January 29th, 2012 :: Traveling Days
The story could have ended there and I would only have 10 lifetimes of Hail Marys to recite for my holiday overindulgences of 2011.
But then Matt and I got on a plane to Portland.
Portland was a trip we had planned after drinking a bottle of wine sometime this fall and thinking that a small vacation was just what the doctor had ordered to counteract months of work. And it was, all the way around, a great idea. We had enough frequent flyer miles to fly free; the itinerary was ideal: direct afternoon flights; we found a fantastic deal on a downtown hotel. Neither of us had ever been to Portland, but had always wanted to. Seemed perfect.
And, mostly it was. Our hotel (Hotel Monaco) was a dream. Situated in a great location, it boasted a big living room with a fireplace and a grand piano, where cocktails were served in the evenings and coffee in the mornings. The hotel was dog friendly, which meant there was always a happy dog or two lounging by the fire. There was a goldfish swimming happily in a bowl outside the elevators on our floor. The staff was extraordinary, our room comfortable and luxurious. Perfect.
Then there was Portland itself: rainy, green, bursting with parks and seafood restaurants. The biggest bookstore in the country: Powell’s Books. Our days quickly found a rhythm: we woke up early (those pre-dawn wake-up times are a hard habit to shake) and had coffee by the fire downstairs. I left the hotel while it was still dark and headed to Forest Park where I hiked the trails in the Arboretum until lunchtime. I saw the sun rise behind Mt Hood two mornings in a row. I did yoga in a spot under giant sequoias and redwoods, feeling like I was inside of a sanctuary as holy and sacred as any cathedral in Europe. After several hours of tramping through the woods I would emerge onto the streets of Portland feeling like I had spent the morning in church, baptized and scrubbed clean.
After ducking into Peets for hot tea and heading back to the hotel for a long shower, I’d meet up with Matt who had spent the morning reading and wandering the neighborhood in search of the perfect breakfast pastry. At this point we would head out to find lunch at the food carts.
Ah! The food carts!
The entire week in Portland we stumbled upon only one church and one synagogue. Portlandians, we decided, don’t worship in churches. They worship at their food carts.
I now understand completely, as I could wax poetic for hours about the wonders of the food cart culture. For those outside Portland, these are not the pretzel carts of NYC, these are self-contained micro-restaurants located in tiny trailers that are parked tooth-to-jowl in blocks around the city. One such spot a few blocks from the hotel must have contained 50 of such carts with every culinary offering you could imagine: Thai, Indian, B-B-Q, Soup and Sandwiches, Burritos, Noodles, Burgers, and on and on. For a mere $6 one could get anything one’s little heart dreamed of. If I lived there, I would attend The Church of the Holy Food Cart every single day.
Stuffed and content, afternoons found us at the movies, or back in the hotel living room reading and napping. We spent an entire afternoon at Powell’s Books, emerging with a respectable stack of great finds. We enjoyed wine and beer at cocktail hour, ate oysters every night for dinner, wandered the streets in the drizzle and the deep darkness that comes with a northern winter.
One afternoon I was sitting in the hotel living room when a man wandered in off the street. Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, he made straight for the piano and began noodling. He played a Beatles medley, improvised a rather New Age sounding piece, worked out a jazz tune. All the while he never looked around, never made eye contact with anyone, never spoke a word. Sitting only a few feet away with a direct view of his hands, I felt that I was invading his space, that I was witnessing something so private and personal that I did not belong there. I knew, at the very least, I was watching a ritual of some kind, as holy and sacred as my time that morning under the Redwoods in the Arboretum. The hotel staff glanced at him from time to time, but seemed to recognize the man and this practice of music-making, and left him undisturbed. After a while he got up and walked out of the hotel, his own worship at the piano finished for the time being.
Later I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene, and wondered about the place of ritual and worship in our lives and routines. Even for the most religious among us, these things do not only take place within the walls of a church or established sanctuary or building. Rather, each of us knit together our lives and our sense of the world with these personalized patterns, these rituals, these small acts of worship and reverence. We need them to stay balanced and whole. We seek after them to find meaning and comfort in an otherwise empty existence.
Heading back home to the world I have created for myself, I started feeling poorly at the airport in Portland. On the plane, I got sick and suffered three days of the stomach flu, my body literally and metaphysically expelling the excesses of the holidays and the disruption of my work and routines. Now set firmly back in my life of teaching and rehearsals, classes and practicing, I am finding a new solace in my own rituals of behaviors, the habits and behaviors I use to understand and organize the world and my place in it.
I am also eating a lot of penance soup.
January 22nd, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
I am eating a lot of penance soup these days.
Thanks to the gods who set the calendar for Albuquerque Public Schools, I have just enjoyed the longest winter break ever. “Too much time off gets me in trouble,” my friend Patti often remarks, “I need the balance of work and play.” Wiser words have never been spoken.
In the Ten Thousand Stars Studio, the holiday officially began when my last student walked out the door on Wednesday, December 14th and my friend Lora and I got on a plane to Dallas for a long weekend. This trip had been long anticipated, and even had acquired a name: Amy and Lora’s Texas Tour of Christmas Crap. Or, as we had begun referring to it: TTCC.
In a previous lifetime many years ago, Matt and I lived in Fort Worth. We still have dear friends there who we try to see at least once a year. I have a college roommate who lives in Frisco, outside of Dallas, who I always love hanging out with. Last December, while Matt was still drowning in Christmas work, I went to Dallas to see these friends. It had been years since I had been in Texas at Christmas, and I had forgotten how seriously Texans take the holiday. I spent the weekend with my mouth hanging open: there was not a surface left in the state that did not have a flashing light or a big red bow. Wow! I kept thinking to myself, this is really something.
Then one night I was out walking, taking in the merry Christmas lights in the neighborhood where I was staying, when I stumbled upon this sight: a house (a nice ranch house on a very upper middle-class street, let me say) covered---and I mean COVERED-in lights. On the roof was not one, but two full-sized displays of Santa and his reindeer, which I thought might be a bit confusing for the children. In the yard was every possible Christmas character imaginable, life-sized and strung with flashing colored lights: carolers, Frosty, Rudolph, a manger scene with wise men coming from all directions, even a Ferris wheel filled with stuffed teddy bears (who knows?). But the piece de resistance was a carousel of horses, circling a Statue of Liberty. That would be a Statue of Liberty.
I stood there for minutes, but could not begin to take it all in. Staring at this circus cluttering this otherwise unremarkable house my first thought was, “No one is going to believe me when I tell them about this insanity.” My second thought: “Lora has got to see this.” And, at that moment, Amy and Lora’s Texas Tour of Christmas Crap was born.
Prior to our visit, Lora had barely set foot in Texas. A good reserved New Englander, she had driven through Amarillo on her way to Albuquerque. She had changed planes in Dallas and Houston a few times. She had spent 24 hours with me in Lubbock. But oh! There was still so many outrageous surprises awaiting her in this bigger than life state. Especially in mid-December. Especially in Dallas.
The TTCC was everything we had hoped for, living up and surpassing our wildest dreams. We spent a day in Frisco with my college friend, Julianne, catching up and shopping. (Oh! The shopping! Living as we do in a rather department-store-challenged state, the options-right there at your fingertips-seemed without limits. Turned out, that was some precious insight for the whole holiday break, this healthy respect for reasonable limits, or rather, the lack thereof.) We spent time with friends outside of Fort Worth, went on long morning walks, drank wine and coffee while watching the sun set and rise by the river, toured Christmas lights in the evenings-some set to synchronized music (Lions and Tigers and Bears: Oh MY!) -- puttered around the square in Granbury, attended a holiday tea given in our honor, ate and drank too much, and generally were treated like royalty. Everywhere we went someone was handing us more delicious food or offering us something wonderful to drink. There was one day where I had eaten more by three o’clock in the afternoon than I had the entire previous week. There was no stopping it: it would have been like trying to halt a tsunami.
And as promised, Texas was decked in all her glory. Even the house that sported the Lady Liberty did not disappoint. It was, in every way, an extravagantly indulgent weekend. I left feeling a bit overstuffed with it all: the endless eating and drinking; the time, energy, and money needed to maintain this level of merriment and decor; the sheer overabundance of the holiday cheer and, well, Christmas crap.
I came home and began eating a lot of penance soup.
Penance soup is what Matt calls cabbage or leek soup, which I make and eat when I am feeling especially repentant about overindulgences of any kind. Matt does not eat penance soup, as he is just generally a more well-balanced and moderate human being than I am. Penance soup is best consumed with a general feeling of mindfulness (a bit of remorse mixed in never hurt) and thankfulness. It is a good antidote, I have found, to the too-muchness that overtakes all of us during the holidays. It levels the playing field a bit, and it certainly helps to counteract the tidal wave of good eating that is otherwise not just surrounding us, but rather drowning us all.
And then, just when I was feeling a bit better about my world, the next gigantic wave of madness rolled in.
The next few days unfolded calmly enough, no sign of what to come. Matt worked; I practiced, raked leaves, went to yoga class. I swam laps and went on walks at dusk. I mailed Christmas cards and finished my studio newsletter. We had dinner with friends. I read through a towering pile of books and drank pots of tea. Our extremely simple Christmas display of lights, fish and angels twinkled merrily at us from the mantle. There was peace and harmony throughout the land.
And then the next round of meals began. My parents drove in from St Louis. Lora’s mother arrived from Massachusetts. We concocted big dinners involving cranberry roasts, smoked turkeys, two kinds of mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, cheeses, homemade cookies, cheesecakes, chocolates. Moderation went out the window. I was mindful, all right: mindful of how much I was eating and drinking. The house was bursting: with people, wrapping paper, boxes of homemade fudge. It was all lovely, but I began to feel like I was drowning again. To add insult to injury, my head wouldn’t stop pounding.
Just when I was about to shoot off emergency flares (or at least move to a hotel for a couple of days, or a monastery), everyone left. Matt and I had a few days of quiet. I cleaned out closets, made cabbage soup, took books back to the library, practiced Bach, and generally felt repentant with every bite of penance soup.
But, of course, the holidays were not yet over.
January 15th, 2012 :: Reading Days
Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.
January 1st, 2012 :: Extraordinary Days
In my mind, 2011 will always be the year of the betta fish.
I love that this year, the white crocheted angels and bells, dried cranberries and candles on the mantle had to make room for a couple of fish. It seems a lesson in remembering to expand our worldview, to grow a bigger heart, to make space for the simple joys in a too full life.
In the spirit of honestly, I must confess that Ping, Pang and Pong have all mysteriously died. So have 2Ping, 2Pang and 3Pong. This is not the fault of the two felines that live here. They could not care less about the fish swimming merrily inches away from their little paws. So much for entertainment.
It was bittersweet getting the angels and bells out this December. My grandmother who made them died last April after several years of deteriorating health. She made the bells for our wedding reception 18 years ago, the same year her husband-my grandfather-died on Christmas Day. When I look at the mantle decorated with her handiwork, I think that she would be pleased at the sight: angels, bells, and fish all crammed together happily.
During the last few years of Grandma’s life she didn’t know any of us. Sometimes she talked, chattering of nonsense, putting together people and events in strange combinations. The last time I saw Grandma, she was lost in the recesses of her confused mind. She seemed excited to see me, seemed to know that I was someone important to her, but who I might represent on the family tree was long gone.
After lunch, Momma and I wheeled Grandma through the garden and coming back through the lobby of the nursing home where she was living, we passed the lovely grand piano. In the years since Grandma had been living in there, I had made it a habit to always play the piano when I came to visit. Grandma couldn’t care less about the music, but she used to stop every single person walking through the lobby and announce loudly, “That is my granddaughter.”
Passing the grand piano that last day, I suggested that I play. “Someone might enjoy it,” I told Momma, “even if Grandma won’t know the difference.” We pushed Grandma’s wheelchair right up to the piano and I sat down. Suddenly Grandma grew agitated. Leaning toward me, she whispered, “Amy used to play this piano.”
Not only are the cats not interested in the fish, furthermore they have taken no notice of the wooden manger scene I set up at the beginning of Advent. When they were kittens, this display with its little cows and sheep were like cat toys. We lost Mary, the Queen of Heaven, that year, thanks to Godiva, which forced us to display the manger with two daddies - Joseph and a random wise man. While I liked the inclusive spirit, I was thrilled to find Mary many months later while moving furniture for a painting project. Today every character sits on its shelf, untouched by the cats. We are all growing mellow in our old age.
Perhaps, now that I think about it, that, and not the fish after all, is the defining characteristic of this year: we are growing more mellow, our rough places being made smooth with time and age, our lives feeling more precious and dear with every passing year.
Wishing you a peaceful, joyful, sweet 2012.
Contact Amy Greer at: email@example.com