That Damn Tree

At some point my mom and stepdad started referring to the Christmas tree as “that damn tree” because of the frustration that always ensued when my step-dad—great with a scalpel but not as much with a screwdriver—tried to put the tree into the stand. Inevitably the trunk was crooked and misshapen, the hole of the stand was too small, and the screws meant to tighten into the trunk to hold it steady and upright wouldn’t turn. Even after getting all that settled, the tree often leaned precariously and required multiple adjustments.

To make it worse, the first few years after we moved from Texas to Colorado and started venturing out into the woods with friends to cut our own tree, I was openly dismayed by the change from the very expensive and thickly-branched tree-lot specimens we had previously purchased compared to the spindly, sparsely branched wild “Charlie Brown” ones we dragged home from the woods. (To be totally honest, I think I cried at the sight of it the first year we did this.) Don’t get me wrong. I did love stomping around in the snow, searching for a tree and the actual cutting but, once viewed inside, it took a bit of getting used to.

I have a fake tree now—avoiding the expense, mess and annual tree-killing a live tree requires. Not to mention the watering, needles on the carpet and the supposed fire danger. Putting it up is relatively easy but I have to sheepishly admit I still think of it as that damn tree. It makes me feel vastly unsentimental and a bit Grinch-ish to confess to this but I’m just over it. I’m over the Christmas tree. I’d be fine with little mini-tree, a few lights, candles, a few wooden Santas, an angel or two and calling it good.

I’m pretty sure the rest of my family won’t stand for this so I’ll have to wait a few more years until I no longer have kids at home. Of course, I’m hoping they’ll still come home for Christmas but maybe by then I’ll be brave enough to break with tradition.

I suppose I could go on Christmas tree strike, offer to do all the other Christmasy things I enjoy and let whoever is willing wrestle the thing out of the basement closet, up the stairs and into the living room where the furniture then needs to be rearranged to make space for it take care of it. Which is pretty much how it’s going because so far no one has brought it upstairs and I’m not going to. A sort of holiday line in the sand.

Here’s another thing I’m over. Turkey. Honestly, it’s just not interesting anymore. Maybe I’ve been responsible for roasting too many turkeys over the years and I’d feel differently if the turkey were coming from someone else’s kitchen. But there you have it.

There’s far too much of it no matter how small the bird I start out with and really, it just isn’t that good. Turkey sandwiches and leftover turkey and stuffing are fine for a few days. But there always seems to be far more than a few day’s worth. Please do not suggest I boil a gigantic turkey carcass to make turkey soup. Again—I’ve done this more times than I can count and I’m done with it. I’m all for homemade but I’m not The Pioneer Woman. I won’t be spending two days making turkey stock or canning my own green beans. There are some things I find the grocery store to be quite adequate for. I know homemade stock is supposed to be the culinary height but it’s just not worth it to me.

There are some things I do look forward to this season. I love being out at night and seeing lights on the trees and on houses. I like their reminders that this season of darkness is headed back toward the season of light. I like snowy days when I can stay inside in front of the fire, sip tea and listen to holiday music.

For many years, my family read two Christmas stories out loud: Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory and A Cajun Night Before Christmas by Trosclair, Ed. Howard Jacobs. Capote’s story is sweet, a memory of Christmases he spent with a distant cousin he lived with during his childhood. Though terribly poor, the rituals they created together are full of meaning and love. His writing of the story and use of language is beautiful. A Cajun Night Before Christmas is just lots of fun and reminds me of one of the first Christmases my husband and I spent together in New Orleans.

There are, of course, foods I DO look forward to. The box of homemade goodies my dad and stepmom send is impatiently awaited each year—roasted pecans, cheese wafers, and fruitcake cookies. The cookies sound gross, I know. But when you taste one, you’ll be begging for more. And true confessions here, I don’t share. I mean, I have to share them with my family but I don’t offer them to guests. They’re too precious. We have shrimp and grits for Christmas Eve dinner to honor my southern heritage. Christmas breakfast of fruit and cottage cheese crepes comes from my husband’s holiday tradition.

Photo by Dmitry Beyer on Unsplash

Chris ChandlerComment
These Boys

These teenage boys, full of inertia and sullenness, the ones who say to me, “you suck,” the ones who leave their dishes in their rooms until we no longer have bowls or glasses or silverware; the ones who make off with the charging cord for my phone; who clean the bathroom poorly and forget to walk the dog. The ones who leave wet towels in heaps on my bathroom floor and who insist on using my shower instead of theirs. The ones who manage to “hang” towels in a wad on the towel rack.

Yes, these are the ones I wish I could still pull onto my lap and read a story to. The ones who just yesterday were small enough to scoop up and hold propped on a hip. The ones who slipped their hands into mine.

These boys—I forgot to look at their faces today. I forgot to look at their hearts. I forgot to see beyond the dirty sheets, the piles of big shoes by the door, the unswept cat litter on the bathroom floor, the piles of soda cans and bottles on their desks and bedroom floors. I forgot, amidst the daily frustrations and annoyances, what this is all about, how this all started.

Because these are also the boys who who thoughtfully offer to make me a cup of tea and go to Target later because my stomach hurts. The ones who cherish the kitten and say to me, “Mama, look how sweet she is.” Who say, “How was your day?” and “How did you sleep?”

These are the boys whose laughs I love, who taught me how to appreciate boy humor in all it’s crassness and cynicism, who introduce me to new music every day.

These are the boys who guide me into the 21st century. Who keep me from getting old. Who don’t allow me to turn away from modern technology, who challenge my thinking.

These are the boys who, even as teenagers, will occasionally crawl into our bed and ask for a back rub. These are the boys who, when I don’t hear their “Mom!” shout “Chris!”

These boys. Tender, harsh, angry, sweet.

These boys.

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Chris ChandlerComment
Clematis

i went on my first bona fide mountain bike ride yesterday it was vaguely terrifying i know you’re supposed to keep your eye on the line of the trail you want to follow and not on the obstacles you’re trying to avoid because your bike will go where your eyes go and yet sometimes it’s impossible not to stare at the rock in the middle of the trail the one you are trying to avoid because it seems dangerous not to look at it the way the trail was narrow and sometimes there were boulders on the edge threatening to catch my pedals and scrape me up when i tipped over on them which i did once when i panicked and didn’t get my feet on the ground soon enough too white knuckled to let go of the handlebars to push my glasses back up onto my nose at home later i realized my butt was sore but even worse so were those itty bitty parts further forward which makes me think of my friend who was given a clematis plant as a going away gift from her teaching job she stood up in front of her colleagues and thanked them for the clitoris plant big slip of the tongue i think clematis is a better name for that spot i hate those sorts of euphemistic references but i’m choosing one now i know i need to get my bike and seat adjusted given this soreness but i can’t figure out what to go in and say to the most-likely twenty year old male bike mechanic without seeming inappropriate indecent and just plain strange and then i wonder about the word clitoris and how i even hesitated to type it here i’ll admit the sound of the word itself doesn’t make my ears sing but i wonder if that’s really an effect of the way the sounds of the letters go together or because i’ve learned over my years of womanhood that it’s a shameful word people talk about penises all the time tell their buddies not to be a dick reference balls he busted my balls balls to the wall i’ve got him by the balls and we don’t even blink but we as women are shamed for our bodies our words for our body parts offensive dirty to be left unsaid only to be referred to in some sideways manner don’t think about it don’t talk about it don’t say it out loud and by all means don’t type it in your essay

Photo credit: Photo by kenny kutney on Unsplash

Chris ChandlerComment
Homecoming

As we were in the airport yesterday, my mom asked me, “So, are you ready to go home?”

I felt tears well up in my eyes, a hitch in my voice, the swelling of my chest. I didn’t feel like bursting into tears right then and there. but it was happening, and I had to admit my answer was, “No.”

I had just spent five days away from home, absent responsibility and deep in the presence of other women in various configurations—my mom, my sister, and most of the time among the twelve women I had come to know like sisters over the past five months, as we trained together to lead writing workshops.

We had spent those five months writing together, carrying one another through sadness and triumph and all things in between. During this weekend I got to bask in their physical presence, their lack of demands, judgements or needs.

The thought of transitioning back into real life—getting kids to do chores, wiping up muddy dog prints, shopping for and cooking dinner. Stepping back into the minutiae of daily life suddenly seemed overwhelming.

I wanted to stay in our little boathouse Airbnb on the canal, walk in the cool morning among the palm and orange trees, magnolias and bougainvillea; to sit everyday with these women and dive deep into our thoughts on life; to have my lunch perpetually catered; to make art; to watch the prayer flags flutter in the breeze.

That’s the problem, I’ve found, with vacations, with time-outs from real life: the transition back in, the re-entry, the re-adjustment.

It’s not until I walk back into my house to dirty laundry, the ever present question of what’s for dinner, fluffs of dog hair in the corner of the stairs, stacks of unopened mail and the question of whether anyone cleaned the cat box while I was gone that I realize I harbored a fantasy that things would have changed while I was gone. That someone besides me would have bought milk or planned a meal for the eve of my return or gotten out the vacuum cleaner. That someone would have picked up the note I left in the hallway for the kids when I left five days ago.

When I travel together with my family, I’m careful to leave my house in a state I want to return to. If I have a house sitter, I ask them to leave my home vacuumed and reasonably clean, with clean sheets on the beds. Someone challenged me recently with these questions: What would you have to do to take such good care of yourself that you had no complaints? At first I had no idea what she was talking about, so I sat there silently for a while, pondering.

She wasn’t talking about manicures and massages or pairs of shoes. She meant what would you have to ask for, what would you have to say no to, what boundaries would you have to set, what desires would you have to reveal in order to have no complaints?

That was when I realized my own complicity in the equation of my disappointment. In order to have no complaints upon my re-entry from a trip, I’d have to ask. I’d have to itemize my expectations to my family as clearly as I do to a housesitter. Is it possible that if I did that, I’d break the cycle of fantasy and disillusionment? There’s only one way to find out.



Chris ChandlerComment
What I'm Not Writing About

I’m not writing about that black hole kids go into when they become teenagers. The black hole called music and ear buds and video games. That black hole called a closed bedroom door.

My oldest stayed what I called pre-eye roll for a long time, long after many of his friends were openly expressing distain for the adults in their lives and other things teenagers snarl at. So I took it as a good sign and I let myself believe that it wouldn’t happen to us.

And then one night, very shortly before turning 14, we asked him to leave the table over some sort of rudeness. He walked across the living room, stopped in the middle, did that offhand  shoulder shrug only teenagers can do, sighed, muttered under his breath, turned around and rolled his eyes.

Oh, shit. We have a teenager.

I’m not writing about how painful it is to have this happen. To have this person who was once a little body I could pick up and hold, who would sit on my hip like a monkey, legs gripping my waist, become distant. Who would climb into my lap for reading or eating. Who would squinch close on the couch while watching TV or any old time.

I’m not writing about how badly I want to knock on his door during the hours he’s home holed up in his room, not to check on what he’s doing but just to re-establish contact; about how my heart  feels cleaved in two when he’s dismissive, surly, blaming. How afraid I am, telling myself this is life with teenagers. Or about the vast confusion I feel as to how to approach him, wondering which direction each interaction will turn. Some moments he wants to hug me, tells me he loves me, other moments he snarls and dismisses me with “I need time alone.” No one told me how much the unpredictability of teenage moods would throw me off.

I’m not saying how hard it is to love during these times, how badly I want to lash back out at him, how hard it is not to take it personally, how hard it is to remain rational, how hard it is not to say mean things out of my own anger and sorrow.

I’m not discussing how badly my faith in my parenting has been shaken. How badly I second guess myself in each interaction with him. Did I give in too easily? Should I have compromised on that?

I’m not writing about how often I agree to pick him up from school instead of having him take the bus because it’s time when we get to talk, free of other distractions, free of others. Or how much I love being in the car with him at night on the way home from martial arts when he waxes poetic about how much the practice inspires him. Or talks about songs he loves and what he finds important in them.

I’m not talking about the delicate dance required to step back and let him grow, let him become himself; about the constant internal turnings I go through as I decide which things to take a stand on and which to leave up to him.

I’m not writing about the struggle to see my child for who he is and not who I want him to be. About the challenge of allowing his uniqueness to unfold instead of trying to make him into me, into my husband.

I am not writing about trying to trust his unfolding instead of forcing him into some predetermined vision of him I’ve developed. I am not writing about the vast amount of uncertainty I feel about what’s “right,” about how much control to relinquish.

I am not writing about how pure and sweet the early days of parenting are. And the seeping sadness as it gets tainted by conflict and uncertainty and frustration. About the longing for the purity of those early days before I made mistakes and yelled. Before he said “No!” before I said, “Yes!” Before he said “Yes” and I said “No.”

I am not writing about the time he and my husband had an argument and he stomped out the door at 10 pm. About how he didn’t come back for an hour. How my husband said, “Don’t go after him, that’s what he wants.” And how I said, “I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t look for him and something happens.” How I found him walking down the highway in the pitch black dark. About how terrified I felt.

I am not writing about the vast vulnerability I feel at the knowledge that I must let go of my kids, that I cannot protect them entirely, that I have to let them make mistakes and then help them learn from their choices.

I am not writing about the absolute ache in my heart over how much I love them, how much I want the best for them, and how hard it sometimes seems to do what I think is right. How I can only do the best I can, with what I know at the time. About how there are no guarantees, about how this journey is always unfolding for all of us. About how I have to trust myself and my kids as we walk this path of becoming.

Chris ChandlerComment