Can’t Get Used To Something So Right

It’ll probably be a few more days until things return to normal around here, but they are starting to slow down. Rick’s back working in Vancouver, and Tyson, Jen, and Logan returned to Colorado yesterday. I was tired enough last night that I started getting ready for bed at 9:00 instead of my usual midnight.

Trying to cram as much fun as you can into five days is exciting, but exhausting. We started Christmas Tuesday night at Leslie’s daughter’s house because they were spending Christmas in Oregon. After Christmas Eve dinner with Rick and Ted, I went to the airport to pick up Tyson and family at the airport at 10:30. Waiting there for the last plane of the night, I realized just how lucky I was to be spending Christmas with my children because airports always strike me as the loneliest places in the world, even when you’re waiting for loved ones.

Luckily, there was no time for loneliness after Tyson, Jen and Logan arrived, though things went so fast that they seem like a blur now.

We opened presents to a packed house Christmas day. I was so busy that I even forgot to take photos of most of the happenings, though I did record parts of Christmas morning on my Canon Mini-DV. I’m still not sure what I have, but I suspect I’ll have to depend on my memory to remember most of what happened. At my age, though, I think it’s best to enjoy events as they happen rather than worrrying about reliving them later through pictures.

I do remember that Grandpa got a Playmobile Castle to go with the other knights he already owns. That might be because it’s still here this morning after everyone has left:

I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to play with it yet, but I imagine Gavin and I will finally get a chance to play with it on my birthday tomorrow or on New Year’s Eve when we babysit him.

Saturday several of us went to see Lord of the Rings, while others watched the grandkids. When we returned we went to Dawn’s for dinner and then spent the evening watching the babies while those who didn’t go to Lord of the Rings went to see Cold Mountain.

Sunday morning was nearly as hectic, culminating in taking Tyson, Jen and Logan Riley back to the airport.

Hamill’s A Dragon in the Clouds

Although I didn’t like Sam Hamill’s A Dragon in the Clouds nearly as much as I did Margaret Chula’s Grinding My Ink, I did enjoy reading this short collection of Chinese and Japanese inspired poetry.

My favorite poem in the book is, as I understand it, a translation of Ryokan’s

I never longed for the wilder side of life
Rivers and mountains were my friends.

Clouds consumed my shadow where I roamed,
and birds pass high above my resting place.

Straw sandals in snowy villages,
a walking stick in spring,

I sought a timeless truth: the flowers’ glory
is just another form of dust.

It may be that the poem merely provides a nice contrast to these hectic days of getting ready for Christmas, but I suspect that this particular poem holds a much deeper truth for me than that.

The first two lines could perhaps serve as a succinct summary of my own life, and the next two lines describe most of the mountains I hike here in the Pacific Northwest. While I have never hiked in the snow with my sandals, I have hiked many a mile around Mt Hood in them, with and without my hiking stick. It’s the last two lines, though, that come closest to conveying my life-long spiritual journey.

Though I think I found Hamill’s “translations” most inspiring, I did find a number of his original poems interesting, too. My favorite it is probably:

Wanting one good organic line
I wrote a thousand sonnets

Wanting a little peace,
I folded a thousand cranes.

Every discipline a new evasion;
every crane a dodge:

Basho didn’t know a thing about water
until he heard the frog.

It’s obvious that Hamill and I share some common goals, and we’ve even attempted to attain those goals using some of the same techniques. I’ve practice origami and sumi painting not so much for their own sake but to learn a self-discipline I often find lacking in myself, only to discover that these attempts at self-discipline were more apt to be an escape from boredom, an indulgence in “newness,” than a path to true enlightenment.

… It was The Worst of Times

Perhaps subconsciously my mother was preparing me for adulthood when she bought and played Bing Crosby’s The Happy Prince during all those magical Christmases I experienced as a child for despite the story’s title, this powerful story is anything but “happy”. Indeed, it suggests some people’s happiness comes at the price of others’ sorrow and that some times true “happiness” can only be found through personal sorrow and sacrifice.

There must be a considerable number of people feeling blue at Christmas judging from the number of hits I get every year on my “Got Those Down Home Christmas Blues” blog entry of December 2001, a year when I was recovering from major surgery for throat cancer. Although that surgery has undoubtedly extended my life, it put me through a living hell for three and a half months. Leslie who was trying hard to make my Christmas a good one was more than a little miffed when she read the rant on my site, but, then, she wasn’t the one who had the top of her voice box and part of her tongue removed, lived on a feeding tube for over three months, and was forced to communicate, the few times I actually felt like communicating, through notes passed back and forth. Turns out writing ain’t that great of a communication tool, though a blog might be if you manage to tell the truth.

Of course, I knew the effects of this surgery before I had it, but given the alternatives there seemed like little choice. Recovery would have been a painful and frustrating experience no matter when I had the surgery. Perhaps I naively thought Christmas would help me to heal faster. If so, wishful thinking had once again deceived me. Unfortunately, Christmas made me more depressed than I would otherwise have felt. Christmas is a time of joy and miracles, not a time of personal suffering, my heart told me. No matter how hard everyone tried, I was miserable, and there was no denying it. I nearly chocked to death merely trying to lick the frosting off a Santa Claus cookies, for God’s sake. Instead of gaining my usual merry five or ten pounds, I lost over 20 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by feeling miserable at Christmas for some of the worst moments in my life seem to have occurred at Christmas. I’d hoped that the Christmas I spent in Vietnam with less than ten days left in the service, was going to be a low point in my life. Somehow I thought that since I’d already been relieved of my command and had less than two weeks to serve that the Army would make an effort to get me home. This from someone who had actually read Kafka’s The Castle. Because I was a short-timer, no one even bothered to send cards or presents, but Christmas is really a single day, isn’t it? Christmas really isn’t Christmas three weeks later, no matter how much we would like it to be.

Nearly twenty years later, I suffered perhaps an even more miserable Christmas, the first one after my late-November divorce. It was, ironically, the only White Christmas I could ever remember in the thirty-five years I spent in Vancouver, Washington. Any other year it would have been a miraculous Christmas for everyone, but after spending two and half hours trying to dig my Datsun pickup out of the snow and trying to drive up a long, steep driveway, I had to call my kids and tell them that I couldn’t get out to see them. They were more understanding than I was; their house was full of relatives from Montana, after all. When I asked my ex if she would drive over and pick me up in the Rabbit she blew up and accused me of trying to “ruin her Christmas.” Needless to say, spending the entire day alone in an empty house full of anger and loneliness was not quite the Christmas I had envisioned for myself. Of course, it was just another day, like many days I had already spent alone after my divorce. But this was Christmas, a day I would never choose to spend alone.

Unfortunately, I have even had some relatively sad Christmases after these two, Christmases without parents who had recently died, Christmases without children who were on the other side of the state. By now, Christmas has been permanently tinged with bittersweet memories that are now as much a part of the day as the magical moments I spent in the comfort of my parents’ home, untouched by divorce or tragedy for nearly twenty-two years.

Sometimes I fear the magic of those early years has merely made it more difficult for me to deal with the reality of life. Surely it would be easier to just expect less from the season, but fortunately I seldom have sense enough to follow the easiest path, the path of least disappointment. In fact, I just keep setting myself up for disappointment, year after year. What greater tribute to those miraculous moments my parents gave me when I was a child?

Now, of course, I get my greatest joy from giving to my kids and, especially, my grandkids. Leslie and I seldom even bother to buy presents for each other. My children have probably already known too much of life’s sorrow to be conned into believing life is totally miraculous, so I focus on trying to recreate that illlusion, if but for a moment, in the grandchildren. Sometimes when that happens, when the grandchildren really glow with joy and excitement, for that moment I, too, can believe that life is miraculous.

The reality, of course, is that if you’re lucky life is bittersweet, not just bitter. I know this Christmas will be a bittersweet one for Jen because it will be her first Christmas with Logan, but it will also be her first one without her mother who just passed away. Hopefully sharing her Christmas with us will make Christmas easier for her, but her best hope of transcending the sorrow of loss will be sharing the excitement Logan and Gavin feel Christmas morning.

Perhaps in the end Christmas is even more precious once you’ve discovered how fragile joy really is, for only then can it be appreciated for what it truly is ” a short, precious moment that must be experienced fully in the moment for it is as fleeting as the day itself, no longer than a train ride around the Christmas tree.