A Merry Little Christmas

bowI feel so remiss, not getting here sooner to wish you all a merry Whatever Holiday You Celebrate. I hope your days have been merry and bright. Ours have been lovely, filled with friends and family and hoop-de-doo. The Pea’s been over here a lot. We shared in the celebration of her third birthday–a week later,  Christmas. I think she believes that the entire month of December has been staked out specifically for her. She got spoiled rotten, and we had more fun watching her open her gifts than we did our own. Her Mom’s away at boot camp, and everyone’s doing their best to fill the gap. We need to build a new toy wing. We need a new closet. She needs a frickin’ shoe rack.

Santa was wonderful to me and mine, and we feel incredibly fortunate this year. I don’t want to make you jealous or anything, but my husband is the most romantic man in the universe. A few days before Christmas, he went shopping and returned a short time later. He was a man on a mission, and he’d returned from his mission quickly. He wrapped his purchase and placed it beneath the tree. I was intrigued. It was a small box, wrapped in red paper, the size of oh–say. a jewelry box. “What’s in that box?” I asked him, but he just grinned. I picked it up and shook it.  It was heavier than jewelry, but I wouldn’t have put it past him to weight the thing, just to throw me off his trail.

I’m horrible at Christmastime. I worry that I’ve decorated inadequately. I have mall-o-phobia. I become anxiety-ridden that I haven’t bought the Right Thing for the Right Person, and I fret about our budget. I always feel like a complete failure. Worst of all, I am nosy as hell when it comes to my own gifts. If I was a cat, and if what they say about cats and curiosity is true, I’d be writing this from the Spirit World. I rattle packages and feel their weight and try to obtain hints in subtle ways, like asking four-hundred times, “So, whadja get me?” Amadeus stays as tight-lipped as a Mafia don in an interrogation room. This year, he ended up waiting until the last minute to wrap my other gifts, probably because he didn’t want to live with a seven-year-old wife any longer than he had to.

While I suck at the Christmas thing, Amadeus is fabulous. He chooses the most perfect presents–straight-from-the-heart items that mean the world to me. He could wrap a jar of olives and there would be some amazingly deep, sentimental meaning behind it. They would be exactly the right size, shape and color. Those olives would make me cry. So, I knew that whatever was in that box was amazing, with a capital “zing.”

I’m as serious as angina when I tell you that there’s not much I want or need. I’d asked for house slippers, a make-up mirror and plastic surgery, because I’m old and blind and those are things that old and blind people need. But that little red box couldn’t have possibly held those things, and I was dying. What was in there? Something special, something unique, something I’d love.

“Would you like some more coffee?” I’d ask my beloved, “And what’s inside that box?”

“Yes, and I’m not telling,” he’d answer.

“Didn’t you love the movie we watched last night? And what’s inside that box?”

(Silence…)

When The Big Day arrived, we opened our gifts. I got everything I requested (except for the plastic surgery) and then some. Like some sadistic guard at Gitmo, Amadeus made me save the little red box for last. I patiently waited for him to open his presents, and we hugged and kissed and thanked each other. Christmas with him is nice and warm and smushy. Between you and me, he’s my greatest gift ever, and he could have gotten by with just sitting near me, playing guitar and talking. It would have saved him a bunch of money. But let’s not tell him this.

The lights of our tiny tree twinkled, the Grandpea’s stocking was hung by the chimney with care, Theo the Wonderdog® looked swell in the little Santa hat that Amadeus had gotten him. It was all perfect and great, but there was still one lonely little gift sitting there, and it desperately needed me to open it. Finally, Amadeus gave me the green light. I ripped the bow and the red paper off the box and gazed upon its contents. There inside was the most beautiful, lovingly chosen, dreamy gift of all time; small, round and beautiful, its smooth, silver surface twinkled up at me like a million stars from the heavens above.

It was a new Daiwa Silvercast 120 closed-face, spincast fishing reel, lovingly threaded with supple 8-pound green-tinted test line, as romantic a present as any I can imagine. Oh my gosh, I love my husband. Once again, he managed to find the perfect gift. I can’t wait for spring, so that I can sit beside him on a riverbank under a sunny blue sky and cast my hook. Watch out, fishies, here I come!

Take a Hike

When the pressures of life start smooshing your head like a vise, when outside forces conspire to turn your stomach into an ulcer factory, hold your head high, take a deep breath and run like hell. That’s what Amadeus and I do, and I swear, it works like a Harry Potter spell.

Where you run is important– obviously, a crack house is not a good destination for stress-relief. Bars are smoky and can be quite expensive. Retail therapy is good if you have money, but if bills are a cause of your distress, it’s not a realistic solution. This is true of Caribbean cruises as well. And hookers.

Our cure for the blues, and our escape from the daily grind is hiking. We literally head for the hills. We throw on our jeans, pack a few sammiches, grab some bottled water and take off.

When the weather’s warm, we fish and camp out. When a chill hits the air, when the leaves turn to fire and start pirouetting  from trees, we hit the trails.

I love doing this. I love the fact that my husband grew up here and knows these hills and valleys like he knows his phone number. We discover new places, and revisit ones that he’s seen and wants to share with me. Seeing the world with him– even these small patches of the world– is one of my greatest pleasures.

Yesterday, we traveled about two hours away, to a fantastic trail head along the Buffalo River, deep in the Ozark Mountains. We took our cameras and clicked over 500 shots between us. What’s funny to me is that, when we get home and unload our SD cards, we discover that a lot of the same things have caught our eye– we often take the same shots at identical angles, at different times. A million things to see on the trail, but the same stuff grabs us. We’re spooky that way.

I wish I’d done this with my children. I wish I could have instilled in them a love of the Great Outdoors, but I never did. I was too busy trying to keep us afloat at the time, and a big backyard or football practice field was as close as we got to nature. I take comfort in the fact that I was raised a big city girl. When I first arrived in the Ozarks, twenty-something years ago, I had to inquire as to whether sheep bit. I couldn’t identify a robin and I thought eggs grew in styrofoam boxes. I was a new bride, and my new groom moved us to a God-forsaken trailer in a God-forsaken pasture, where goats frolicked on the hood of my Volvo, chickens laid eggs in our living room and snakes occasionally greeted me on the porch. For some reason, the marriage didn’t last, and those years didn’t attune me to nature. That came later, when my son and daughter grew up and I had time to consider the things that made me happy. I fell in love with bicycling and bike trails, which led to walking trails which led to hiking and camping and fishing and tree-kissing.  When I met Amadeus, I found someone who loved being outdoors as much as I do, and it’s an integral part of our lives. Maybe there’s hope for my kids yet. Maybe one day, they’ll find solace in nature. I know that at their ages, I’d rather have listened to the Sex Pistols and chugged tequila. As my daughter points out, at this stage of the game, packing a bunch of crap into a car, wrestling with fish and sleeping on the hard ground is not her idea of relaxation.

The beauty of the woods is overwhelming. The shapes and textures of the trees tell us stories. There are boulders as big as A-frames and plants so stubborn they could grow through steel. Every leaf is a masterpiece. Animals are standing around, peeking at us through the brush, though we seldom see them.* Water bubbles up from deep inside the Earth and trickles over silk smooth rocks.  Emerald green moss clings, fungi sprout like lace. Below is the river, as ancient as the world, winding like ribbon around bends and turns. I stop often as we walk the path, breathing the pure air, listening to the sounds of the rushing water and the wind pushing through the leaves. I’m in the moment. I can’t think about anything but the woods. At the same time, my ADD does double time, because everywhere I turn, there are a million treasures– it’s impossible to take it all in.

It’s the most glorious art form. We joke about taking so many photos, but really, I understand why we do it. We’re attempting to capture the thing that’s making our hearts sing. We’re trying to preserve it and take it home with us. Though it’s impossible to recreate through a lens, we try. We sit in our living room and transfer the mementos of the day to our computers. We’re tired and happy, our legs ache in a nice way. As we study each shot, we talk about what we were thinking when we took it– why a particular tree spoke to us, what a cutie the little snail-shell was, how impossible it was to capture the altitude of the trail or the gargantuan size of a rock.

When we hike, we’re enveloped in a soft cloud of serenity and beauty. It rides home with us at the end of the day, and we float on it as we fall asleep at night. We wake up Monday morning, and our worries are greeting us at the door again, but somehow, they just don’t seem as bad.

*One bear sighting and I’ll be simultaneously crying, running, screaming and peeing in my pants.

Camp Complain

Disclaimer: I’ve spent the last two days babysitting the Grandpea and I’m exhausted. Hurricane Baby just blew through our house, and don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but it’s work. Chasing that beautiful two-year-old is nature’s way of reminding me that I’m freaking old.  Yeah, yeah, she’s wonderful, she brings joy and bubbles and all that happy crap, but right now, I’m pooped.

I almost feel guilty for writing that. She’s hilarious and sweet and adorable and oh my gosh, we had a blast. But sometimes, just sometimes Mimi just has to gripe a little.  Especially when someone removes the dinosaur head from her drinking cup and pours juice all over the carpet.

But on to happier things. Amadeus and I went CAMPING last weekend—our first trip of the season– and it was heaven. We had so much fun, casting our lines while standing on big boulders, mooning over the endless lake while trying to catch fishies. Amadeus had a lot more success than I. I ended up with one tiny, mocking perch, and have reached the conclusion that fish hate me. My husband reeled in several, and while happy for him, I’m beginning to take it all as a personal, gilled affront. I consoled myself by burning hot dogs at sunset. We built a blazing orange fire on the lake bank (thanks, Pres-to-Logs!), and passed a bottle of whiskey (thanks, Jack Daniels!) and quietly lost ourselves in tranquility. Snuggled in our tent, we jabbered until we fell asleep and in the morning we made coffee and fished some more. I took photos, and snapped some shots of Canada geese for Annie (Calliope’s Tablet), who recently wrote a post about birds.

***

The trip was a much-needed replenisher for both of us. I’m no mu-mu wearing, bonbon eating, middle class housewife who hobby writes to stave off boredom (but God, I wish I was).  I work hard at being an uncompensated scribe. I write until my buns are numb and my shoulders ache, and then I write some more. I research markets and send query letters; I try to learn more about technology and constantly rack my brain for ways to help subsidize our impoverished little household via the Written Word. My eyelids are permanently puffy. My eyeballs, once so sparkly and clear, are now two fried brussels sprouts attached to some optic nerves. I thank Buddha and Oprah for my husband, who occasionally places a trail of M&Ms from the doorstep to the car in order to lure me from the house. I’ve barricaded myself indoors lately, and if he didn’t occasionally nudge me outside, my skin would turn pasty and sunlight would burn out my retinas.

Last night, Amadeus heard me say, “Haaaaaahhhhhhhh,” which is the way I sound when I’m sucking a lot of breath into my chest all at once, the sound that lets him know that I’ve gotten an e-mail from an editor or from someone offering work.  In this case, it was the sound of discovering that the finalists for a memoir contest I’d entered had just been announced. It wasn’t a big contest, or a big deal, but in a way, everything regarding writing is a Damned Big Deal.

The contest was a call for entries about overcoming loss and grief. In my mind, there would be about twenty-five finalists, and I was fairly certain I’d be one of them. I don’t often feel such confidence, but memoir writing is my passion; grief and loss are as familiar to me as my knuckles.  Lately though, I’ve been semi-depressed and dejected about freelancing. No one knows this more than my husband, who sweetly asked, “Do you want me to look at the list of finalists for you?” I nodded and stepped out onto the patio and smoked a Spirit (no, I haven’t quit yet).  After ten minutes, I knew I’d been rejected. If I’d won, Amadeus would have been out there, hugging and happy dancing with me. I went back inside and the expression on his face was my confirmation.  For some reason, tears welled up in my eyes. It’s been a rough few months.

I got my hug anyway. “You’re just a grittier writer,” Amadeus said. “More blunt. They picked more flowery, gentle stories.” Not only that, but there were only five finalists.

Later, while I was moping around, pity partying, Amadeus called out, “Moonbeam McQueen—you’ve got mail!” It was my beloved copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I’d won in another recent contest.  It’s sitting on the buffet, and I’m not cracking the spine until I’m through basking in its glow. Dorothy’s looking at me, saying, “Put on your big girl panties and get back to work.”

Still Life With Plant, Parents and Portable Parker

I felt a little better, but not much. As I sat next to Amadeus on the sofa, sighing every four minutes, he finally turned and said, “You’re a good writer. You’re not going to win them all.” In fact, he’s told me that I’m the best writer he’s ever known, and although I’m not sure that he’s ever known another, it counts for a lot. His belief in me often keeps me writing when all I want to do is hide under my blankie.

“You can’t let every little rejection get you down.” I could tell he was sort of laughing at my sadness. This really was not a Big Deal. But the Grandpea had just left the building and I was exhausted. My normal, “Something wonderful’s waiting around the corner” attitude has been waning lately.

“Listen,” Amadeus said, still trying to shake me out of my gloom, “you got three blog awards last week. Three. Apparently, someone likes your stuff.”

Oh wow. It’s true. I did. They do. My pity party ended right then and there. I put away the Triscuits and dried my eyes.

It’s crazy—blogging is the most rewarding, joyful writing that I do. If left to my own devices, I’d die of starvation with a laptop on my desk, WordPress on my screen and a smile on my lips. Every rejection slip is tempered by e-mails and comments from fellow writers and blog readers who enthuse and encourage and let me know that they appreciate what I do. It’s enormously meaningful to me. It makes a difference in my world. In a way, it keeps me steadfast and helps me believe in myself almost as much as others do.  And for that, I truly thank you.