Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

Just yesterday, as I was meeting with two of my staffers, the subject of my birthday came up and one of my most trusted colleagues asked me how old I would be.

“55,” I answered.

“Wow, that’s a big number,” she responded and almost instantly began backpedaling. “I mean a significant number. You know, a big milestone. An important date.”

We laughed at her quick thinking and her instinctive ability to quickly recast her words when they have been wrongly interpreted. It’s something my whole staff does well, and in public relations – our line of work – it’s an invaluable skill.

But she’s right on both counts. It is a big number in both of those senses.

I don’t know where I thought I’d be when I reached the point of being entitled to the senior menu at my favorite restaurant or discounted coffee at fast food places. But I never would have imagined it to be here – in central Maine, living on a lake, serving as vice president at an elite liberal arts college, heading up a talented and energized group of professionals like my now red-faced friend. Nor could I have imagined nearly twenty years with my beautiful wife, the paths my kids’ lives are taking, and how much I would have come to love a dog … my dog. So I’m looking back today, awed by the circuitous and sometimes sideways path led me here.

But here’s the weird thing. I’m looking forward, as well. I’m thinking about many many more years with my wife, about watching my kids become adult versions of the magnificent creatures they already are. And I’m thinking about all the work left to be done here at Colby, about how great it feels to stoke the creative fire in a group of talented people and watch what happens.

About beaches I’ve yet to visit, and Irish pubs that are waiting for my arrival, and about the short stories and novels I’ve yet to read. And the ones I’ve yet to write.

So given all this, 55 seems an appropriate number. It’s the same coming and going. It looks back just as well as it looks forward.

Lucky me.

(A note: this morning that same staffer reminded me that she said “That’s a big ONE,” not a big “number.” See? I told you she was good.)


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It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.

I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.

We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.

“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.

“Who?” I ask.

“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”

“Yeah, it’s sad.”

“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”

A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …

“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.

The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.

Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.

She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.

“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.

With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.

“Go away.”

Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.

I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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Home for the holidays.

I’ve never much cared for folks who take lines of poetry out of context to make a point, but that won’t stop me from doing so here. The poem in question is Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man.” It’s a longish poem, and like many of Frost’s works, far deeper and — in some ways — more ominous than his popular reputation would have you believe. The lines I’m appropriating are these:

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.”

I’ve been thinking about these lines a lot today, mostly because of the time we’ve spent with family lately. After all, isn’t it family — wherever they may be — who represent home to us? I can’t speak for you, but apart from an aged aunt in rural southwestern Virginia, none of my family live anywhere near where I grew up, let alone in the same house. And so more than a place, it is this ragtag collection of people — some of whom I know well, some barely at all — that mean home to me.

Christmas is always the time that I’m reminded of these folks because Christmas is the time that I see them. For years, I longed for the sort of Christmases I remember — Christmases with a surfeit of toys and snow and a house full of people moving in and out all day long, stamping the snow off their boots and brushing it from their shoulders, carting armloads of packages and craving good company and good food. That kind of Christmas is captured in a picture of my sister and me standing amid thigh-high snow drifts in front of my grandparents’ house on Hazel Mountain. She’s clutching a giant stuffed dog, and I’m holding a toy helicopter aloft. If I had the picture, I’d post it here, but even then, I don’t think it could ever capture all that my memory of that moment holds.

So long ago. My sister is gone, and I miss her. And the house on Hazel Mountain is tumbling in on itself.

But one thing Christmas always brings to mind is that there’s still home. No matter how much has changed. No matter how much we’ve drifted apart. No matter how different our lives have become, or how much — or how little — we have to say to one another, there’s still home. And when we have to go there, they have to take us in.

Thank God for that.

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Sorry for the delay in posting, but it’s Nutcracker season, and if you have a dancer in your house, as I do, then you know that a significant portion of every holiday season must be spent in the company of Clara and her Christmas dream. Of course even if you don’t have a dancer in your house but you do happen to have a television, you’re likely to be haunted by the music from the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy throughout this season anyway, as it is usually applied diligently to help sell everything from cordless drills to diamonds. But when you live with a dancer, particularly a ballerina, it’s like Herr Drosselmeyer (who I’ve always found to be more than a little bit creepy) comes to stay with you for at least a couple of weeks. Of course the upside is that you get to see it performed, as we did this weekend.

As a parent of pretty active kids, I often catch a glimpse of one or both or them engaged in some group activity or sport, usually in some kind of public context, and for a moment, I see them as I might see any other child — a child whose fears and strengths and weaknesses I know nothing about. A child who is simply there on the stage, or on the tae kwon do mat, or in the dance studio, doing what they do, and I can’t figure out how they have become so beautiful, so talented, so grown.

We’ve had the good fortune to see both our son and daughter in this light on multiple occasions, and I still can’t get accustomed to that rush of blood to my head and the tightening of my throat, that impulse to turn to whoever is next to me and say “That’s my kid.” It’s good to be proud, and proud I was as I watched my daughter moving so beautifully on stage.

But something else happened this weekend, something that reminded me of where we’ve been, and how far our children have come.

After each performance, a few members of the company are asked to come out into the lobby in full stage makeup and costume, including pointe shoes. My daughter was asked to do so after the matinee this Sunday, the performance that we attended. Busy crowds bustled about the lobby, and the din was tremendous. A large number of the audience were young girls, all dressed up — some in their best holiday attire, some in ballet outfits. They clung to their parents with one arm, clutched souvenir nutcrackers with the other, and stared up open-mouthed at the spectacle of full-grown, honest-to-goodness ballerinas in their midst.

I stood on the landing above the lobby, just watching as my girl — looking all grown up — bent down to say hello and thank the younger dreamers for coming. And in the faces of those younger girls, I saw the face of my daughter so many years ago — years before the many rides to and from classes and performances, the days and days of rehearsals, and the hours and hours and hours of practice.

And I felt glad to be reminded that some dreams do indeed come true.


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Thanksgiving is gone, Black Friday has passed, and whatever you call the weekend after the holiday is history. It’s all over now but the leftovers (and they’re just about gone, too.) We had a pretty traditional Thanksgiving — traditional for us anyway.

Some time, several years ago now, we began boycotting Thanksgiving travel, even though our families are far away. Our logic was that since we had the youngest kids in our extended families, and we lived the farthest away, and we would see everyone at Christmas, we would just stay home for Thanksgiving. We invited anyone and everyone to come join us, but — thankfully, as it turns out — no one has taken us up on the offer.

Don’t get me wrong. We love our families, but for the four of us, Thanksgiving has evolved into something more than turkey. In fact, it’s hardly about the turkey at all. It’s about the time.

We’re a pretty busy bunch, a condition that usually tends to get worse as the fall and winter holidays draw near. I know we’re not alone in this, and I’ve always considered this stretching of resources — time, energy, money — to be one of the downsides of this time of year. But for us, Thanksgiving Day is not a part of that process. In fact, it’s the opposite.

On that day, my wife and I don’t even think about work — freelance or otherwise. We tend to lay off the computer. All the kids’ activities are cancelled. We wake up without an alarm, and leave our pajamas on most of the day. Yes, we cook — a shamelessly big meal for the four of us, I’ll admit — but we eat it whenever it’s all ready, without all the complications of dinner guests and the fretting over mistimed side dishes. Thanks to my wife’s foresight, we usually have at least a couple of movies that we’ve been wanting to see stacked near the television, just waiting. There are always board games involved. We have a fire if it’s cold, hot chocolate if it’s really cold, and popcorn no matter what the weather.

On Thanksgiving Day, it’s not us that gets stretched. It’s the day that get stretched, and we have all come to look forward to this annual phenomenon. We talk more together, do more together, enjoy more time together than any other time of the year. It’s a ritual that’s become about as traditional for us as the turkey, the stuffing, the steamed chocolate pudding — all of it.

And that’s a lot to be thankful for.

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