Christmas Past/Present/Future

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Missouri Botanical Garden Glow, December 2013

Missouri Botanical Garden Glow, December 2013

The ghosts of Christmas Past are haunting me this year. I am happily surrounded by memories so vivid and so real that it hardly seems possible they could be returning from decades ago. Such is the wonder of the human mind! What Proustian cookie crumb nudged my sensate faculties to revive with such accuracy these visitors from my past?

I’m visited by the night we walked through our Miami neighborhood, dressed in shorts, admiring the lights displayed on houses and trees flanked by privacy fences created by 6-foot tall, live poinsettia plants. The year the company car broke down while we were visiting relatives out in West Hampton on Long Island, stranding us there until the New Year. The snowstorm we drove through on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while traveling home for a family Christmas. The snow was so heavy on the highway that vehicles were moving slowly enough for car-weary travelers to get out and walk along beside. There was the Christmas when the flu gave me a dangerously close brush with my own mortality. The first Christmas without one of my children at home. The Christmas I spent visiting a friend in jail. A spectacular Christmas with my daughter in France, when we first heard the Toccata from Widor’s 5th Organ Symphony performed after the Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon. The last Christmas I shared with someone I loved before he was soon after murdered. The lavish, childhood Christmas when my mother made dozens of stuffed animals to surprise and delight her four children. The Christmas my toddler joined forces with her cousin and painted my sister-in-law’s white boots with red lipstick. The first Christmas my grandmother baked a birthday cake for Jesus, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Him. Each of my children’s first Christmases. I remember Christmases at each of the jobs I have worked at over the years – how we celebrated with co-workers. There were so many magical moments. And then all those happy Christmases that I took my kids to see “The Nutcracker,” all those years of hearing “Messiah” performed under different conductors, different soloists, and especially the year a symphony conductor and I wrote each other wonderful letters in response to one of those performances. The cantatas and school performances I sang in and the ones I heard my children perform in. The annual ritual of hearing my dad’s voice give pure delight to the reading of the Nativity story from the Gospel of Saint Luke. And, how eagerly four children waited until all the prayers had been said, all of the preliminary remarks made, before we could finally satisfy our overwhelming curiosity about the enticingly wrapped packages beneath the Christmas tree.

And, oh, the trees! Going on the yearly hunt for a tree – first, in the forests of Northwest Arkansas, then in the tree lots of St. Louis, year after year, hunting for the best tree/the best deal. The ornaments, the bells, the balls, stabbing my finger with the large needle while threading popcorn strings. The glue and the glitter, the tinsel, the angel hair, big lights, tiny lights, colored lights, clear lights, steady, blinking, broken, burned-out, tangled, getting them all up on the tree. One grandmother’s ceramic Christmas tree, the other grandmother’s white, music box angel. All of my Christmas music boxes playing at once.  The candles,the colors the carolers, the hugs, the smiles, the smells, the Christmas cookies and baking, baking, baking until just recently when gluten and sugar have become four-letter words.

I greet these happy spectres with open arms! They are my children this year, they are me, and I love them with all the strength of my heart, so much so that I have brought them to life and they dance before my eyes as real as today is real. I open each memory like the Christmas present it is: hidden in its own shiny paper and brightly-colored ribbon until I unwrap it and turn it over in my mind and relive every precious moment of it. Because each moment is precious, is only here for the blink of an eye, and that is why I love these Christmas memories the way I do. They put me in the moment, once again, and help me to remember not to miss even what might seem to be the most insignificant moments as they speed by into the past. Grab them, love them, know them well – so that they may be recalled and relived and loved and enjoyed over and over again.

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The Wish Tree

On Saturday, June 29, 2013, it was my joy to be present for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and grand opening of the new wing of the Saint Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. A monument to creativity, industry, beauty, and, yes, art – the picture-perfect day was as beautiful as could befit such an auspicious occasion. We made our way from the Grand Basin up Art Hill–covered in a thick carpet of emerald green grass, in the brilliant sunshine of an early summer day.  I stood in rapt enjoyment along with hundreds of others while the Governor of Missouri, the Mayor of St. Louis, and others filed out in front of the new building.  We heard the National Anthem sung, and listened to the words of congratulation and thanks expressed by the dignitaries on the dais.  Then, in the company of my son and granddaughter, I leisurely explored the exhibition halls of the new wing, equally impressed with the space and the works of art contained within them.

Happily, we made our way that day from one pleasurable moment to the next.  One of the most memorable for me was the opportunity to participate in Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project: an outdoor patio installation of three live trees upon which to hang hand-written wishes. Begun in 1996, according to the official web site, to date, over a million wishes have been collected worldwide, and are all being housed at the site of the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The dreamer in me wasted no time in fulfilling my wish to join the ranks of lovers of peace in this shared activity. Later, when a heavy rainstorm broke through the clouds, I wondered if all of our wishes, left fluttering on the limbs and branches of those trees, were going to be lost in the storm. To my delight, the next day when I visited the exhibit again, I found everything just as I had seen it the day before – except there were even more wishes hung upon the trees.

The Wish Tree

The walls were made of air and wind, and clouds
The ceiling formed, like shreds of muslin shroudsWish Tree
That fluttered overhead and pulled and strained
Until they knit together grey and rained
Like hot teardrops baptizing every note
Making holy the wish each person wrote
With carefully chosen words, when satisfied,
Onto the trees were hung with string and tied.
Then, fluttering in the breeze and moistened by the rain,
I saw my note and wished it once again:

For every heart – love
For every soul – beauty
For every mind – truth
For every person – equality
For every dreamer – peace
For every captive – freedom
For every society – insight
For every child – a home
For every poet – a hearer
For every artist – a beholder

For every judgment – mercy
For every aspiration – fulfillment
For every difference – tolerance
For every loss – compassion
For every pain – healing
For every sorrow – relief
For every conflict – resolution
For every neglect – a commitment
For every joy – a smile
For every tear – a hug.

‘Tis The Season

     It is the Saturday after Thanksgiving and we are well into the Christmas Season.  It started especially early this year because even though there are exceptions, the full-blown commercial Christmas Season typically doesn’t start until Thanksgiving.  And, since the first day of November was on a Thursday, Thanksgiving fell on the 22nd of November, a full week earlier than it will occur next year.  Last year (2011), Thanksgiving came on the 24th of November, and the year before, it was on the 25th.  So, even though it is only by a few days, I know I’m not crazy thinking that it started earlier than usual.

It goes without saying that Christmas seems to start earlier every year, regardless of the date it occupies on the calendar.  And, as with “celebrity death watch” and other cultural waiting games, we begin around Labor Day watching for the first Christmas ad or commercial, the first appearance of Christmas merchandising at the drugstore, the first sound of Christmas music on the airwaves.  I saw Christmas paraphernalia in stores prior to Halloween this year; heard 24-hour Christmas music on the radio the day before Thanksgiving; and, don’t watch enough television to qualify as a reputable monitor for early signs of Christmas advertising in that venue.

Ostensibly, the economy, and by extension everyone who hopes to benefit from a stronger one, depends upon the commercial success of Christmas.  So, although I gave up Christmas shopping years ago, I do not begrudge a positive collective bottom line, if in fact that is going to make a difference in people’s lives.  Can’t say that I am completely convinced of this.  But, I am convinced that people need Christmas in their lives.  Desperately, deeply, people need the comfort and assurance that their ideal of Christmas inspires.  People need to exchange the vitriol of a harsh election year for warm handshakes, sincere hugs, and hearty Christmas greetings that transcend political and religious differences and convey only peace on earth and good will toward everyone.  People need to look at the person in traffic and see a smiling face rather than one wearing road rage.  People need to see lights and colors and shiny things and evidence of plenty and abundance even if it is for just a few weeks out of the year.  And, people need to share with each other – favorite holiday memories, plates of decorated cookies, brightly wrapped gifts – and to give and receive exclamations of thank-you.

This afternoon as I strolled with a friend across the grassy western bank of the Missouri River at historic St. Charles, Missouri, we talked about the annual Christmas traditions that were taking place up and down the cobblestone Main Street ahead of us.  There, as every year, costumed Father Christmases held forth with eager crowds gathered around to learn about the era represented by each; a fife and drum corps marched in precision step, playing carols; horse drawn carriages gaily festooned in holiday gear ferried happy travelers; quartets of Victorian dressed carolers stood singing on street corners to the delight of hundreds of shoppers; and, numerous other traditional and literary characters associated with Christmases from many countries and many periods in history performed street theatre in full character, spreading their infectious joy. The streets were crowded with groups and individuals taking part in this annual shopping experience. Yes, as we both agreed, for better or for worse, Christmas is more and more commercialized.  But, I can honestly say in all that huge crowd of people that I did not see one angry face, I did not hear one harsh word.  It reminded me of the lyrics to Jerry Herman’s “We Need A Little Christmas” from his Broadway musical “Mame”:

Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now.
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute,
Candles in the window,
Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute.
It hasn’t snowed a single flurry,
But Santa, dear, we’re in a hurry;
So climb down the chimney;
Put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen.
Slice up the fruitcake;
It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough.
For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older . . .

Maybe something in the American soul has been so bruised and beaten down that it needs to be revived with the annual total immersion into all the joy and hope we can cram into the days leading up to Christmas.  Maybe that is why we allow the Christmas season to start earlier every year.  Maybe we need it for more than just a Black Friday kick-started positive bottom line.  Maybe there’s another way to live in that same joy and hope that does not depend upon the illusion of prosperity created by the frenzy of holiday shopping.  Maybe we can find a way to truly make the pursuit of peace and good will toward everyone last all year and let Christmas really return – not a day earlier or later – to its place on the calendar.

It’s Raining Again

Out in the middle of the Mississippi River at St. Louis, on one of the supports of the historic Eads Bridge, there is a marker that simply indicates zero (0). This is the arbitrarily designated water level that serves as the benchmark for water stages on the St. Louis riverfront. Flood stage is 30 feet and The Great Flood of ’93 (1993) marked the highest water level since 1927, nearly 50 feet over flood stage.

Almost directly across from that pier supporting the Eads Bridge, rising from the old cobblestone levee below the national park that is home to the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the Lewis and Clark statue serves as my own, personal marker for water levels at St. Louis. “The Captains Return” by sculptor Harry Weber was dedicated in 2006, and since that time, it seems to me that at least part of that statue has always been under water. One of the captains stands with his hat in his hand, arm fully extended over his head. And, when the water is at 32 feet, the hat is not visible. At this stage it is not even possible to drive on the street that runs along the top of the levee above the statue, but from other vantage points, one can still see and marvel at the surging water that is the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River has always held great fascination for me – no doubt set firmly in my imagination from an early age by the appearance of this legendary body of water in so much of American history and fiction. She attracts me to her in my thoughts and I often reflect on the twists of fate that have resulted in the good fortune of me living in such close proximity to her. But, my pilgrimages to take in her beauty are usually precipitated by the surges brought about by the annual flooding, when melting snows and spring rains from the north flow southward and swell her banks on their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  The River is an attraction all her own.  But with the Arch and the statue and the bridges and casinos and other amusements and businesses and historic sites that accompany her as she makes her way past St. Louis, this major body of water can be easily overshadowed by all that is there simply because she is.  She is great, and so is everything built around her, so that everything seems to be competing for attention.  Only when she swells and subsides, when she is changing, threatening, does she command our full respect.  Then, we have to admit that what we have here is not a tourist attraction but a force of nature, our close brush with an element of life on our planet that we can neither live without nor control.

This summer, I have watched her at her lowest ebb. The great drought that parched corn and soybean fields all over the Midwest, that fueled fires, dried up gardens, and brought barge traffic on the water to a halt has kept the Mississippi River at record lows, down to -2 feet. Accustomed as I am to seeing the River so much higher, it was quite a new experience to make regular visits this summer to the levee to experience the water at these historic low stages and to find her no less mighty, no less enchanting for her diminished flow. Walking the 30 or so feet from the base of the Lewis and Clark statue to the foot of the cobblestone paved banks at the water’s edge, standing there and seeing the silt of the riverbed that I do not recall ever seeing at this point, I had to fight away the nightmarish daydream of a sudden surge that would restore the River to what I would consider a normal stage and sweep me along in one swift, dreadful undercurrent.

But, nothing like that happened. Even at 20 or 25 feet, it is easy to snap a photo of the Lewis & Clark statue and fully comprehend that water stage. But, this summer I discovered that it is virtually impossible to capture in a single frame a picture of this low-water event that so easily illustrates the water level. It is not nearly as dramatic in a photograph to see a statue on a levee with a river running alongside as it is to see only parts of a statue visible above a swelled river.

The drought has been long and the water level low, but, thanks to another force of nature – Hurricane Isaac – it’s raining again; and, as it is with the cycle of natural things, before long the River will again rise up to the feet of the captains and eventually overtop the hat held permanently in place over their heads. And, as important as it is to me now, after awhile, I will not be among the enchanted souls making the pilgrimage to her shores, but others will come, and others will go. She will ebb and flow. Droughts will come and then it will be raining again.

Greetings!!

“Ordinary Time Volume 1” has had 3 publishings in less than one year!  Thank you to everyone who has loved the book, shared the book, and encouraged me to continue sharing my personal enjoyments.  In June, Aramark will be stocking some of my blank notecards, featuring my photographs in the line of greeting cards I like to call Pixcells.  For years, these cards have generated considerable funds for area non-profits, and I’m happy to bring them to a wider audience.  Like “Ordinary Time,” all of the photographs are local and unedited, taken with natural light.  If you are interested in ordering cards or copies of “Ordinary Time,” just send me a message.  I think you might like to send your greetings on a Pixcell card.

The hostas (above) is one of a framed trio that netted $150 at the recent Trovare di Spada (http://trovaredispada.com/) Fence-a-Thon for breast cancer services at the SLU Cancer Center.  It was great to be a part of such a fantastic, one-of-a-kind event!!

Many new images are making their way to the pages of “Ordinary Time Volume 2,” which will be rolling off of the NJC (http://www.njcprint.com/) presses this fall.  In the meantime, some will be premiered as Pixcell greeting cards.

More later . . .

A good eye

Boulder Skies

When people look at the photographs I took for my book, “Ordinary Time,” there are a lot of reactions, but usually everyone says, “you have a good eye.”  This gives me a little chuckle.  It always makes me think back over my years of picture-taking.  I received my first good camera for Christmas from a friend back in 1982.  When we moved to Miami, I spent hours and hours learning the subtle and often complicated techniques of 35 mm photography with that camera.  I enjoyed color, black and white; landscapes, seascapes, skyscapes, and portraits; everything about taking pictures (except getting sand in my camera!).  The fun lasted until my first pair of reading glasses.  After that, I simply could not, try as hard as I could, figure out how to see what I was taking a picture of, and focusing was simply out of the question.  I put my cameras away and just gave up, thinking I’d probably never take another picture again.  Thank goodness and technology,  in the last few years, digital cameras made their way into my life and my entire world changed.  If you’re over 50, you know what I mean.

When I was a young child, I remember when a friend of our family, a professional photographer, gave my dad a camera.  After that, there was no Sunday morning, no birthday, no graduation, no special event or holiday that did not provide my dad an opportunity to get out the Yashika and tripod, and set to work making portraits of everyone.   Early on, I remember how excruciating it was for me, sitting there with my hair pulled tight into pigtails on either side of my head, suffering from what I would only find out decades later were migraine headaches, trying to smile while my dad focused for what seemed like hours at a time.  More than once, someone in the family was reduced to tears waiting for that shutter to click.  If I’d only known then the passion for getting that perfect picture that drove my dad.  Photographs were not inexpensive to take back when you had to pay for film and developing.  My rule of thumb in Miami was if I could achieve one good shot per roll, I felt it was worth it.  Now, I can take literally hundreds of pictures and it costs me nothing at all to shoot them, look at them, and decide whether to keep or delete them.  I can share them at no cost via electronic delivery systems.  The whole activity has changed.

If my dad were alive today, he would be amazed to see what I can do with my cell phone camera!  I’m certainly amazed.  And, I have no doubt that while he might be hesitant to use a laptop or a cell phone or any other “modern” communication devices — once he saw what kind of pictures he could take with a cell phone, I’d bet he would own one, even if he never used it for a phone call.

How to buy a book or a box of cards

Break forth, O beauteous heav'nly light, and usher in the morning. - Johann Rist

If you’d like to purchase a book or a box of cards, simply send me a comment or e-mail with your snail mail address and what you’re interested in.

I took almost all the photographs in my neighborhood. My desire with this portrait album is to hold up a mirror and reflect into your eyes the way I look at the world, so the pictures have been printed without any enhancements of any kind.  The world is so beautiful!  I had a wonderful time adding the wisdom comments.  Interesting note:  The order in which the photos and quotes appear are completely random.  You will never believe this when you see how perfectly they fit!

In many ways, I think I can understand something of what Saint John went through in exile.  He wrote those beautiful letters, dictating to his trusty deacon the revelations of his mystical experiences.  And when it came to imparting the bottom-line most important wisdom, basically, all he could say was, “Love.”   All you need is love. So, it seems sometimes that even though I am constantly having ah-ha moments of great insight, there really is nothing new under the sun.  My profound revelations are the same ones that have delighted human beings for centuries.  I love it!  We are all connected in so many ways.  Neither time nor space can separate us.  What ever gave anyone the idea that anything else could?  How liberating is that?!