Clarity

She wore ill-fitting navy-blue flats, the shoes she wore to church with her parents. They were the only thing that matched her outfit, which she hoped looked casual, like she hadn’t thought about it too much, like she went on dates all the time. She thought about wearing her gold sandals, she loved the way they made her feet look like a more mature version of themselves, but she did not want to look too dressed up, too invested, as though she thought they were going to a red carpet event. Trey would probably be wearing shorts. That’s how boys were.

But Katie was invested. She had not been on many dates, and she would be in college soon. She had arrived at her high school sophomore year with the aloof-but-desperate look of a military kid who moved around a lot, had promptly joined the extra-curriculars and corresponding social groups appropriate for her status level (drama, wind ensemble, photography club), and had quickly made friends, mostly the forgettable sort of friends she made everywhere she’d lived. Periodically, there were boys who were rumored to like her, and she would go with them to a dance, to Denny’s after the cast party, or even to their house to watch a movie. She had been kissed exactly three times: once, too eagerly, by Michael Smelzer after a band concert (she’d thought what the heck, but had drawn back in horror when he immediately tried to stick his tongue in her mouth), and twice by a boy named Brandon who was a day camp counselor with her at Brookside Camp, where her job was to make yarn crafts with dozens of screaming ten-year-olds whose parents worked. It was a nice kiss until he said, “Wanna go in the tool shed on our break?” She’d replied, “Um…. not really…” To which he’d said, “Cool,” and never paid her any attention again.

The fourth kiss, the best one, really, would be from Trey Andrews, a lacrosse-playing senior, leagues beyond her socially, who had inexplicably left his team senior year and tried out for a school play, and wound up playing Benedick opposite her Beatrice in a very abridged version of Much Ado. He was olive skinned and blue eyed and had that jock swagger that other theater boys did not have, and he was not gay. Katie knew, because Trey Andrews had dated Lisette Peterson, and had a string of girlfriends before her. He looked cocky and made a good Benedick, and they had chemistry, something she’d never had with anyone on stage, or anyone off stage for that matter, except maybe her friend Parker, who did not do theater but who was gay.

Trey Andrews ignored Katie, mostly, for the first three weeks of rehearsal, except to say lines with her and then leave in the car of some other lacrosse-playing senior, engine revving over laughter and music, like in a movie, while Katie left in the passenger seat of her mom’s minivan. But at some point the week before tech week, when she’d decided to really commit to being a good Beatrice, to really nail her lines–especially the argument scene where she says even if Benedick’s face got scratched by a dog, it wouldn’t be worse–he did start to pay attention to her, a little. It had felt good to hurl insults at Trey Andrews, because it was something. He would never like her, pay attention to her, so at least she could have this contrived passion with him on stage, even if they mostly hated each other in the abridged version. At least she could have something with him. Surprisingly, he actually got his lines memorized–nobody thought he would–and he was good at them, and by the end of tech week, Katie thought maybe they were friends. Slightly flirty friends, which was thrilling and unsettling.

And then on a Thursday after school, when the play was over and there was really no reason for them to be seen together, Trey Andrews stopped by Katie’s locker and asked her what she was doing on Saturday. For a moment her mind raced: was there some mandatory meeting of cast members? Did he need to borrow notes for a class? She couldn’t think why he was asking.

And now here she was, eating a nice dinner with Trey Andrews at a fancy-ish restaurant, not a Denny’s or a Chipotle but a date restaurant, her tight, ugly shoes kicked off under the table. The shoes didn’t matter because he had the bluest eyes and ordered like a grown up, raising an eyebrow at her to indicate that she could order first, which made her a little dizzy. The waiter was in his twenties, so Trey was younger, but he wasn’t nervous at all and even seemed to brush the waiter off just a little, which was so adult. Trey wasn’t actually rude or anything, just confident, Katie told herself. And maybe he felt just a teeny bit cooler than the waiter even though he was younger, because the waiter was chubby. Athletes were like that, they couldn’t help it. Plus, Trey made her laugh at dinner, talking about his team and his friends, and when she reached for her little purse when the bill came, he’d said I got this and put a gold credit card in the wallet thingy they give you, sliding it in the pocket like he did it all the time.  

Walking to his car, he’d taken her hand for a minute, sliding his fingers down her arm first, then letting go. He’d tilted her face up, right there in the parking lot, and she’d thought oh, so that’s what they mean in books when it says her knees went weak…

 What do you want to do now? He’d asked, in an almost-whisper, and her stomach flip flopped. Another first. She’d been ready for the question, though: there was an old movie playing at the dollar theater, she told him, the one where the guy dances in roller skates and it’s amazing. It was a really old movie but her grandmother liked it, her grandmother had grown up in California and lived near the famous dancing actor when she was a little girl. Plus, it was two dollar popcorn night.

Trey had made a strange face and said wouldn’t that take like two hours? Yes, she’d said, it would, and then suggested they go to the bookstore on Princess Street instead, they had outdoor seating and they let you take books out there even if you weren’t buying them. Sometimes they had live music.

Trey had sighed at that, which Katie couldn’t understand, but he’d said okay and started driving in that direction. Was there something you wanted to do? She’d asked, and he’d said no, this was fine, but something in the atmosphere had changed. Or maybe she was overthinking it.

Pulling into the parking lot of Cyrano’s Books and getting out of the car, Katie heard a little flapping noise in the grassy median that separated the two halves of the parking lot. A small bird was just feet away from her, flapping and then stopping to rest, its beak open a little.

“Oh, gosh, oh no, the poor little guy, I think he’s hurt,” Katie said, a small, sad panic rising up from deep inside her. She could tell the bird’s wing was badly hurt, and she instantly decided two things without even thinking: that this was a boy bird, she would call him him, and that something had to be done for him, though the prognosis was grim.

“Leave it,” Trey said, just ask Katie bent down to scoop the bird up in her sweater. Did Trey have anything like a little shoe box in his car, she wondered? Or even a hat or something? If she took off her sweater, maybe she could wrap the bird in it to keep him still while they found help.

“What?” she said, taking off her cardigan. Had he just said leave it?

“That’s so gross, leave it alone,” he repeated.

Katie swallowed. “He’s hurt,” she began. “It’s his wing I think. There are animal rescue places that might take him, we could at least call–”

“God, what’s wrong with you?” Trey said, a sneer on his face, confusion in his eyes. “Just leave it, it’s dirty, and–”

“He’s hurt, and he’s not that dirty, plus I think he’s a bluebird, and if we could just find some help–”

“Jesus, that’s so fucking weird, I should have known,” Trey said, rolling his eyes. Somebody from the patio of the bookstore looked over at them as he raised his voice, “Just leave the stupid thing, it’s just going to die–”

“I KNOW IT’S GOING TO DIE!” Katie shouted, and now several people from the patio looked over at them, and slowly returned to their conversations. The bird’s head, she now saw, was sort of at an odd angle. “I know that,” she said again, quietly this time. Her throat was suddenly sore, and she felt the cool sting of tears in her eyes, but she willed them back down to wherever they came from. “But if there is a chance we could save him, like find a vet or something, we should at least try. Or we could at least, I don’t know… take him somewhere…” Her voice trailed off. She really didn’t know what her plan was. Maybe they could call a vet with after hours.

Trey starred at her, and she knew he was analyzing something, calculating. She also knew, in that instant, that he didn’t really like her, and if he did, she did not care. She took off her sweater, a whisper-thin, light blue cotton shrug her mom bought her at a beach when she was fifteen. She bent down and wrapped the bird in it; it did not put up a fight.

“I think you should take me home,” she told Trey, meeting his gaze.

“Jesus,” he said again, getting into the car and slamming his door, not helping her with her door this time, though she was cradling the bird-sweater now.

They didn’t speak all the way to Katie’s house. The bird died in her sweater, in her arms, as she thought it might. She looked straight ahead and did not cry. It was only a twelve-minute drive to her house, but she saw, stretched before her, a whole future, more clearly than anything she’d imagined before. She would continue to act; she was surprisingly good at it. Maybe not for a job, but maybe. She would study what she wanted, learn as much as she could, and stop imagining other people were cooler than her, better than her. She would stop waiting for everything to happen to her and decide what she wanted to happen to her instead. She would throw the navy-blue flats in the garbage.

Trey Andrews stopped in front of Katie’s house exactly long enough for her to get out before he sped away. Walking toward her front door, carrying a small, dead bird wrapped in her sweater, she felt, suddenly, as light as air. She felt free.

Evergreen

In childhood, that drowsy dream

of mountain peaks and meadows wide;

of needles crunching under-foot

of sun-soaked woods and babbling brooks;

where inspiration could abide

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

I learned that home and family

(both fluctuating, changing things)

tether us, by degrees to

where we’re born: towns, countries.

and in my blood and in my brain

indelibly were stamped it seemed

the air and sky and peaks and planes

of Colorado: Evergreen.

I learned, quite young

that I belonged to this small town

with elk-filled fields

and columbines, burst-out among

snow-laden hillsides, purple yields 

to violet amid the brown.

In snowy town, all sun-shine shroud

nestled deep in canyon walls

we flew Old Glory high and proud

from cedar cabins big and small,

cheered at high school football games,

watched fire-works light the July air

and listened to the wistful strains of

Willie at The Little Bear.

I tasted pie at Summerfest,

in Bear Creek I did wade and dream

of my mountains, and the rest:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

So as I grew and traveled far,

saw other mountain majesties,

exceeding not that highest bar

of scented pines, and towering trees;

of shining lake and one stop light,

small steepled church and hardware store,

where eagles soared in constant flight

in turquoise sky, white clouds galore,

I never questioned my true home,

my affection was unwavering

for rock-hewn Camelot where I’d grown:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

And then, at tender age I left

we packed our bags and went away

and I, all empty and bereft

did dream of mountains, night and day.

though other places called to me

their alabaster cities gleamed

poor substitutes they all would be

for I was looking back it seemed.

and now that on my hands—eyes, stronger,

time has carved some tiny lines

and elsewhere I have lived far longer

than the city in the pines

still, when I smell the mountain air

or smell a brand-new Christmas tree

for a moment I am there:

my heart belongs to Evergreen.

Some Good Movies to Watch With Teens!

*First Published on https://grownandflown.com/

Your teenager is home on a weekend night and you want to watch a movie with actual character development, a movie without animated animals or explosions (including the F-bomb), and without an OSS (obligatory sex scene) that makes you all cringe or dive for the remote. The plot has to really grab them right from the start, which rules out award winners like Chariots of Fire or A Man for All Seasons; if they can’t relate to it, they’ll pass. Maybe you also have a twelve-year-old who might decide to watch the movie, and you’d like them to understand it, enjoy it, and not be traumatized. You want a movie that sucks you in and makes you laugh and feel things, a movie that inspires discussions (un-forced, organic discussions of course) about loyalty or ethics or what really matters on the chance that your teen feels chatty when it’s over. So here’s a list of sleepers that weren’t made in the last eighteen months but hold up exceptionally well, and pair well with teens and popcorn.

Quiz Show

It might take some convincing, because nothing explodes in this movie except a man’s ego, but this little gem of a film, based on a true story, slowly grips you like a well-paced thriller. A young and super good looking Ralph Finnes plays Charles Van Doren, a college professor from a family of good looking intellectuals, who is asked to be a contestant on the wildly popular Jeopardy-like TV show, Twenty-One. He’s slumming a little–his family doesn’t do this sort of thing–but the fame is fun until the previous contestant, an awkward Jew from Queens played by John Turturro, gets jealous and begins to tell everyone the game is rigged, they give out the answers to whomever they want to win. The book the movie was based on was written by the lawyer brought in to investigate, played by a young and also handsome Rob Morrow. Just being real: handsomeness is a factor if your teen is female and maybe even if they’re not, and attractiveness, or lack of it, is part of the plot in this case. The movie takes place in the late 1950s and has a gorgeous, Mad Men-like aesthetic and Bobby Darin on the soundtrack, used in a way that somehow makes his catchy tunes unsettling. There’s even smart and carefully placed humor in the script, while it flawlessly illustrates vanity, deception, greed and envy, and the other side of the coin–the one that modern teens, used to reality TV, would think of on their own: ambivalence.

Apollo 13

Even if you saw it twice when it was more recent, here is a movie that’s easy to watch again because it takes an archetype that’s big and impressive and different than your average person–an astronaut, back when they existed and were larger than life–and shows him in a lens that makes him deeply, incredibly human. This achingly relatableness is where Tom Hanks’ brilliance lies, even when he plays a bad guy. In this case he plays real-life good guy Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded a 1970 mission that suffered a critical failure on the way to the moon. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that viewers are riveted even though they know how it turns out, although modern teens, who didn’t learn about the Apollo missions in school or remember them like parents and grandparents, may not know if they guys make it back to Earth or not. The story revolves not just around getting the men back home safely, a feat of brilliant, spontaneous engineering and leadership, but around the personalities and relationships involved. The acting is superb, the pointy collars and big hair make you feel like you are really there, and unlike the more recent First Man, the writers didn’t throw in a lot of puff-the-story-up fiction (the bracelet in the crater…). These things really happened, and according to the guys who were there, were every bit this dramatic. Director Ron Howard puts you on the edge of your seat at the end and if you don’t cheer out loud or feel a few tears welling up when that capsule drops into the water, you have no soul.

 

Catch Me If You Can

At the risk of putting ideas into teens’ heads, this movie is worth watching because Leonardo DiCaprio makes you simultaneously root for the hero and hope he gets caught. The fact that this is also true story is astonishing; DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a nineteen year old who begins dabbling in check fraud and impersonations, and eventually successfully poses as a commercial pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Abagnale is being chased by an FBI agent throughout the movie, played by Tom Hanks; the two actors are so good at what they do that you can’t decide who the good guy is. The agent discovers something about the criminal: he’s young and brilliant and funny, but he’s lonely, which makes the end of the movie more interesting than just the facts would lead you to believe. This is one of those movies you have to pause just to get another soda because you can’t miss a single thing.

Gifted

Here we get to see Captain America (Chris Evans) play a regular guy with problems and some family baggage in this movie about loyalty and parenting. Evans plays the caretaker to his brilliant niece, played by a precocious kid who manages to be adorable but not saccharine, and makes viewers of all ages want to watch her reactions. It’s a fairly predictable plot: her uncle must fight for custody of her and convince the authorities and a grandmother that whatever his less-than-perfect life is lacking, he can make up for with his unconditional love for this little girl. The film gets viewers thinking about choices and repercussions, sacrifice, and wanting something for the right reasons–and the wrong ones. and the It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it makes you smile often, and the characters are so darn convincing that you can’t look away. Teens will like the storyline because they can relate to both the child and the uncle, and watching this flawed thirty-something try to be a good father figure is endearing and inspiring.

We Bought a Zoo

The animals on the cover image of this movie make it seem Doctor Dolittle-esque, but this is a funny, heartbreaking story about a widower and his kids, trying to grieve and heal and move on. I’d personally watch Matt Damon do laundry, so seeing him play a Dad trying his best at taking care of wild animals and, even harder, a troubled teenage son, is pretty darn engaging. It’s unpredictable and funny and heart-wrenching, but in a good way. Scarlett Johansson plays the obvious love interest realistically, and Thomas Haden Church provides comic relief when it gets a little sad. Mostly, it’s not a sad movie, it’s just a movie about a family trying something out of the box so they don’t get too sad, and fighting for it when they have to. Without being heavy-handed, it paints a beautiful picture of what a family can be.

The Martian

And speaking of Matt Damon, in this movie, based on a self-published manuscript, we get to see him grow potatoes in space while fighting for his life and making jokes. Most people know the premise of this one or have already seen it, but it bears watching with teens because it tackles loyalty, ethics, and survival; it’s science fiction but realistic, even a little playful. Some viewers might not be able to get through the nearly-opening scene where Damon must pull shrapnel out of his chest, but he tempers that and everything he does with humor, even the Cast Away-like scenes of loneliness. There are no aliens or computers trying to kill him, so even non sci-fi fans will enjoy the plot.  

Some runner-ups, not chosen for this list because of language, violence/death, or the OSS, are: A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting, Castaway, and Interstellar.

 

Hancock Fabrics

 

The two of us would go with our mom to the fabric store on summer days, when we all needed to get out of the house.

That’s how she phrased it, let’s get out of the house. And she called it Hancock’s, made it possessive, even though it wasn’t, and dropped

the “Fabric” part altogether, as though they were on a first-name basis. Sometimes she actually needed fabric, or a pattern, or notions;

I loved that section, zippers and pincushions and piping; I told her that once, saying I liked the notion of notions, and she was amazed at my cleverness. I didn’t

have the heart to tell her I’d heard it somewhere else:                                                 Mrs. Harless, down the street.

She would shop and my sister and I would look at patterns: our favorite was Simplicity and Butterick Girls, their main girl-model was so pretty.

She’d get straight A’s, you could tell, and sleep in a pink canopy bed with a cocker spaniel in a basket on the floor.

You’d look good in this one, we’d say, or I want a skirt like that but blue, or we’d find the pictures of boys in homemade sailor suits and laugh at them,

see if there were any cute ones. We could look at buttons for ages without getting bored, picking out our favorites, reds and yellows and blues and all shades of brown

spilling over the sides of the bin and making the loveliest sound when you lay your hand flat and swished it back and forth,

or dug both hands in deep and pulled up fist-fulls, letting the buttons pour back into the button ocean. Unattainable, unless we’d saved allowance.

She, my mother, bit her lip a little, in concentration, scrutinizing the isles of calico or chintz or damask or seersucker, big purse under her arm, big sunglasses

on her head, pulling back short blond hair, gold stud earrings from Tiffany’s in her ears, the only ones she ever wore and only thing she ever owned from there

and I would think: she is beautiful, she is beautiful, and I am lucky, I am lucky and my chest would hurt a little, I remember that, from the happiness of it.

My sister was bored, I knew, and growing weary of handmade clothes, but I was younger and wanted to stay forever.

Once, when we got home, the gross boy next door asked where we’d been and when we told him Hancock Fabric, he laughed his nasal laugh,

making a gesture with his hand that made no sense, saying Get it? Hand-cock? Get it? I did not but my sister’s face pinched up

and she shoved him into the gravel on the sides of his driveway and his mother came out and yelled at her, saying she was older so she was a bully, which 

temporarily ruined Hancock Fabric for me, but I see now                                    that she was trying to save it.

 

The College Decision, Postmortem

It’s January, so high school seniors everywhere are finished with college applications and are now just “waiting to hear.” That’s how their parents will phrase it when they bump into friends at the grocery store and church and are asked where Sally or Jack is going to college: “Well, she’s applied to blah blah blah and now we’re just waiting to hear…” Depending on the subtle inflection in the words, there’s hope in them, or exasperation, or desperation, or smugness, or false modesty. When a parent of a high school senior says that one sentence, we are just waiting to hear, so much more is conveyed. There’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but she got Cs and Ds in high school and there were those two incidents with the police so it’s not looking good,” and there’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but what with the four-point-eleven GPA and the National Merit Scholarship and the charity work and the nuclear reactor she built in the garage, we are confident she’ll get in somewhere.” And everything in between.

When decision time is near, the brag factor is real, especially in an area where having parents with graduate degrees and bulging investment portfolios is as common as having a family pet. The kids aren’t the ones doing the bragging, it’s the parents, and though it is born out of pride in their child’s hard work–and the parents’ surviving it–it  catches you off guard, masquerading as chit-chat that sounds like something in a Meg Wolitzer novel. As in, “Cornell is her first choice, but if she doesn’t get in, she may have to settle for Vanderbilt, and we’ve told her life will still go on if you have to go to Vanderbilt…” Or “He got into Stanford, but the scholarships from Duke and Northwestern are so big, one of them might make more sense, you know?”

The brag factor is not only real, it’s strong enough to propel people into decisions so financially unwise, they’re painful to hear about. Parents taking out a second mortgage to pay for Swarthmore, grandparents taking out loans to pay for Amherst, or even students taking on decades of debt to pay for Brown, all because Swarthmore and Amherst and Brown are not only great schools that might give your child a leg up on getting a really good job someday, but because they are all so freaking fun to say when someone asks where your kid is going. Not just fun, but, in some circles, almost necessary to really be a player in the game of smart, sophisticated, suburban parent who shall be taken seriously. At parties or work events, when you are with people who on the short list to become a federal judge, or just sold their third book to Simon and Schuster, or are head of Coronary Care at Hopkins, and someone asks politely where your eighteen year old might go to college, it’s a tough pill to swallow to say a state school or community college.

Besides the “good school” pull, there’s also something we don’t talk about, because it’s overtly snobby and there’s no way to say it without sounding like a character in a British play but we just can’t help it: we parents want our kids surrounded by the right kind of people. They don’t have to be rich, and they don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be smart. And ambitious. Preferably kind, but mainly shiny and polished and going somewhere, and while these type of students exist at any university, they are in abundance at the really good ones, and we’re often willing to pay through the nose for our child to be one of them.

The kids fall into the trap, too; they intuit early and clearly that going somewhere with wow factor in the name automatically imbibes them with a cool sapience they are suddenly ready for, and is a sure defense against anyone thinking they didn’t work their butt off in high school. Four AP classes junior and senior year, two honors with labs and final projects, and that stupid on-level class that might as well have been AP, the teacher was so tough. In their minds, they worked so dang hard, they sure as hell aren’t going to settle for some lame-o state school like a dumb jock. Then what was the point of all that?

Only here’s the rub: the schools with wow factor are getting too expensive, even for the upper, upper middle class, so their smart-as-hell kids are flocking to the state schools that impress with a smaller price tag–the Universities of Virginia and William and Marys–making those schools even harder to get in to. So now students with a four-point-five, memberships in clubs and on teams and glowing letters of recommendation can’t necessarily get into their state schools, at least not the “almost-ivies,” making them wonder why they worked so hard and slept so little in high school. Straight As and being team captain might not be good enough if you didn’t also build a nuclear reactor in the garage, and unless you lost a limb in an accident or a parent in a war, you’d better have a disabled sibling or some charity work in Haiti to write about for your essay. (If you don’t, write about something so mundane it’s barely worth mentioning, like being a redhead or playing Monopoly, and maybe the sheer quotidianness of it will impress them.) Even then, the top-notch state schools might be out of reach.

About a year ago, I visited my alma mater with my daughter for “accepted students day,” walking her around the quad and showing her the English and history department buildings, my old stomping grounds. Unexpectedly, a former professor of mine was sitting in his office, eating cheese and crackers for lunch, so many books and papers surrounding his bow-tied self that he looked like a professor in a movie. He remembered me, congratulating me on life in general and my daughter on getting in. “Honest truth,” he asked her, “Where do you think you’ll go? Is this your first choice?”

“I don’t know,” she said, earnest and blunt as ever. “I didn’t get in my first choice, or where I thought was my first choice. There are pros and cons to everything, and I don’t know exactly what I want, like I think I’m supposed to. So I don’t know what to do.”

My professor smiled at her like a grandfather and chuckled. “You know what? It doesn’t matter,” he said. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile as he said what no one else had ever said to her said to her, certainly not someone with a PhD and decades of teaching and scholarship.

“Almost any school will give you a good education if you work hard,” he went on. “It just doesn’t matter that much. Pick one because you like the size, or the area, or because you can afford it. Then go enjoy it. Study hard and don’t party too much, make some lasting friendships. Just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.” She laughed, and I swear she seemed a little more care-free the rest of the day.

It would be interesting to take a photograph of a college senior and her parents every day from the day they submit their first application to the day they commit to a university and send in the check, and put those photos together in a time-lapse video showing the whole–dare I say it– journey.  I’m not sure pictures would capture it, but if you could film the hope and the uncertainty, the surprise and pain of rejection by a school your child was sure she’d get in, the surprise of acceptance from a school he thought was a stretch, the humbling moment of hearing someone else rejoice over their child’s acceptance to a school your child didn’t get in to, it would be a fascinating movie, but from the distance of a few years, all that drama might ring a bit false, as reality TV usually does.

Like so many events in parenthood, the whole process and decision seems huge at the time, so absolutely critical to your child’s development and identity and future, but years later you can’t help but think, oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal. As long as you love them and listen to them and help them make a wise decision with the tools they’ve been given, it just isn’t that big of a deal. It’s good post-college advice, too: we should all just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.

 

Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, which is odd considering I am not tall and never have been. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember weighing 115 pounds, and thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team even though I could do handsprings and flips–not that I would have, I didn’t have the cheerleader personality, but still, here was another reason–because I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were at that time. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though some have come close. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, that dress somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

Christmas Mood Swings

In the magical weeks before Christmas, I seem to have the mood swings of a fourteen year-old girl, and I wonder if it is my own weird cross to bear or if it is common. Christmas is so freaking beautiful; white lights twinkling on trees that line the sidewalks, colored lights on the houses up and down my street, Christmas music in the stores, wreaths on the doors and anticipation in the air that is palpable. It is as exciting and wonderful as the songs say, and I still get a warm fuzzy, excited feeling in my chest like a kid.

But there’s a part of me that might, in the midst of all this happiness, think to myself: But the trees have no leaves! They’re just bare, and they look a little mournful! Or: Some of those houses on my street with lights on the roof have people in them who are SAD or have CANCER or are getting DIVORCED and it makes my heart ache to think of it! And sometimes the Christmas music in the stores is not the Bing Crosby and Andy Williams that I grew up with, but Ariana Grande or some awful group called 5th Harmony belting about having a sexy Christmas. (These may not be the actual lyrics of their songs but it is definitely the message.)  Instead of making me think of holly and sleigh rides, I suddenly think: How will my daughters’ generation ever reconcile the fact that we tell them they are not objects, but the pop music of their time tells them a woman’s role is to be both promiscuous and victimized? To demand both equal treatment and special treatment? To look and act provocative and be angry that it works?  Holly and sleigh rides would be a much easier thing to think about. 

Sometimes, right in the middle of making gingersnaps, (see recipe for life-changing gingersnaps here), I might hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and I’m overcome with melancholy. Or, worse, I’ll Be Home For Christmas, the saddest Christmas song ever. I have to fight it like a soldier, strapping my apron strings tighter and switching the song to, say, Michael Buble’s version of  White Christmas, the catchiest Christmas song ever, and refusing to be overcome. I have to shake my head a little like a boxer between rounds and think like a winner: Okay, Christmas, BRING IT, we’ll see who’s boss.

My mother once said to me, “Oh, kid, you feel too much. It’s gonna be a rough road for you.” (She grew up in 1950s Hollywood, literally, and talked like it sometimes.) I wondered about that, and years later realized I must have gotten my over-sensitivity from her, but she’d toughened up a little. Motherhood’ll do that to you. I can’t help it any more than I can help having allergies; I just feel things too much. As I kid, stray dogs and homeless people and even trash on the street made me overcome with a wave of sadness, like nausea. When ET nearly died beside the creek, and when Luke Skywalker had to hide in the body of that dead yeti-thing called a Tauntaun, my sister had to carry me out of the movie theater and drag me back home, sobbing. (I didn’t really care about Luke but I cared deeply about that poor dead Taunton.) If I saw an old person eating dinner alone in a restaurant, I couldn’t eat my food. My mom once found me watching Bambi on a rented VHS tape and shouted at my sister like someone in an action scene, “Stop the movie! Stop the movie! SHE’S NEVER GONNA MAKE IT!”

I don’t know if other people feel this way. I know Christmas is hard for many people, that depression rates are higher than any other time of year. But I am not depressed, and “sad” isn’t even the right word because I’m also immensely happy; I’m just experiencing great joy and deep awareness of the painful beauty in this world. My teenage daughters call it having “the feels,” which is awkward and apt.

It occurs to me that God intended for us to feel all those pangs of joy and sadness, sometimes even at the same time. I probably do feel too much, and it is a bit of a rough road, but everything about Christmas is both ends of bitter and sweet: the king of the universe, highly anticipated with great joy and some fear, but also in danger from the moment of his birth, outranking every king and emperor in the world but born to peasants and raised to work with his hands, rising to some fame for his holiness but destined to die like a criminal, only to be raised from the dead in the most fabulous, glorious event in the history of the universe. You’d have to be made of stone to not feel an emotional roller-coaster just thinking about it.

I knew a poet once; a philosophical, brilliant, long-haired actually-published poet  who forgot to tie his shoes and carried around a pocket-sized works of Rilke. His name was Hansi, which he said was Sri Lankan, though he was not. He was whip-smart and odd, and he intimidated me because he spoke in riddles and threw around grad-school words before the rest of us had learned them: tautological and Proustian, hermeneutic and hegemonic, Derridian, dystopian, and dichotomy. One evening after class when it began to snow, another student remarked that the snow was really pretty, except that it just turned to gray slush in the streets. Hansi waved to us, walking in the direction of some other parking lot or place, and said over his shoulder, “Love the dichotomy, man! Love the dichotomy!”

The weird poet was right, all you can do is embrace it. Get the feels and love the ups and the downs for their particular beauty. It’s probably exactly what God intended when the King of the World was born in a stable and laid in a manger.  

 

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