How holidays can stay merry and bright instead of scary with fright.

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As people fly and drive and take various other methods of transportation to be near friends and families this week and next for Hanukkah, Christmas and other important celebrations, I find myself thinking about how many are dreading the obligatory reunion and how many are genuinely looking forward to the chance to reconnect over long prepared meals and perhaps in some cases, introduce new members to old family traditions. The picture above is the table my mom and I decorate for a Christmas brunch we host each year at our church, a favorite time for both of us to begin the season by serving others. Each year, we choose a different theme, we never know who our guests will be and it is with great joy we plan what it will look like and organize who’s plates are to be used, etc…

I think back to another picture I saw of two young girls, probably both around 11 years old. They are standing in a sunny field wearing light, cotton dresses, hair loose and long, expressions somber but not unhappy. One girl stands straight, facing the camera full on, while the other girl who could be her twin, so similar in appearance, leans over slightly into her sister, their arms and hands intertwined together and bent at the elbow which gives the effect of their hands being very close to their faces. The only caption is: “Protector”.

Which one is the protector is the thought running through my mind? Is it the girl leaning in as a protective measure against what may come? Or is it the girl standing straight up, bearing the weight of the one leaning in thereby providing a solid foundation of support, its own form of protection? Perhaps it is the give and take of what they offer each other which provides protection for both young souls.

I always find pictures thought provoking and they often become inspiration for my stories. Most interesting is when one impression of a picture has formed in my head, only to read the caption and see it in a completely new perspective. It is both fascinating and explanatory of our human condition. How many arguments start because of “a look”, or a word said wrong?  Was it a wrong look given and a word said in error or was it a look grossly misinterpreted, a word perceived as having malicious intent? How many times have I edited how I’ve written this piece, simply because my audience cannot hear how I am saying what I write? The answer is more than I can count and so words are changed to soften the intent I’m not even sure is being misconstrued in the first place.

Holidays become our snapshots of family so many times. Emotions run high and with it the brains ability to produce the chemicals that make the most passionate of our experiences, be it warm and cozy or cold and painful, permanently etched in our long term memory. Hence the look of both relaxed joy and tense dread on so many travelers and hosts.

Sorrow can be fear and shyness too often is mistaken for arrogance. So many times we transfer our own emotion of what we feel to how we perceive others are feeling without asking questions or offering comfort without judgment.  The makers of Hello Kitty, that innocuous famous white creature my daughter adores, were aware of this upon her inception and purposefully did not give her a mouth because their desire was for the owner to project whatever emotion they wanted on to the doll. How many people go through life with a permanent smile glued to their face so as not to give anyone the wrong impression?

I took our daughter to our favorite children’s hair stylist recently, where two little boys were extremely anxious to be out of there the second they walked in and since they couldn’t leave, they were content to raise the noise level exponentially compared to their size and found whatever apparatus they could to assist their experiment.  Each time the noise lasted more than 30 seconds, mom calmly walked over with baby number 3 on her hip and knelt down, trying her best to assure the boys this was not appropriate behavior.  Due to the incessant repetition of this action every 30 seconds, it was clear this method wasn’t working for her. The entire time, she smiled really big while attempting to discipline them and I wonder how that will translate as the boys grow up. This is not judgment, purely observation. How will what I perceive as mixed signals of a happy expression and admonishing words serve them when they deal with other people who choose to frown when they disapprove and speak louder when they are agitated? Maybe I have it all wrong, there is always more to the story.

We flavor our conversations with the spice of our experiences and unless we have the relationship and connection to understand the vast amount of historical or current references being used, the capacity for mistrust and animosity seems so much bigger than for understanding and compassion. When you grow up in the same area, the slang is similar and many nuances are inherent and understood without even realizing our brains are instantly interpreting what we hear according to our shared environment. However, even coming from opposite sides of the same state, such as California can make some feel like a foreigner. I’ve spent holidays in Northern, Southern and along the mid coast of it, each is very different in every way from speech to rhythm of life.

Having also lived overseas as a young child, I still have a nostalgic sense of familiarity when I hear someone pronounce words a different way than most Californians would. Friends that say “GARage” instead of “gaRAWWGE” have me instantly speaking the same way as if my brain is switching tracks to an earlier linguistic environment. I start talking about the bonnet and boot of my car instead of the Hood and Trunk. I have to remember why my computer is telling me “colour” is wrong and “color” is correct and not grimace because I wrote it the other way and read it the other way for so many of my beginning, formative years. It’s been quite entertaining for my California born and bred husband and children, although they might describe it as more confusing.

I once dated a man who began to feel extremely ostracized when playing a game of Taboo with my family at my parent’s house. If you are unfamiliar with the game, your goal is to get the other person to say a word while you describe it without saying 4 or 5 key descriptors listed on the card in front of you, for instance describing a ball without using “round” or “bounce”. Because we have so many unique experiences among us, my parents, brothers and myself were able to say specific inside joke phrases which sounded nothing like any association to the word but triggered a certain chain of events in our collective memory and led to the desired word in spite of few adjectives left. Sound like any holiday conversations you remember feeling left out of or unintentionally left others out of perhaps?

Looking back, I’m sure the game sounded like gibberish to the outsider, which is unfortunately exactly how my date felt, despite how long we had been together. (A year sounded realllllly long at the time!) The rounds were lightning fast and at the end, he was visibly agitated when I asked what was wrong. He was embarrassed he couldn’t keep up and when I apologized he said a Porsche would always have the ability to slow down for  a VW bug but the bug would never have the capability to catch up to the Porsche.

I’ve never forgotten that phrase and I do a better job these days, some 18 years later, in making sure people are included in conversation, not sanitizing my speech and staying away from “inspeak” or ignoring old stories altogether but rather taking the time to include them in the history behind them because I want them to feel the same joy from the memory and to feel connected to the moment and people surrounding them.

Remembering this during the holiday time when so many tight circles of family have an opportunity to widen and accept in new members or old ones who have spent a long time away can often make the difference in the warmth of everyone’s holiday memory. Have a very merry Christmas and a warm whichever holiday you hold dear.

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How does music connect you?

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This picture is both blurry and off center. I could fix it but, it’s how I was feeling being outside of the moment. It is of a glorious Christmas concert at my church and the music, though muted through the thick sanctuary door separating us, was inviting me in and instead I returned to my office just across the way to finish some work. I did leave my office door open so I could at least hear a sample of the beauty being created. Not many people have the pleasure of being serenaded at work by a 20 piece live orchestra and a full choir!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about connecting with people, intentionally or subconsciously. We connect all throughout our lives, for better or for worse, as the outcome may be. I’ve written many additional posts but a lot of them are still in the draft stage as the story is not always just my story to be told and so my finger hovers above “publish”, never landing and the blog is stagnant. Tonight however, is different. This is my story, or at least a small piece of it.

My connection through music goes way back and is woven like a tapestry through my life. My mom played her guitar and we sang Christmas songs when I was 3 or 4 years old, living in Orange County. As a small child of 6 or 7 in Africa, I would alter the words of songs I loved and sing the new versions to my older brother, who listened and enjoyed them, or at least pretended to… Queen was one of my favorite bands to do this with and I wish I could remember what I did with Bohemian Rhapsody but perhaps it’s better left in the beauty of my memory. Yet another reason I’m glad I grew up before the full bloom of the smartphone age!

I was in cherub choir in church during elementary school, youth choir in junior and high school, played clarinet for 5 years, played guitar for my youth group, went to a fair number of live shows, classical, and…not. Now I perform in musicals at my church and it’s all been such an important soundtrack to who I am. It’s given me strength when I needed it, comfort when I was at a loss, words to express any emotion I may have been feeling. A sense of community when I was too introverted to participate in any other way.

There is no substitute for live music. It’s not enough to just pop in a cd or shuffle the playlist. Music should be felt and observed in person as it is flowing out of the ones creating it as often as possible! Best case scenario of course is to create it yourself, so sing along to the cd! My faith has grown because of the repetition of songs created using the scriptures! I had no idea how many verses I had memorized through song until I attended a bible college and heard so many familiar lines!

Let’s be clear about one thing, I don’t hold a candle to the professional musicians I had the pleasure of hearing! I know just enough about what they go through to be in awe of their dedication and have a deep appreciation of the commitment to perfect their craft. Today, I was able to attend the concert! Enveloped in the music, in person, up front, close enough to see the Snoopy tie on the pianist! When I heard the clear dissonance in a group of singers rejoicing a cappella, when I saw the passion on the faces of the violinist as he closed his eyes and played, when I observed the body language of the pianist as he so passionately expressed each measure on the keys, I felt a connection.

There was a unity between audience and performer, my children felt it as well. Why do stores pump out old classic songs at Christmas time? The connection of nostalgia, past memories mixing with the present is a powerful emotion. I don’t have a favorite song, it depends on my mood. Am I feeling hyper or melancholy or contemplative? Am I looking for fast beats to work out to or sappy ballads to reminisce with? There’s a song for that! What’s your song? I don’t mean some quiz on Facebook telling you what they think based on your favorite color and how many times you eat your favorite foods. What moves you? How do you use music in your life? If you don’t, (perish the thought) I hope this inspires you to find a soundtrack for your life. Have a warm and happy Christmas, celebrating the birth of our Lord in song.

It’s all relative…until it’s your relative.

As the holiday season is already swinging into high gear, so are the many emotions of infrequent, high pressure gatherings, and even the “casual” get togethers have their own unique brand of lunacy.  Let the roller coasters begin!  All over the world, rituals are being started, discarded and in too many cases squabbled over for dominance, all in the name of sacred tradition.  One of the saddest movies I ever saw was Holly Hunter’s “Home for the Holidays”, back in 1995.  Not a happy, fuzzy wuzzy, feel good, kind of holiday movie and I know so many people who liked it but, when it came down to explaining why, the answer was peculiarly similar for ever person.  “It was smart and funny and, it was just so real!” came the reply, the last part almost verbatim from people with all different backgrounds and families.  The only other common answer was something along the lines of:  “I’m glad my family isn’t like that!”, or “That movie makes my family look sane!”.

It’s messy and dreadful and weirdly poignant, just like real life!  Awkward moments abound when family gathers for the annual Thanksgiving meal, there are many issues dying to come out, siblings protect each other from enemy fire, and it is probably best portrayed by Holly’s character, Claudia when she says: “Nobody means what they say on Thanksgiving, Mom.  That’s what the holiday is all about.  Torture.”

I remember Thanksgiving as an impossibly long routine of going to the grandparent’s house, having an age appropriate drink, minimal socializing and then being dismissed to watch the Twilight Zone marathon on television while the grownups chatted for at least 4 or 5 episodes and then, finally, we ate.  This was followed by more socializing, and then long farewells and hugs and kisses and out the door until a month later we gathered for Christmas.  I loved seeing my family, we had lived overseas for 9 years and missed out on all routine traditions families usually gather for, except for home leaves at Christmas, and then everyone is on their best behavior and there are presents to distract and detour any head on collisions.  Holidays are unique ecosystems unto themselves.  Snapshots of chaos, blown into historical proportions as stories are exaggerated and spread each year to newcomers about what happened previously to any number of people present.

As any family tree splinters off into smaller, greener branches, the separation can be difficult, perhaps because the paradigm is shifting and the children who were not in authority are now grown and so become authority.  This means the ones used to being solely in authority now have an obligation although not always a willingness, to share the podium and acknowledge what before they could simply control without question.  It makes for an interesting scene as perceptions are skewed and observations are made, both good and bad.

This holiday season, whatever holiday you’re celebrating, give yourself a break and just enjoy where you are and who you’re with, you just might surprise yourself…and everyone else!   Merry Christmas!