Oh, Christmas Tree

Zen. Part of the name of this ongoing blog. It’s a school of Mahayana Buddhism that encourages enlightenment through intuition received from meditation. Meditation is achieved by being present in the moment while letting the mind wander in a way. I am no stranger to this concept.

Someone asked me not long ago how I come up with my ideas for writing. Trying to explain it was difficult. I threw out words such as “reflection” and “slivers,” but I’m sure it sounded like a kindergartener attempting to explain the premise of a movie he had recently seen.

The fact is, most of my writing comes to me while in a bastardized version of meditation. Late after work on weekend nights, after I’ve had a couple cocktails and step outside for a cigarette (therein lies the Vice)—or while driving without my daughter in the car, I’ll turn off the radio and just be present. Random thoughts flicker and float like snowflakes from flurries or embers from a fire. Many of them are nonsense, but a few slivers wedge themselves into my consciousness. They’re often unformed thoughts that I jot down in my notebook and they may stay there indefinitely. Others plant themselves and almost immediately bloom into something that touches my heart or makes me say, “huh.”

As I sit here writing this, I’m looking at the Christmas tree Madison and I put up last night. I’m home alone. The cats don’t count, and they’re utterly disinterested in the tree in a strange un-cat-like manner. I blame video games and social media for their behavior. They think they know it all. Typical teenagers.

But, I digress. The Christmas tree always relaxes me, much as it does so many other people. It is a symbol of the holiday season. A miniature version of the old adage that hard work pays off. No, I didn’t go all Clark Griswold and cut down my own. I leave that to my sister and brother-in-law. However, if you think taking a fake tree out of the box in which it has been crammed for most of a year and bending it back into something resembling a tree is easy, you are sorely mistaken. And the 3000-foot string of lights I got for it because I apparently write better than I read is not the easiest to wrap around when two cats are attacking the bulbs as they trail across the floor. I would say that my daughter helped, but Madison mostly just laughed at the cats. Until the ornaments.

Our tradition with the ornaments is no joke. Every year, we go together to pick out a new one. The chosen ornament will be inscribed with our signatures and the year we got it. The decision for the ornament requires careful thought. This is not kid’s stuff.

When the time for the ornament-placing comes, all the ornaments are laid out on the floor, with our personalized ones set aside in their own group. These go on first, so they can hold the most prominent places on the tree. Then go the bulbs. Then the others. We don’t talk much while we put them up. Zen and all that. Over the years, my daughter has taken more of a role in where to put them. If you are obsessive-compulsive, I do not suggest examining our tree. There’s a solid chance you’ll suffer a panic attack. But, to me, it is perfect.

Last night, after Madison had been asleep for a while, I was winding down for bed myself. I was finishing my drink and had turned off the television. The only light in the living room was from the tree. I sat back in my recliner and enjoyed its company. I was present in that moment. If I didn’t have a hint of a smile on my face, it was certainly in my soul.

Looking over the tree is akin to observing a quilt that was created over generations. A tapestry of ornaments that tell stories.

There are those we chose together, each with varying degrees of penmanship as the years rolled on. A big bulb from ’09 that shows a snowman Madison insisted was Frosty. The signatures were both written by me, because she hadn’t quite mastered writing her name at the age of three. A bulb with the Grinch from ’11—her name scribbled in her own hand with a lot of jagged swirls brought on by her newer talent and her lack of sizeable hand to hold the ornament still. Pinkie Pie from ’15 with her signature prettier than mine. The latest ornament that she picked yesterday is more adult. Blue with a white glitter winter wonderland encompassing it. Together, they all tell the story of a young child who has grown into a young lady. It’s intriguing how your heart can break and swell at the same time.

There are the other ornaments, of course. A stork carrying a baby in a pink blanket. Madison was given that by my oldest sister for her first Christmas. A painted E.T. that was given to me by my own aunt when I was four. A collection of beautifully-crafted ornaments from India given to us by my cousin when she lived there. A random piece of paper containing small shapes and designs drawn by the budding artist who shares my home, secured to a branch by a paperclip punched through it. And my favorite: A pink bulb with a tiny white handprint stuck to it, the fingers drawn on to look like snowmen—a present from when my daughter was in Kindergarten. The attached note says, “These aren’t just five snowmen, as anyone can see. I made them with my hand, which is part of me. Now each year when you trim the tree, you’ll look back and recall, Christmas of 2011, when my hand was just this small.”

And more. Quite a few more. We’ll need a bigger tree soon. But, for now, one side of my living room is lit up with light and magic and memories. This tree is my Christmas.

The holidays can be stressful. They are full of running around and expenses. Coming up with new places to hide that damn elf (and remembering to move him every night so your cover isn’t blown). Family we haven’t seen in nearly a year. Some we like. Some we may not. Extra cooking and colder nights.

But, if you haven’t put up your tree yet, I suggest you do it. Take your time. If you have children, have them help. The gift comes later when you’re alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, plug in your tree. Put down your phone. Turn of the TV. Turn off the lights. Ease into that Christmas quilt and wrap yourself in the tapestry of memories. You’ll be happy you did.

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And So It Begins

Advice is a funny thing. Many of us, myself included, can dole it out in abundance.

I have given advice to friends about relationships and life choices. Obviously, being 38 years of age, single, and living in an apartment qualify my advice. Over my years bartending, I have given it to complete strangers who have bellied up to my bar to “drink away” their worries, only to spend the next couple hours talking about those worries with the guy supplying said drinks that were designed to create temporary amnesia. I have even given myself a lot of it internally, looking into my own eyes while shaving or brushing my teeth. I have decided that I am not a great listener. Most importantly, I have given a lot of advice over the last few years to my daughter.

“Follow your dreams.”

That’s the big one. That has been a recurring theme in my parental advice. Certainly, I’ve given out the basics: If you clean your room regularly, you won’t have to spend so much time on it all at once. If you don’t toss your clothes randomly into your closet, you’ll be able to find your favorite set of pajamas. Brushing your hair well after your shower will prevent this rat’s nest on top of your head in the morning. Doing your homework as soon as we get home frees you up for the rest of the evening. Ranch dressing doesn’t necessarily have to accompany every meal. To be fair, the last example might be incorrect. Everything is better with ranch dressing. Yes, I am from the Midwest.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love. In a small way, I no longer feel like a hypocrite in this respect. In just a couple months, I will be celebrating one year of publishing a new piece every week. Every Monday, I sit down and finalize a new work of writing and feel a wave of satisfaction when I click “publish.” I feel good about myself. I feel accomplished. That is, apart from last week. Last week’s piece was never written. It wasn’t written because something else has been circling my mind. I thoroughly enjoy my weekly pieces. However, a weekly blog is not my dream, as much as I love it. Doing what you love shouldn’t come in tiny pieces on a weekly schedule. I want to write. So, I have begun working on a book. The ideas for that book consumed me and made it difficult to focus on anything else.

I briefly considered putting the blog on hold altogether. Luckily, a very good friend of mine gave me some solid advice when I asked for her input. Following that advice, I’m going to publish here bi-weekly. This will free up my time a bit to work in a world of fiction, but still allow me to keep up with my readers and give me an outlet for my daily reflections. I get the best of both worlds.

If you follow me regularly, I appreciate it more than you can know. If you have randomly stumbled across this and do not follow me, I am giving you the advice to make better life choices.

So, why the decision to write fiction? As with most choices I make, it came from reflection. And at the heart of it is my daughter, Madison.

A new teacher started at her school this year. In the world of private Catholic school, he is something of an anomaly. Although her school is incredible and provides her a top-notch education, the encouragement of free-thought and imagination isn’t the highest priority. But this teacher fosters creativity. He holds early morning sessions to teach students to draw. He asks them to bring in writing they’ve done in their free time to share with the class. He even supported a rap battle between two students.

After learning about this during a school open house, I asked Madison if she had taken in any of her writing. Her response: “No. It isn’t done yet. It’s not ready.”

I know that feeling. When I decided to announce to my friends and family that I was starting a blog at the first of the year, it was a little terrifying. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have any pieces even completed yet, other than a few that I’d written a couple years before. But I did it. I leapt. And it felt right.

In thinking about my daughter’s blossoming interest in reading, writing, and drawing, I started to think about how it had all begun for me. Fiction. Stephen King. J.R.R. Tolkien. Dean Koontz. Kurt Vonnegut. Reading these and so many other works of fiction inspired me. I wanted to write. I wanted to create worlds in my mind. I wanted others to be immersed in the worlds I had imagined into being.

My daughter is my life barometer. As such, giving her advice begins the pressure of living that advice.

Follow your dreams. Do what you love.

Okay.