down clumsily while tearing off a twisted piece of tape. But she let me do it anyway. I'm sure the potato-print wrapping paper was messy and the candy cane pieces were not uniform. The turtles got blanketed in too much or too little chocolate. But I was having the time of my life! Best Christmas ever!

The one task she never relinquished was the tree – that was hers alone. She insisted on a blue spruce. She wound big colored lights tightly around the trunk. Then placed a whimsical assortment of holiday TOYS on every branch. No balls, no ornaments, no tinsel or frills – just toys – carved, painted wooden ones, old-fashioned wind-up ones, stuffed animals and dolls, all hand-selected, sorted by size, and balanced proportionally on sturdy evergreen boughs. It was a favorite tradition. And so very her...Fun. Not fancy. Fastidious. Yet somehow fabulous.

When I grew up and had my own house I didn't even TRY to imitate that treeful of toys, but I did employ my own brand of perfectionism. The designer in me did a different-themed tree every year or two, including an edible tree made entirely of cut and baked gingerbread cookies tied on with colored ribbon, a Mexican one with brightly colored handmade straw ornaments from south-of-the-border, etc. Some were better than others. The fait accomplix was the year I dried my own hydrangeas and hunted down miniature, ornament-sized pears, apples and eggplants from and Armenian market and wired them to the tree, with excelsior for tinsel. I LOVED it. The kids hated it. They literally groaned when I said I was going to do it again the next year.

So when we moved here a few years ago, I gave my children a gift. I let the tree go. I relinquished my designer pride and let the children do the decorating. They put up all the mis-matched ornaments wherever they wanted. With bronzed mistletoe right next to a clay one hand-shaped by a kindergartener. When they were finished they all declared it the most beautiful tree we've ever had. Because they participated in its creation.

Lesson learned. This year our nine-year-old has decorated the tree all by himself. It's been a three-day project, putting up a handful of ornaments before school each morning, and a few more before bed each night. Today I tried to move one that was crowding the one next to it, and he said I was being OCD, and moved it right back again. So I stepped back. Christmas is a time to let EVERYBODY enjoy the process of doing. And this is his moment to shine.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #2 PURE GRACE (In the form of a heaven-sent Mother and a Baby at Christmas)

Once upon a time when we were truly in crisis, the fact that I was pregnant (something we should have rejoiced over) only seemed to add to the stress. I was self-employed and had a rambunctious toddler at home, and was so sick I could barely keep down a teaspoonful of water. I wanted to give up on all of it. But none of this is what this story is about.

This post is about Delivering. And Deliverance.

During six months of this difficult pregnancy, every night I had a dream about my mother. She had passed away nearly three years earlier, and in all that time I had only dreamt about her once (that I can remember). But now that I was in crisis and desperately needed her, miraculously she was there. So every night when I fell asleep I had a different dream about her. Sometimes she would give me comforting advice and tell me everything would be all right. Other times she would just be there, part of our normal family routine, as though she'd never left. But somehow dreaming about my Mother was very healing to me. Somehow, every morning I had the strength to get up and do it all...again. These dreams were like manna sustaining me in the wilderness.

My wonderful mother-in-law came down for Thanksgiving. She was so excited to be there when the baby came...the first girl in two generations! She tore through the house like a white tornado, helping me wash and fold little layette clothes and set up the bassinet and scrub every inch of the house. But the due date came and went, and no baby. Finally, Bonnie had speaking engagements lined up and had to leave. But what blessings and cleanliness and order she left in her wake! Once again, a Mother came to the rescue.

Finally, over two weeks later, the baby actually came. I had just finished a press check on a project I'd designed when I got home and my water broke. When you run your own business, Friday night is the ideal time to go into labor...zero days off (and no clients calling you in the hospital!). This was my easiest delivery ever. We joked that it felt like we went through the hospital drive-through and they handed us out a baby. But the real miracle occurred when (after months and months of begging people to remind me never to do this again) I took one look at the baby and said, "Oh, Honey, she's so sweet.... Let's have another."

She really was THAT sweet. Sweetness surrounded her like an aura, and it affected everyone and everything around her. This child came like a ray of hope from heaven, erasing all our doubts and fears and strife and bringing in their place a cushion of peace. It literally felt like she wouldn't let go of Heaven and pulled some of that light and love through the veil when she entered our lives.

That Christmas was one of our best ever. Having a newborn caused us to cancel all the parties and shopping and obligations and just stay home. The house somehow stayed clean and orderly. All the decorations and celebrations were simplified, which left us to focus on the real meaning of Christmas: The gift from heaven. The hope. The baby. The peace.

Her birth announcement was not just one photo...but a small booklet we mailed out, with stunning black-and-white photos my husband shot on every page. The only text was a line from Wordsworth: "Heaven lies about us in our infancy," followed by this sentence that seemed to sum up the whole experience: "A baby girl has graced our home." That was it. Pure grace. I have no doubt that my mother hand-picked and hand-delivered this baby, straight from heaven. In fact, when our Angel Baby was a toddler and could finally speak in sentences, one of the earliest thoughts she expressed was this: "I miss your mom." Clearly she knew her, she remembered.

Fourteen years later, I am still at times in awe of this creature who has graced our home. She has my mother-in-law's gift for making everyone feel loved and included. For gathering people around her and nurturing them. For speaking her mind in compelling ways that move people to action. For looking the part of the angel she is.

Happy Birthday, Princess. You (and your birth, and everything it symbolized) are one of my all-time favorite gifts.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Twelve Gifts: #1 STORY

“...and now, Jana, you should be fast asleep.”

Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother’s voice saying those words as she scratched my back, lulling me into a blissful slumber. Even in their tiny duplex, she had a special room set aside for the grandchildren to sleep over (which was frequent). She even called it the Children’s Room. The walls were the palest pink with flowered wallpaper. There was an old Victrola in the corner -- that still worked! An old doll, Sarah, from Grandma’s childhood (which I honestly believe she never outgrew) was sitting in a child-size wooden rocker. I used to lie there in the big, brass bed, bundled in handmade patchwork quilts and freshly-ironed cotton sheets, and listen to the train whistles through the open window, with a summer breeze blowing the lace curtains in billowing waves.

The best part of all was the stories she told. She was a master. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, any number of fairy tales, wonderful memories from her idyllic childhood...she even dabbled into Shakespeare and Alcott and Dickens on occasion. But the favorite of all was the story of Cozette.

(We all thought she made it up, but when I was much older and read “Les Miserables” I realized that Grandma’s Cozette may have been loosely based on Victor Hugo’s character of the same name.)

After I married and moved away, Grandma called one day to ask what I wanted for my birthday. Suddenly I thought of the perfect thing. “I don’t really need anything, Grandma. But someday I would love to have a recording of you telling the story of Cozette.” She was more than a little surprised. And probably wished that I’d request something less taxing. But to my magic Grandma (who was the very embodiment of Mrs. Santa herself, including the silvery bun, the starched white ruffled apron and droll little laugh) a wish expressed was a wish fulfilled.

So sure enough, a day or two before my birthday, a manila envelope arrived, addressed in Grandma’s distinct calligraphy. I tore it open, and inside was a white cassette tape labeled “Happy Birthday, Jana.” I popped it in our tape deck (yes, this was before we owned a CD player) and found that she had recorded the story at least half a dozen times, maybe more, trying to capture just the right version. I listened to every one, loved the differences and details in each, and felt like a little girl again clinging to the sound of her silvery voice. The tape has some static, and the recorder makes a rhythmic, mechanical click throughout, but none of that detracts from the magic of hearing that favorite story from my childhood, told and retold in my grandmother's own voice.

Grandma Winters has long since gone, but her gift of story lives on.