Sunday Christmas

It’s surprising the places your mind can go when you’re confined in a car for twelve hours. On this trip from Sneads Ferry to Nashville, Tennessee, my mind is like a butterfly in a garden, fluttering from one thought to another, sometimes lingering on a memory inspired from a scene outside my window or a song on the radio.  After I sit on one memory and sip all of its nectar I get caught up on the breeze of another memory and meander to it’s special spot in the garden. There I rest as I get lost in the fragrance of the past, presence and future.

My eye is drawn to a small lake by the interstate right outside Knoxville, Tennessee.  By most standards it’s not even a lake.  It’s a glorified pond, pretty enough, but so close to the road that the cars whizzing by on I 40 are bound to shake and rattle the campers like a constant series of mini earthquakes. Plus it’s cold outside.  I wonder who in the world would want to spend Christmas in a tin can on trembling ground right up by one of the busiest roads in America.  For a few seconds I linger on that thought and my mind jumps to the back yard of my parents house in Tarboro, North Carolina.  I am about ten years old and my brother, Scot and I are camping out in a pup tent behind the house.  It is a damp night and within a few hours the blankets smell of wet dogs and old woolen beach mildew.    It begins to drizzle rain and I wish we were in waterproof sleeping bags. 

Sleeping bags and camping…During Spring Break of my Freshman year at ECU, my friends and I go camping on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with the dual purpose of looking for summer jobs and having fun.  We have no camping gear so we make a tent out of bed sheets.  After we finish putting it together the wind fills it up and it looks like a giant marshmallow sitting in the middle of tin can campers. What is it with tin cans?  

Tin cans…My memory takes me to the warehouse of Isaiah 58, a food ministry for the hungry, in Oxford, Alabama, where I used to work.  I see a big, battered pallet box filled to the brim with assorted cans of food for the needy.  It’s winter time and the warehouse has no heat, but the volunteers don’t care.  They have formed an assembly line and as they joke and banter back and forth, laughter fills the air as cans of food fill the banana boxes.

  A line of tired, worried looking people has formed outside the lobby door, waiting for us to open up.  There is a girl who barely looks old enough to babysit, much less be old enough to mother the child sitting on her jutting hip bone.  “Do you have any diapers in a size three?” she asks.  That’s a popular size and I don’t know if we have any left, but I tell her we’ll look and see if we do.  An elderly woman, held up by her walker, stands in line, her shabby, thin coat barely shielding her from the biting wind.  “May I ask you something?” she motions her head at me because she wants me to lean into her whisper. I put my head near her lips.  “Do you have any Depends in my size?” She is embarrassed to ask and I feel her shame.  “Mam, I saw some earlier this week in the back of the warehouse.  I’m sure we have some for you.  She’s so relieved to hear  that bit of good news that her shoulders sit up a bit straighter.  I thank God that for one week we can give her a little bit of dignity and how pitiful it is that dignity has anything at all to do with Depends…

Bill puts the breaks on and the car slows down a bit.  We are passing by a little town with one exit off the interstate.  I look down off of the overpass and see a small gas station with two pumps.  Right beside it is a Piggly Wiggly.  Why would anyone name their grocery store that?  It sounds so unappetizing to think of squealing, wiggly pigs and yet the parking lot is filled with trucks and cars. My eyes shift to the Baptist Church across the street.  It is a small, red brick building with a steeple and big white double doors adorned with cheery Christmas wreathes.  My mind wanders…

    It’s Christmas Day and it’s a Sunday.  I’m twelve years old and I don’t like Christmas falling on a Sunday. Don’t preachers know that kids don’t like to leave their Christmas trees, toys and nice warm houses to go to church on a Christmas Day?  My mom tells me and my siblings to stop whining; that we aren’t remembering the real “reason for the season.” My mom knows how to put a guilt trip on me.  She tells us we can all bring something we got from Santa to church, as long as it’s small and we behave with it.  I decide to show off my new watch.

We walk into the sanctuary and I’m utterly amazed at the size of the crowd.  Other parents must have dragged their children there too, because there are kids sitting down by their parent’s feet on the floor playing with their toys too.  I sit down in the pew next to my mom, deciding I’m going to act older and more grownup.  I notice my grandmother and grandfather sitting across the room.  Church still hasn’t started and I lift up my arm and point to the new watch attached to it.  I mouth, “Look what I got.”. She smiles and motions to me to come over and sit next to her.  I ask my mom if that will be alright and she says, “Sure.  Go ahead.”. 

I walk over to her like the teenager I am not, carrying myself like an older, wiser young lady who has on a watch any cool teenager would wear.  I’m fooling no one but myself.  Everyone in the room knows everything important there is to know about me.  Grandmother pats the chair next to her and I plop down and shove the wrist with the pretty, golden, Citizens watch in her lap, waiting for her to comment.  She picks up my hand, caresses the watch like it is a family jewel found on a fairy princess’ delicate arm.                                                       “Oh, Donna!”. She exclaims.  “That is the prettiest watch I’ve ever seen!”. I look up at her.  Her grandmother’s love is brilliantly shining at me and I realize I am old enough to know the difference between unconditional, glowing love and “putting up with” kind of love.  I grin up at her and say, “It is beautiful, isn’t it Grandmother? (I call her ‘Grandmother’ because I am older now and ‘Mamaw’ sounds so babyish.  

It is time for the service to begin and Pastor Kridel greets us and thanks us all for coming out on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus. “Please turn in your hymnals to song number 111 and let’s stand and worship our Lord in song.” We stand together, me and grandmother, as the organist cheerfully blasts out an introduction to “Joy To The World.” I look up at her and wait for her to begin to sing first.  She starts, her shaky, older grandma voice plain, but never once off key.  I listen, letting her voice reassure me and I begin to join her…”Let heaven and nature sing.  Let heaven and nature sing.  Let heaven and heaven and nature sing.”Suddenly, I am so glad my grandmother is sitting next to me on Christmas Day at our church. We are worshipping together and I am wearing a princess watch.  It’s been over forty years since that Christmas and I can still hear her, singing in her no nonsense voice.  I don’t know what happened to the watch but the memory of her voice sounds like Christmas to me.

The sound of the ringtone from my cell phone startles  me out of my random thoughts.  “Hello?” I answer.  “Mom, how far away are you and Dad from Nashville?” Not too far now,” I say excitedly.  Yay!  Let the fun begin! Christmas on a Sunday.


Christmas Perfection

Well, it’s Christmas Day and I’m sitting here on the couch at Peter and Isaaca’s house in Nashville, Tennessee. The kids aren’t little anymore and they no longer wake us up at the Krakatoa, begging us to come into the living room to see what Santa brought them.  It’s almost 1:30 and we just finished brunch.  John isn’t even here yet and we are waiting on him so we can open what Bill’s mom used to call Christmas gifts: Ho Ho(s). Christmas is so different now. I actually had time to get up at 8:30, have two cups of coffee, check my emails and Face Book, talk to some family on the telephone, rub the cats belly while it took a nap in my lap,take a shower and wash my hair, put on my makeup, fix brunch and have a mimosa.  The presents are still under the tree,  wrapped up tight and looking lonely. But to me it’s…actually great. Maybe even perfect.

No demands, no kids squirming to get off my lap to dive into the pile of crumpled wrapping paper and empty boxes, no little candy cane sticky fingers getting caught in my hair…no whining from tired children who got up too early, no fighting over toys, and breaking toys before the day is over, no busted lips on the coffee table’s corner or spilled red punch on the couch…kids riding Big Wheels on the driveway barefooted…You know…the harried Christmas nightmare all parents endure for their children’s sakes…The horribly long day from hell that is…pretty dang perfect.

But, perfection is relative and Christmas is also about relatives and about how Jesus came to earth as the son of God who also came to be our brother and brother John is here now and once again, we will open a mountain of gifts, make a huge mess and probably spill red punch on the sofa.  But hey, it’s Christmas, right?  Take in a deep breath of joy and hold it for a moment.  Now, let it out slowly. Feel that?  Goes straight down to your toes!

The Muse and The Three Amigos

I have always known the muse.  I didn’t always know him by name, but I always knew he existed.  He went with me everywhere.  Like how a drop of water stays within the ocean or how an ocean holds on to the drop of water.  I don’t know.  We have always been a part of each other.

I don’t remember now because the memories of the days spent in my mother’s womb are gone.  I have to believe that my imagination is telling me the truth: that the muse was with me when I realized I was in a different place.  That I was in an exquisite tiny human body that was being formed  and that I had to stay in the dark, warm uterus of my mother’s body until my body would become big enough and developed enough to hold the real me.  The spirit me.

 When I merged with my human body there was a jolt of human consciousness that shocked me.    It was abrupt and startling and I immediately had human sensations.  I could hear earthly sounds, human voices.  Muffled, but sounds nonetheless.  I could feel. My tiny body quivered with life and impulses, pumping blood surging through my tiny vessels to the tips of my forming limbs.  I suppose that was the moment I realized I was not just a spirit anymore.  My spirit had hit the earth and had joined up with the fertilized egg of my soon to be parents, Harold and Virginia Painter.  I looked at the boundaries the egg gave me in disbelief and then at the muse.  “You expect me to live in this tiny thing?”   I asked, irritated already.  He just nodded his head as if he understood and said, “Donna, I’d like to introduce you to your body.”

 It took me a few weeks to get my bearings; I was so dazed to be in my new environment and body.  I think he asked me, “Don’t you remember us giving you “the plan?” For the life of me I could not quite remember what “the plan” was.  From the time I entered my mom’s body,  I began to struggle with remembering what my spirit life had been like before I came into this new, human form.  I must have asked the muse why I was having trouble remembering something as important as “the plan,” that something was mentally keeping my spirit from being the dominating force it was before I came to earth.  It was something new for me; having a brain.  It was a reasoning part of my new body.  I had never had to reason any thoughts before.  Now, my mind was beginning to question my spirit. 

My spirit began to wrestle with my brainy thoughts,   It knew exactly what it had been sent to earth for but the brain questioned me.  It told me I didn’t really have a reason to be on earth.  For the first time since I had been created, I felt confusion.  I had not even been born yet, but I was feeling confused.  I became a bit weaker and depressed.  The muse answered my question.  “You have something that will always try to keep you from remembering ‘the plan.’  It will always try to reason with you and confuse you, forcing you not to carry it out.”  “What on earth are you talking about?” I asked.  “Is this something I’m always going to have to deal with?”  “Well, Donna.  I’d like to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it’s something that is part of the way you are made and it comes with human life.  Donna, meet your soul.”

For obvious reasons, I eyed my soul as if it were the devil.  We walked in circles for a few minutes, our hands drawn up in fists, daring each other to strike first.  The muse had to step in and hold us at arm’s length.  “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, almost sounding as if he were hurt because a house divided can’t stand.  “You might as well get used to each other.  As long as you live on this earth, you two have to live in this body.  Spirit, soul and body.  That’s the way it is.   The three amigos.  But there is a pecking order.  The spirit tells the soul what to do and feel and the soul tells the body how to act and feel.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be, you guys.  Spirit, you MUST be in charge.  You are the one with the plan.  Soul, if you don’t let the spirit lead, things will go haywire.  The plan won’t be totally successful.  Soul, if you become the one in charge, Body will also suffer and go crazy.  And Body, you have no business telling Spirit or Soul what to do.  Got that?  There’s enough of that in the world already…people being led by you guys (pointing to Soul and Body.)  THE PLAN is for Spirit to be ‘large and in charge.’  Together, all of you make up ‘Donna.’  She has a body, a soul and a spirit.  Now, all of you…get it straight.  Donna’s spirit deals with me.  Got it?  If she has a question about ‘the plan’ and what to do next, she asks me.  After I talk to her about it, she will tell you all about it, Soul, reminding you how you should be acting.  Soul, serve Donna’s spirit. Never second guess it. Then Soul, you can comfort Body and keep it well and functioning.   Don’t question her about the plan.  If you do, Donna may get confused or depressed and then Body will slow down and get sick or hurt.  We don’t want that to happen.  There is a divine order and this is it.  There is a chain of command.  Now let’s use it so ‘the plan’ can be implemented.”

 None of us had spoken a word the entire time.  It as if each of us had thoughts and they were all being spoken out loud.  It was my time to come to earth and be significant.  The muse wanted no glitches before we even got started.  I saw Soul slightly raise his hand as if he had a question.  “Yes Soul?”  The muse asked tentatively.  “Muse, who do you go to when there is a question about ‘the plan?’”  He asked in a  quiet voice.  I couldn’t believe he would ask that.  I rolled my eyes.  He should know better.  “God,” the muse answered.  “I thought so,” said Soul.  “Just getting it all straight in my mind.” 

It was a serious moment.  There was some shuffling and righting that had to be done.  At that time, I’m sure my mom must have felt her first flutter of me moving in her as we quickly rearranged ourselves in her tummy.  Soul and Body looked downward, as if they were hurt with their positions.  “Why are you two so down cast?” the muse asked gently.  “Don’t you trust me?” 

In retrospect, I had never heard him talk that way before.  He sounded almost like a military officer.  He was serious about me executing “the plan.”   He took me by my spirit hands and looked at me in my spirit eyes.  “Let’s get this clear.   For you to do everything you were purposed to do, we held on to you a very long time.  When it was time for you to come and fulfill your destiny we sent you down to earth and placed you with great precision right into the womb you are supposed to develop in.”  As I looked into his eyes, “the plan” began to come back to my memory.  The longer I stared, the more my spirit remembered.  I recalled how enormous I really was before I made my home in this tiny human being. I was soaring.  I was free.  I was ancient and with the muse, full of superior knowledge and creative abilities.  I realized that I could do anything within the boundaries of “the plan.”   Like a genie, I fit myself into Donna’s body and waited and got ready to be born.

The muse stayed with me, never wanting to leave me alone.  As if he was babysitting my prenatal self.  I remember him clapping for me as I kicked and did acrobatics as fine as any Cirque du Soleil artist.  I danced a pre-natal dance of happiness as I heard the beat of my mother’s heart and realized that there was a rhythm and grace to movement.  Sometimes he let me use his finger as a balancing beam to do graceful pirouettes and practice my ballet positions until I became a bit too large to accomplish such feats in such a small place.  But by then I had the sense of rhythm in my bones, in my very center of being – my core.  

It was time to settle into a fetal position; one that I didn’t move around in too much.  Except for stretching an arm or a leg, a foot or sucking my thumb, I settled in more or less, for some much needed growth in my internal organs and other body parts.  I had outgrown my dancing days in utero and it was time to let the Body grow.  There were two things going on:  the Body was developing and the muse was getting ready to download me with some incredible knowledge and thoughts that I would need in my life outside the womb.  The funny thing is that the word “download” was not even on the radar in 1957, the year I was born.  But that’s what I got.  A download of everything I would need to equip me to insure that “the plan” could be completed within my lifetime.  During this time, the soul stayed quiet, and let me get the instruction I needed. 

(This is the first part of the series, “The Muse in Me.”  I may publish other posts that do not relate to the serial in between the serial posts.  I just didn’t want you to be confused if the next post is not related.  Thanks for reading!)

Buzzards, Spirit Carcasses and Christmas! Oh My!

My muse sat down and talked with me yesterday.  I think he was trying to comfort me.  I spent an extra long Thanksgiving weekend with my children in Nashville, Tennessee and came home from a grueling twelve hour trip only to be welcomed by an empty, silent house. Immediately I went into kid withdrawal and felt the cold hand of grief squeeze my heart until it hurt and made me feel sorry for myself.

 I tried to fight it off.  I really did.  I threw myself into decorating the house for Christmas.  I even bought red and green reindeer antler head bands with bells on them for Bill and me to wear while we decorated. Andy Williams was singing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” and our fireplace had warmth radiating out of it for the first time this season.  I put up two trees, one all frocked, frosty and white in the dining room and another out on our back porch with enough lights shining on it to be mistaken for a light house even though we’re three miles inland.  Two small three foot trees stood in a white light glow, flanking each side of my fireplace.  Four trees altogether.  Not two…I miscounted.

My white distressed weathervane mermaid girl, Ariel, was even decked out in gold ribbons swimming in red berries and green garland.   I think I went a bit overboard.  But…I didn’t care.  I was chasing the blues away with as much sparkle and light as Comfort and Joy could allow.  Oh, yeah, and in some crazy way of reminding myself that the kids would not be home for Christmas, I hung up each of their stockings with their names cheerfully written in glitter down the sides.  They were always so “Christmas…y” and fun in the past.

I stood and looked at our work.  I didn’t care that it was over the top.  I even went out the next day and bought poinsettias to put on my dinner table and a ledge that separated the breakfast nook from the dining room.  I wondered about the two white poinsettias.  Did they look like funeral flowers?  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always thought white flowers meant death and sympathy. Had I subconsciously bought them as a way of showing that our family’s traditions had transitioned over into new territory and the white flowers represented the death of our old ways?   I was losing it.  I. Was. Losing. It.

I couldn’t write a blog post.  I couldn’t be creative.  Everything that kept my creative juices flowing was in Nashville.  Nashville was the place I could find inspiration; look into my children’s faces and feel life bubble up out of my spirit.  I felt as lost as a blind puppy that had strayed away from the familiar warmth of its siblings and the comfort of its mother’s soft underbelly.  Heck, I was the mother here.  What was wrong with me?

Bill and I were driving to Wilmington one morning and as I was looking up at the sky it seemed as if I saw dozens of buzzards.  Every few miles I saw groups of them circling and hovering over a wooded area, as if they were waiting for something to die.  We were listening to a Fleet Foxes CD (my current favorite group right now.)  A song was playing on it called  “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.”  The last time I had listened to it I was riding down the Natchez Trace on the beautiful autumn morning of my daughter’s wedding day.  The road was narrow and followed the Harpeth River.  Gold and red leaves still clung loosely to the trees and made a covered pathway for our little Jetta to ride under.  The feeling of “old money” was everywhere and just being on the road made us think we were rich.  The feeling of history was a thick and luxurious as a warm honey pouring down all around us.  It was sweet and it was a feeling songs were written to describe. 

Fleet Foxes was playing on our CD player and it sounded like the perfect music sound track for our trip to the barn.  I remembered thinking that and how lucky we were to be on that road on that particular perfect day.

But now, we were riding to Wilmington and buzzards were circling overhead and the same music was playing.  I couldn’t believe the difference in my feelings.  I had gone from one moment of bliss to a moment when I thought the vultures were circling over me, waiting for me to die, for my creative spirit to be picked to the bones like a wild animal’s carcass. I could see my bones lying out in the flat piney wood, glinting white in the bright coastal sun.  I know.  I can be melodramatic.

Buzzards, spirit carcasses and Christmas, O my!  That sounded like a creative meltdown getting ready to happen.  “Oh, God,” I prayed.   “ I have to live here but I have to feel too.  I have to have a portal, a window from heaven that is opened directly over me and gives me the inspiration to do what it is I’m supposed to do!  My prayers went up, daily, whiney, pleading, begging prayers of desperation because I have to have purpose in creativity. It fulfils me.  It completes me.

Yesterday, I sat down at the computer and went to youtube.  For some reason, I had heard Adele’s song, “Someone Like You” enough to get my attention.  When I need to have something brought to my attention, I usually hear a song several times until it is freaky weird.  I had heard it enough to sit down and look it up and listen to the several versions offered on you tube.  I put on the version of her singing at the Britt awards.  Just Adele, a piano, a stage and emotion.  I startled myself when I felt tears fill my eyes.  I decided to listen to other versions.  I saw her sing and take out her sound devices in her ears so that she could hear the audience sing back to her.  The audience was as loud as she was.  What a humbling feeling that must be to a singer to have the people listening to her know every word and sing her song to her.  Was that success?  I had tears running down my face.  I read that she had written the song from her own experience of a romance that had turned into heartbreak.  Although I was not going through the same experience, it touched a feeling in me that I had had years ago and had long since forgotten.  But when she sang it with raw emotion and jagged beauty, I could feel old wounds respond to the hurt in her voice.  I could feel…

Tears were running down my face and even though no one was in the room with me, I felt ashamed and wiped my tears away quickly. I didn’t want anyone to see me expressing emotion over a pop song.  All of a sudden, I sensed the presence of the Muse.  He came in unannounced and I don’t know how long he had been sitting there; knowing him, probably the whole time. 

“Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know.  It’s so beautiful.  So haunting.  It was written from experience.  That’s why it’s so sad.”

“Do you feel sad?  Is that why you’re crying?”

“No.  I don’t know.  I felt her passion spill out of her and it touched everyone in the room.  It touched me and I was just looking at You Tube.  I wasn’t even in the room with her.  The passion from it jumped out at me and left me in awe of her pain, her passion.”

“You were in awe of her passion?”

“Yeah, the passion.  That’s what I want.”

“It came from pain.  Passion comes from raw emotions.”

“I feel pain right now.  My kids have grown up and moved far away, or maybe I moved far away from them.  I don’t know.  I’m in a new place that doesn’t feel like home and I’m getting older.  I don’t mean to be whining to you and we’ve been through this before, but what if I never feel ‘it.’”

“Feel what?”

“A portal.  I want a portal.  Right here.  Over me.  Over my house.  Just like it is in Nashville.  Like it was in Alabama, where I used to live.   If it’s over me, I’ll feel alive again.”

“You have to make your own portal.”

“My own portal?  I’ve done it before.  Just not by myself.  It was easier when I had the kids around me and friends who understood it.  If we got together and spoke about it, it would almost magically appear. Hmmm…by myself….I can do it.  Yeah.  I can.”

“I’ll help you.  I’ll show you how and it really won’t be hard.  I’ll be there.”

I looked over at him.  He was crying.

My pain and my passion had jumped over to him through the atmosphere in the room and had hit him like Adele’s had hit me.  He felt my creative power and it ricocheted back to me. I felt awe; a surge of confidence.  We were going to create a portal right here in Sneads Ferry, North Carolina.  Right here in this room, over my head.

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