Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Of Messes, Masses, and Ships

Christmas this year, like every year, was messy. But it's a mess I'm learning to surrender to. In the imperfect and often sloppy, can be beauty and joy.

We made a mess of gingerbread cookies early in the season. They didn't look like the cookies in the Christmas books, but they were fun to make and eat. Even my 16-year-old's ubercool boyfriend helped.

One of my goals this year was to make a photo calendar for the relatives, but with the messiness of end-of-semester insanity at the same time as Christmas preparations, it didn't happen. I kept trying to get everyone in the same place at the same time to take one good family photo with a Christmas theme for the December page. The day when I finally managed to gather everyone, Eliana was tired and fussy. After about thirty (wasted) shots, these were the only two that came out anywhere near presentable.

But by the time I actually got these on my computer, there wasn't enough time to get the calendar out by Christmas and I was swamped with other things, so the project was abandoned. Oh well, maybe next year.

Because June Amber had to work on Christmas Day, we decided to have our big dinner on Christmas Eve. But I also knew that my beloved's mother was coming to town on or shortly after Christmas Day, so I bought a prime rib and a turkey. Well, actually, two turkeys, since it was buy one, get one free. We had the prime rib Christmas Eve.

In case you're not familiar with the paper crowns, they come out of Christmas "crackers," which are sort of like toilet paper tubes wrapped in shiny paper of various colors. (You can see a silver one in the above photo.) Everyone at the table holds an end of one with one hand and an end of another with the other hand, so that a chain is formed around the table. Then everybody pulls and they make a terrific popping sound as they come apart. The contents of the tube - which consist of the paper crown, a really bad joke on a small piece of paper, and some small plastic item like a whistle or a tiny yo-yo - then go flying everywhere.

It is mandatory to wear the paper crowns throughout dinner and to tell the lousy jokes. The weirdest joke this year was "What do you get when you cross a cow, a sheep, and a goat? A milky baa kid." If anyone at all gets this, please explain it to my unenlightened family. Poor Justin was quite disturbed and spent most of dinner trying to figure it out.

For dessert we had my famous eggnog cheesecake.

The Bourbon Fruitcake I made is behind the candle, but you don't want to see it, I promise. The whole top of it stuck in the pan, so it's, well, messy-looking.

I had been making a very conscious effort to "go with the flow" this Christmas, and not be attached to things happening a certain way, but the one thing I really was determined to do was walk to Midnight Mass at the San Francisco church. However, by 11:15, having just finished dessert a half hour before, and Eliana still up and cranky, the exhaustion set in and I began the process of talking myself out of it. I put Eliana to bed and was reading her stories when I heard the church bells begin to ring. I squelched the yearning that arose and went back to reading about the Christmas mice who get a present of cheese from the cat. Just then, Justin came into Eliana's room and said he'd take over so I could go. I hedged, but he looked me tenderly in the eye and said, "The bells are calling you."

This was my second time attending Midnight Mass here, but my first since I moved into the neighborhood. There was something liberating and exciting about walking over there by myself late at night. I used to attend Midnight Mass at a cathedral in Baton Rouge, and this one is so different. The cathedral mass was decidedly "high church" with the Gregorian-type music and much solemnity. In this mass all the songs were in Spanish and accompanied by a single acoustic guitar and a mediocre lead singer. The combination of this with the traditional Catholic incense and liturgy gives it a strange combination of high church and low. And then the priest is Scottish. I can't begin to explain the incongruity of the Spanish music and the Scottish brogue, but it works, and is lovely, and somehow holy spaces are created in the disparities.

After the mass, we all walked out through the courtyard, which was lined with luminarias. The statue of St. Clare was circled by them. In the parking lot was a series of small bonfires, and people were standing around them wishing each other a Merry Christmas. I walked home at peace with the world, my heart full of love, pondering the pettiness that often holds that love back. Earlier in the evening, when I was preparing to serve dessert, I had a moment of self-pity because everyone had disappeared and left me to do the dishes, and now here I was serving an elaborate dessert, and no one seemed to even care enough to be there. Unfortunately, I dumped this negativity onto Justin (who was the only one who WAS there), effectively pushing him away for the rest of the evening. As I thought of this, I resolved to be more magnanimous and selfless with those I love.

The house was quiet and dark. When I entered my bedroom, I was greeted by an overpowering scent of essential oils and the sight of Justin and Eliana sprawled out asleep on the bed. Apparently, they had somehow migrated from her room and he had fallen asleep before her, because she had gotten into my essential oils and poured out the entire bottle of cypress and most of the ylang-ylang. She also had found and torn open the little gift I had carefully and beautifully wrapped for Justin earlier and had planned on giving him after Mass.

I felt devastated and angry with Justin for allowing her to do this. All that waste of time and energy and money and scent. But I firmly turned my heart back to what I'd been feeling before I walked into the room, and heroically refrained from losing it. However, in the middle of the night, Eliana woke up and was fussy, and in my sleepy haze, I was grumpy and said something mean to Justin. The next morning, I knew he was hurt and I regretted my harsh words. We avoided talking about it though, putting our personal mess aside to engage in the glorious mess of opening presents.

Later, however, I was sad and discouraged that it's so hard to be kind and loving, and that often when it feels like Justin and I are getting closer, I succumb to a negative emotion and express it in a way that drives him away. Sometimes I feel like a failure, and it's so frustrating to fall into the same stupid mindless destructive habits when I've resolved to change them. At times like that, it just feels overwhelming, and it's hard for me to get back to the perspective that it's a work in progress, a practice, and there will be failures but that's ok. Consequently, I spent most of Christmas afternoon in tears, feeling like I'd "ruined" everything (a lifelong issue for me). Why do I waste so much time making mistakes?

But somehow this emotional spilling was also cleansing. That night, Justin made an awesome stew with the prime rib leftovers and we had a cozy and satisfying evening, lazing about in the messy living room watching the movie, Elf.

So my lesson this Christmas, my big epiphany, is as follows. There are basically three things you can do with the ongoing wastefulness and messiness of life:
  1. Spend most of your time and energy focused on cleaning up messes and regretting making them.
  2. Ignore them.
  3. Transform them into something beautiful by perceiving and attending to the beauty that's already in them.
The first one is the default state for me. Or, more accurately, it's the default state I tend to think I "should" be in. In reality, the second one is equally my default state; I tend to go back and forth between the two. Which is why my house is usually either completely messy or spotless.

I've been reading Karen Armstrong's memoir, The Spiral Staircase, which I won't summarize here, but there is a scene in that book that is relevant to this discussion. After having lived a life of rigid order and discipline, Armstrong goes to board at the house of a family who are very loose and somewhat radically liberal in their lifestyle. She describes the house as being a complete mess, utterly disordered, but she finds this liberating. She says the state of this house reflected "a cheerful disregard for appearances."

In church this past Sunday, the pastor said something about how God doesn't care about how we look on the outside, and I thought of Armstrong's expression. Could it be that God, too, has a cheerful disregard for appearances? The scripture related to the pastor's comment was from Colossians 3, when Paul advises in verse 12 to "clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." The point is that these are the qualities that give order and peace to our lives, not outward appearances.

When I apply all this to the messiness of relationships, it helps me to remind myself that although there will be mess and waste, these are just "appearances" as long as the qualities listed above are the ongoing focus and goal. Is wrapping paper "wasted" because it's tossed aside to reveal the gift? Was it a waste of time to make all those gingerbread cookies because they were gone in an hour? To take all those "useless" family photos? Was Christmas afternoon wasted because I spent it crying? The answer is No to all of these, if I cheerfully disregard the appearances of waste and focus instead on the spiritual qualities that were shared or expressed or taught.

The third method of dealing with messes and waste came clear to me a couple of days after Christmas, when we went out to visit Justin's mom and her boyfriend at the Earthship they booked for their stay in Taos. (If you're unfamiliar with Earthships, click here.) The basic premise of an Earthship is that they are houses made from as many recycled materials as possible and designed to be extremely energy efficient and sustainable, entirely off the grid.

Linda and Bob stayed in the Phoenix Earthship which has a jungle behind the living room, where banana trees, flowers, and even vegetables are grown.

The walls are constructed with tires, and old glass bottles are used to decorate and filter light through walls.

I'd heard a lot about Earthships, since I live in Taos and the first Earthship community was here, but I'd never been inside one, and was stunned by the beauty and attention to detail.

I tell you, it was just like being in Rivendell. Imagine being in a house where everything feels handmade by a master artisan. That's a TV screen above the fireplace/waterfall.

There was even a strange spiral staircase, and I could see my reflection on its walls.

To take what appears to be waste and turn it into something like this Earthship is downright inspiring. It gives me hope that what is wasted can be redeemed and messes can be transformed into beauty and order. And when it comes to relationships, this experience has given me a new guiding metaphor. Instead of regretting or ignoring their messiness, I can work on turning them into Earthships.


  1. I type some words and then delete them...again and again. I will just have to admit I don't have the words. Your writing takes me some place beyond. The honesty, the humility, the insight, the heart...I just love it! Don't be surprised if you see some of your words appear on my blog (with credit and link). They inspire me. (Well, unless of course you object.)
    Thank you! Happy New Year!

  2. HEY!!! You're back!

    Gosh, now we know why you were so busy. That sounds like a roller coaster of a Christmas. You have a beautiful family, I must say. Your son's understanding is something I particularly admire ("The bells are calling you").

    Don't beat yourself up. Everybody has their disagreements, particularly families. People make messes. People make mistakes over and over again. But each time we try something and fail, we get a little stronger, I hear. I have the exact same response to messes that you do. I blame myself for making them and worry myself into ulceration. I don't spend nearly enough time finding the silver lining, resolving to do better, and moving on. (Hey...I think I'm doing it now!) But I'm getting better, hee hee hee.

    If it's one thing life (not Disney movies) teaches us, it's that appearances are merely that. It's how we think and what we do as a result that defines us. All we can do is think (and do) right as best we can. Sometimes we're bound to fail. It's the most human thing we can do to keep trying, however. That's what I think, anyway.

    Another beautiful, speculative post. Look at all that lofty philosophizing you've got me doing. I never do that outside of novels.

    That Earthship is really something else. Thanks for uploading those pics. I hope your holidays proceed splendiferously (and you continue to document them here, and the lessons you've learned). It's a tremendous service and a joy to read. You're a good person at heart and I think you know it...and we sure appreciate it.

  3. Oh yeah, and I'll get straight to work on figuring out that "milky baa kid" thing. It's bugging the crap out of me, now. I actually paused in reading this post and spent five minutes trying out different pronunciations aloud (thankfully in private). Hmmm...

    I also wanted to say that I REALLY want to attend a midnight Mass, especially after reading this. I imagine it must be something wonderful.

  4. Oh for goodness sake people, you must know The Milky Bar Kid. The famous advertisement for Nestle's Milky Bar? Were you all deprived of this advertising classic in the States? Here you go: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZM8h7Yc3zfc

    As for the rest of the post, I don't know where to start. What a glorious kaleidoscope of cooking, emotion, incense, earthships and epiphanies. I read the Spiral Staircase about four years ago and it started me reading more of Armstrong's books and admiring her so much.

  5. It is the experience of it ALL that matters most, but it is hard at least for me to sometimes "get that".

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the paper crowns. Did your Dad introduce this custom to your family?

    I adore your pictures.

    That cheesecake was GORGEOUS. I love the rosemary.

    You've hit on something with the analogy of recycling old to make new and how the old "junk" turned into something so radically different and beautiful. It takes a new mentality and different perspective to see the old as a resource rather than trash. My personal journey in 2009 and then capping it off with the holiday season has been exactly this.

    My love and endearing thankfulness to you for your life, your blog, your journey and CHEERS to us for a NEW YEAR in this experience...all of us together. 2010...here we come!

  6. PS: Can you share the cheesecake recipe??

  7. I agree...I think I would love to try this with my sister.

  8. i sent out more than a few "wishing you a messy christmas" texts, because 'messy' is what the auto speller picks first :)

    for me and messes, "attending to the beauty that's already in them" seems like the key. but not necessarily to, as you say, transform them.

    my thoughts lately have been running to fate, and the old english adage 'gæð a wyrd swa hio scel.' fate goes as she will. in exploring this higher power business, i'm definitely starting to a feel a connection with this feminine and fickle and untidy aspect of the divine. i have my choices, and she has her design. it doesn't always look like i think it should, but because i have faith in a higher order i can't always see, i submit to her. (sometimes grudgingly. or full of sorrow.) i submit to her, and to the state i'm in, because most likely this mess is transforming ME in a way i could never have planned.

    i love you! thank you for your honesty and your beauty. i ADORE you. you are so so lovely.

  9. Wow! Thank you guys all for showing up with such wonderful comments.

    Out of all my posts, this is the one I felt most uneasy about because - fittingly, I suppose - it strikes me as so messy and rough-edged. And long. I just can't seem to get away from that.

  10. Jenny - You're welcome to use whatever you like. I'm so glad we found each other, because your posts have a similar effect on me. Sometimes I'm just speechless.

  11. Postman - That was actually not my son but my beloved, Justin, that said that about the bells. He's the blond in that dinner photo.

    Your comments warm my heart. And I must admit it's rewarding to know that I can get you "philosophizing," although I think you lean more towards that than you admit :) You certainly have some wisdom of your own there.

  12. Tess - Thank you thank you for clearing up that joke! I figured it must some British thing, and I was right!

    The Spiral Staircase has had a profound effect on me. It definitely makes me want not only to read more of her books, but more in general about the three monotheisms.

  13. Oh - and about the cheesecake - I actually photographed the recipe this year in case I ever lose the hard copy, so I'll post it to my blog sometime soon. It's really really really good.

  14. Jennifer - It was both my parents that introduced the Christmas crackers; it's a common custom in Canada as well as England. The family dinner photo that I posted in my previous post actually has a companion photo that I couldn't find in which we're all wearing the crowns.

    Cheers and Happy New Year to you too!

  15. rabbit - Leave it to you to bring some Old English into this!

    I love and adore you too, and it was a lovely surprise to see you here again. I miss you so so much.

  16. Oh! My mistake. I read too fast. First I read about your kids, then about Justin, and I put the wrong two and two together. My mistake. Well, regardless of his relationship to you, he is an understanding guy. I could learn a thing or two from him...

  17. Perhaps that behooves me to ask for clarification, like a good journalist should've done in the first place:

    JUSTIN: Your beloved. The blond, longish-haired fellow the fourth photograph. Correct?
    ELIANA: Your youngest? The small one, front and center in the first photograph?
    JUNE AMBER: One of your other daughters, but I'm afraid that I'm not sure who (brunette or pink?). And as for your other two children, their names have escaped me. Criminal, I know. But I should like to find out so I (a) can put names to faces and (b) most importantly, don't mess up again.

    P.S. Speaking of information gathering, I would be indebted to you forever if you shared with me your recipes for bourbon fruitcake and eggnog cheesecake. Both sound scrumptious. Even if one is collapsible (no worries, happens all the time, my pot pies never fail to collapse in the middle).

  18. Yes, your "cast of characters" is correct. Thanks for asking for clarification. I should have been more clear to begin with.

    June Amber is the brunette and, at eighteen, the oldest.

    Emma (or as she likes to spell it, "Emmuh," is the sixteen-year-old pink-haired lip-pierced child.

    And Graeme is my twelve-year-old son.

    The recipes are forthcoming on my blog.

  19. I am not done reading this post but wanted to stop and say six things:

    (1) I missed you SO much!

    (2) I ADORE these photos!

    (3) You have the sweetest, sweetest family!

    (4) I am now very much ashamed of that crap I made and called gingerbread cookies.

    (5) When I grow up, I want to be more like you.

    (6) I'm so glad you had such a wonderful, awesome Christmas!

    I'm coming back. Don't move.

  20. What a beautiful family! And I for one LOVE those gingerbread cookies and think they look great.

    Popping over from Postman's blog. Glad I did.

  21. EC - You're so sweet. I missed you too.

    Do not be ashamed of your gingerbread cookies. It's all relative. Compared to the ones in the book where I got my recipe, ours were crap.

    When I grow up, I want to be more like YOU!

    Jenny Mac - Thanks for visiting! If I hadn't taken a picture of those cookies, I'd never have even remembered how they look, they got eaten so fast!



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