I love to read about how other writers and artists do what they do. When Zsofi McMullin asked me if I wanted to participate in a blog hop, I didn’t hesitate. I think it’s important to reflect on the creative process, because it often gets me unstuck and moving again. I left my job the other day on a whim and drove to Portland Maine to hear Kate Christensen talk in a library about her latest book and why she writes. It proved to be a good jumpstart for me to get back to my own work.
1. What am I writing or working on?
I write an autobiographical blog about living with my teenagers. When I first started it, I wrote several posts a month. But lately as they get older, and as I get older, I write a little less often in that format. I’m focusing more on writing essays and poetry with the goal of having more of an established background (meaning published) when I approach editors with a finished novel. I’m working on that, too.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I guess my blog fits in with the genre of “mommy blogs” although I write about parenting teens and not babies. I also write about food and the conversations that happen at the dinner table, and the little moments that are worth noticing in a life. My blog is also about my same-sex marriage and having a blended family (shared pets, an involved ex-husband down the street) and midlife for me at the intersection of my teens who are embarking on their own adult lives.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I am trying to find my own writing voice and having a blog about daily experiences as a parent helps me stop being too earnest and just write stuff. I like the way a blog post is just a slice of the now, a chance to find a little hook or arc of an idea, but not something to agonize over. On the other hand, the novel I’m working on is sheer terror and pain. Sometimes I get in a groove and characters and chapters seem to be making some sense and appear to be carrying me somewhere, but other times I have to put it aside for long stretches and hope I will remember what I’m trying to say when I come back.
I didn’t set out to be a writer in college. I wanted to be a visual artist and I made “film poems” with a super 8 camera in the 80s. I do web and print communication work now for my job, and have theorized about feminism, romanticism, and female masculinity in grad school. Now somehow all of this makes total sense to be showing up in my novel.
4. How does my writing process work?
I don’t have a process right now that works for me all that well, which is one of the reasons I love to read how others juggle their creative work with their lives. I struggle with balancing a demanding job, a long commute, and a lot of harsh voices in my head that are worried about making enough money to pay for two teens in college and who say constantly: “you are getting older, you know” and “why haven’t you published more than this?” and “you really don’t have the luxury of being a writer.” Ha, that one is my favorite. As if it’s a luxury to be writer.
But whenever the writing is going well for me, it’s usually because I have realized again the importance of filling the well. I can’t write at all when I haven’t made space for music, for art shows, for weeding my garden, and for reading about and talking with other creative people.
And now to pass on the baton…
Julie Silver is one of the most celebrated and beloved performers in the world of contemporary Jewish music today. She tours throughout the world, and has been engaging audiences with her lyrical guitar playing, her dynamic stage presence, and her megawatt smile for over 25 years. “As a songwriter, I just write and sing what I feel and hope it resonates with people,” she says. [Kris writes: She also writes a blog called On My Mind and her facebook posts can make me literally laugh out loud.]
Cheryl Perreault is a poet and spoken word artist. She is also executive producer and host of a monthly poetry and music venue at HCAM TV Studio called Wake up and Smell the Poetry which takes place before a live audience and is aired on HCAM cable television in Hopkinton. In addition, she co-facilitates the monthly Women’s Art Forum, a program of the Hopkinton Cultural Arts Alliance in Hopkinton. [Kris writes: Cheryl is a real force for the arts in the Metrowest and an inspiration for everyone who has something to say. ]
It’s the end of another weeknight train commute home and J and I perform the same ritual as always. Both of us stand at the open hallway closet, only moments since entering the front door through the garage, and we take off shoes. Mine are complicated tonight. They are new and stiff and have a zipper on the back of the heel that only seems to be working on the left one. I stand balanced on my right foot with my right hand yanking at the zipper and with my free arm I simultaneously haul my orange leather handbag onto the kitchen counter. J has managed to stretch over me to slide the brown paper Hang Tai bag onto the counter at the same time. It sits at eye level with my contorted body- a neat compact square with the top folded over and stapled shut. I can smell the contents and I’m ready to rip it open right now, only the house is cold and we haven’t changed out of work clothes. I pry free both shoes and whip them into the closet and immediately open kitchen cabinets to find our yellow oval plates and place them side by side near the microwave.
“It’s here,” says J still standing in the doorway.
I see the Amazon box on the floor. It’s our third coffee maker in a matter of months. The recent Mr Coffee sits like a sentinel watching over the kitchen table. One of the teens seems to be using it, even though the addicted adults in the house have long since given up in disgust. I sometimes check the filter compartment in the morning and I find drying coffee grounds from the day before and a half full pot of cold coffee.
“Do you have high hopes?” J asks me as she starts tearing at the top of the box.
I don’t answer because I’m busy looking for our deep bowls, the ones specifically made for ice cream or cereal that are adorned with ornate Turkish or Indian designs on the outside. We don’t have any Chinese dish ware, but I want something to make this meal feel more important than one that is hastily dumped out of plastic containers.
I pour the silky contents into each bowl. Sliced mushrooms bob around in the shiny brown liquid next to tough fibrous matchsticks of chinese root vegetable. A heady, fragrant steam rises from each plate. There is just enough room for me to add a squat brown tube glistening with fryolater grease next to each bowl. I fight the urge to take the meal into the bedroom on a tray and plop it down on top of the comforter while I burrow like a mole beneath layers of sheets and cotton blankets. Instead, I heat up the plates in the microwave and set them on our glass-topped kitchen table that has a view to the garden. I arrange three wire candle holders with tea lights in the center of the table, grab cloth napkins from the basket and dim the overhead lights.
I sit at the table and wait for J to return from changing to join me. The heat has since kicked on in the house and the Native American dream catcher with the long eagle feathers that J has hung from the ceiling begins to undulate in and out. I stare dismally out the window. It’s late May, post Memorial Day weekend, and it’s cold, gray and freezing outside. A raw rainy mist hovers over the perennials which have started to burst forth from the ground but keep to themselves in contained bundles, not yet daring to stretch and collapse over each other in their usual tangled and languorous mess of color. The plants look as skeptical as I feel, like they just can’t bring themselves to trust the air and instead recoil tightly, stretching only upward toward the fickle sun, exposing bare circles of earth around themselves in a protective ring.
The teens are both home. I can see their cars in the driveway just beyond the garden, and if I listen intently, I can make out some muffled voices and the low rumble of a bass guitar. Both are already well into their summer lifestyle that consists of sleeping until the outer edges of the afternoon and driving away to places unknown after their work shifts. If they bring friends home, they all stay below and I usually regret later my awkward pajama-clad mom greeting at the basement entrance to a roomful of strange large male bodies and an occasional lithe female one in a very small shirt, lounging on the couch surrounded by amps and guitars and various open bags of fast food purchases. Better to stay in my sphere tonight, I think.
When J returns to the table, we slurp our hot and sour soup in silence, sniffles being the only sound as the steam and spices fill our nostrils.
After a while, J asks again, “So, do you have high hopes? We can’t keep buying our coffee at Panera every morning and just barely making the train. This is nuts.”
“Why don’t we try making a cup tonight?” I say, eyeing the hulking mass of coffeemaker number three looking imposing next to the sink and hanging over the silverware drawer.
J immediately gets into action grinding beans and I turn to the laptop I’ve left on the chair, grab it open, and start mindlessly liking posts on facebook, changing my profile picture for the millionth time and checking my gmail account. I anxiously resist the pull of the bed.
I’ve largely spent the last three months of late winter into spring under covers. I’m happiest in the safe realm of our large kingsize bed, surrounded by pillows, my computer and cellphone nearby, and with a book on the nightstand. J has been non judgmental in her cheerful delivery of oversized paper cups of Panera coffee to me on a tray on weekend mornings. I manage to stand up eventually, close to noon, just long enough to scramble us eggs and slice avocados and bring the plates back to bed. The robins dive-bombing at the window screen and the spring sunlight dancing on the newly unfurled vine leaves are no deterrent to my slothful non agenda.
“Remember this day,” I said to J last weekend as she was gathering up the Sunday paper, dishes, used napkins and coffee cups strewn about on our large expanse of mattress. “This is the day I never get out of bed again, the first day it happens.”
“Cut that out,” she said.
It has become a running joke with us. It started from my habit of watching too many late night reality TV shows over the winter when I couldn’t sleep. I watched alone in rapt attention as morbidly obese people were airlifted from their bedrooms and transported to a hospital for their miracle surgery, suddenly hopeful for life after years of eating themselves numb and comforted under debilitating fat.
Now as J starts brewing us a cup of coffee, I flip through my text messages to see if my ex has answered the ones I sent him on the train.
Have you seen the kids? I typed.
Nope. Not in a while, You? he typed back.
We are getting hot and sour soup and an eggroll tonight. screw the gym. too cold out. I texted back.
sm. veg. delight. sm white rice. jumbo fried shrimp. harry potter dvd. Under quilt. WTF? isn’t it almost June? he texted back.
J interrupts my cellphone perusal and hands me a coffee cup.
“What do you think? she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say after taking a small sip. “Seems a bit thin. Might be ok. Let me try it again.”
But I’m distracted and taking too long. I’m thinking about the yoga class I’m planning to attend the next day, where I will once again make an effort to listen to the little voice inside that I have squashed down to barely a whisper. Lately, just as the plants have no real choice but to tentatively emerge from the ground, my inner voice of unrest and suppressed action is starting to speak a little louder. I can almost hear it. I might even be ready to pay attention to it finally. But not tonight.
J takes a another sip and dumps the coffee into the sink.
“It’s going back,” she says.
“I’m going back too,” I say. “To the bed. I’m cold. Come wrap me in a blanket.”
I can hear the low rumble of the harley starting up in the garage. It’s late morning, almost afternoon, and I’m still in my oversized pajama bottoms and a wrinkled t-shirt. I’m gathering up supplies from the kitchen to take with me to the basement. I’ve got a roll of paper towels, the antiseptic wipes, and a couple of dry dish towels in one hand and my cell phone in the other. The older teen left the house hours earlier. I watched him shuffle out to the car – barefoot and in boxers – while I quietly stood at my usual spot in front of the kitchen sink in full view of the hummingbird feeder and the driveway beyond.
“I’m worried about him,” I said to my partner who was sliding by in socks on the kitchen floor carrying her motorcycle boots in her hand. I hadn’t shifted my locked gaze from the tiny whirring wings and iridescent green hovering outside the window, my hands on the edge of the sink, my feet fidgeting around in my flip flops.
“I think he will be ok. He is the one left behind. Just give him some time,” she said, opening up the closet and grabbing the gloves from the top shelf before exiting through the kitchen door.
I’ve been walking around with my smartphone for the past 24 hours, leaving it to rest on counter tops or tables and picking it up to carry it with me from room to room. And sure enough, there’s another text.
“Did you find my calculator?” the text reads. I slide it open to the keyboard and begin to type back.
“Yes. Your father is bringing it with him tomorrow when he comes with your brother. What are you doing?” I don’t expect another text for hours but instead it’s instant.
“I’m going to look for my classrooms today.”
“Good.” I text back. “Try to have some fun too, ok?”
The dog is now barking, the harley is slowly making its way down the driveway, and I snap the smartphone shut. On my way downstairs, I grab a pile of folded laundry from the washer top and carry it with me. In the teen’s old bedroom, a shaft of light from the half window way up by the ceiling shines a small square onto the edge of the bed. I get to work stripping sheets, dusting shelves, gathering up socks from the floor, gathering up discarded soda and ice coffee plastic cups, pulling shoeboxes down from the bookshelves. On my knees, I reach way behind the headboard and pull up three empty bottles one at a time that were wedged out of view. Raspberry Bombay Sapphire. Jack Daniels. And some kind of diminutive lemon vodka thing now line up in a row on the bed. I empty the contents of the shoeboxes, too. Bubble wrapped glass blown bongs and pieces of flat colored glass fill one. Old empty cigarette boxes, clear plastic baggies, toothbrushes, and various flotsam and jetsam fill the others.
Well, at least it all was left behind at home. I say this out loud to nobody. I was there when we unpacked his dorm room. I was there when he piled his books in a neat pile on his desk, when he unpacked his toiletries in a row on his closet shelf.
The smartphone buzzes on the top of the bureau.
“I had a bag of stuff from Orientation and it had a book about the history of Lowell and I need it for my writing class.” reads the text.
“I will look for it but I think I threw it away over the summer,” I text back.
I snap the smartphone shut and get back to work vacuuming, arranging the older teen’s books and awards onto the empty shelves, hanging up movie posters, making up the bed. A large bag of trash is ready to be brought to the garage. The younger teen’s paraphernalia is boxed up and hoisted into the back room. I stand back and admire my work just as the older teen makes his way downstairs carrying a pizza box and a large drink container with a straw.
“Hey, check out the room, what do you think?” I call out from the open door. He peeks his head in and looks around quick with a blank expression.”See, I moved your film stuff and your posters too.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably move that one.” he says. “I like Daniel Craig but I don’t want to wake up every day looking at him.”
“Ahh, yes,” I reply. I catch him looking quick at the framed photograph of the two brothers on the beach that I left on the bureau. Now it’s his bureau. I see him wipe his eye with the back of his hand and turn away from me.
“You don’t like the room? Now you get the good bed,” I say trying to sound cheerful.
“It’s good mom, but… I don’t know. I can’t put it into words. My best friend left for college and I’m still here. It’s hard,” he says as his voice cracks.
“I know, honey, but its…” I stop myself before going any further. He’s already into the other room now. Headphones are on, pizza box is on the coffee table, video game joystick in hand.
“Thanks for cleaning mom but can you go now?” he says and his face is fixated on the TV screen.
Yeah. I can go now, I guess. The younger teen has gone, and the older one has yet to find his way still, but I hope that one day soon he will. And I feel like a chapter has just ended and I’m not ready for it to be over right now, or something like that.
I just can’t put it into words.
Here’s the trailer for the latest Chad Narducci & Connor Spilman production with Milka Tolich, Brenda Chiavarini, Nick Caliendo, & Kathy-Ann Hart
“Hello Mutha,” the younger teen calls out to me as he spots me walking toward him. He is standing in a circle of friends at the end of the hallway near the blue painted doors to the auditorium. He is wearing his black skinny jeans that sag in the back and a black wrinkled t-shirt with a stain at the bottom. I stifle a frown.
Couldn’t he have dressed a little better for his capstone performance?
Instead I say cheerfully, “Hey, there he is,” and I run my hand through his thick wavy hair. “You nervous?” He doesn’t answer and turns to face his girlfriend who is standing close beside him twirling a piece of her hair around one finger and shifting her hips. I notice that she is wearing her cotton-candy pink short shorts. “I guess this is the dress code,” I say under my breath.
On my way in earlier, I grabbed a black and white copier paper flyer from the wooden podium and scanned its contents.
Great, I left work early and he is the last person on stage tonight. The absolute last one.
A few scattered family members, a couple of grandparents, and mothers holding the hands of toddlers mill about near the temporary gallery walls that have been positioned in front of grey painted cinderblock. They stand stiffly viewing the gouache painted skulls with blood dripping from the orifices, and flat watercolored self portraits of moon-sized blank faces.
Oh look, there’s one of my teen’s 2D projects.
I walk up closer to it and turn my head to the side and earnestly study the technique he used. It’s been a long time since I’ve stepped foot in his high school and that critical voice inside that doesn’t ever let up on me is now jabbering on full force about the subpar artwork hanging on the subpar school walls. Clearly nobody is planning to go to art school from this class.
Oh cut it out, they are only juniors! Don’t you remember your own high school portfolio?
I shush the voice inside. I do remember it. I gave myself only mere weeks before my application needed to be sent in and I rapidly went about the business of drawing everything that was directly around me. I got right to work on creating an oversized charcoal drawing of the corner of my unmade bed. And when that was finished, I grabbed colored pencils and opened the closet to startle all my shoes from whatever they were up to on the floor in the dark. There they were, laces undone, tongues hanging out, caught open mouthed and exposed to daylight. I drew them right then and pronounced it a finished work. The pleasure of hindsight is that I now get to say that I didn’t over think it, and it wasn’t that I waited until the last minute without a thoughtful plan and just got lucky. Not at all. I really do think, hindsight or not, that I purposefully didn’t give the censor inside any time to do the nasty work of chopping me down to size.
“I’m going to go in now for the performances,” I say to the group of teens. They follow behind me but keep a respectable distance and find their places off to the far right side. I squint around in the dark. A half dozen or so people sit in chairs spaced as far away from each other as possible. The room could easily hold a couple hundred. I pick a chair in the middle back row. As I survey the room, I see my ex walking in through the double doors. He is wearing jeans and a black sweater and black boots and looking every bit like a musician or an art student himself, I think. I pull at my Ann Taylor Loft maroon sweater and slump a little lower. I motion for him to sit down, but the wooden chair next to me is missing it’s seat.
“Where’s the J dog?” he asks me as we both move over.
“She will be here about halfway through. She is on the train still,” I say.
The room darkens to a pitch black and the first performance of the night begins. Humorous skits, a long and involved hip hop dance routine, a young girl singing her heart out at the piano. My ex and I perform crude sign language, giving a thumbs up or down or fist bump and catch each other’s wide-open eyes as Taylor Swift-esque song number five turns to six. By the time intermission is over, the auditorium is at least a quarter filled and my partner has since arrived. My teen is on after the Gypsy Blue Band performs a few electrified riffs. My partner sits beside me in my ex’s vacated seat and he is now pacing in the corridor behind us. “God, I’m so nervous,” I whisper to her in the dark.
During intermission, the teen and his growing entourage of supporters stopped to chat with the parents. “Honey, don’t forget to spit out that gum before you get on stage,” I said to him. “You got this, babe,” comforted his girlfriend with her hand on his back. “I’m going to get backstage now and get ready,” he said while walking rapidly away, his girlfriend taking a couple quick steps to catch up, shooting us a nervous glance back.
I grab my partner’s hand now and squeeze it several times in the dark while he is being announced. The audience grows silent while he calmly enters with his bass guitar and a stool to position himself center stage. A stage hand pushes an amp behind him and I let my mind wander a bit as he quietly starts hooking up to the amp. How many times had we listened to the same three pieces of music in the living room? Me, leaning back into the couch with my slippered feet on the coffee table, waiting patiently while he would stop and say, “Hold on” and start again, trying to make it through one flawless pass of his three song medley — a Victor Wooten piece that was supposed to seamlessly morph into a shortened version of Bach’s Cello Suite Number 1 Prelude and end with a piece he wrote himself. Overall, it was an unusual, six-minute long but oddly exciting percussive arrangement for solo bass guitar my teen had simply titled BASSic.
Athletes talk a lot about being “in the zone” and it happens for artists too. I think I finished ten new pieces for my art school portfolio over a period of days when I was clearly in that zone. And if you’ve ever experienced what it feels like, it’s not hard to miss it when it is happening to your kid.
“Wow, he is really doing this,” says my partner. “He is on.” I can feel my body relaxing a bit as the medley is near over. I turn back to look at my ex who is standing in the back to the room perfectly still and straight with his body tensed, his eyes closed, and a slight smile on his face. When the last note is played and my teen finally lifts his head up to survey the crowd, the entourage of friends on the right burst into loud applause and whistles. I can hear his brother’s voice hooting above the dull roar of the clapping.
I still have my own dreams of being in the limelight again, of experiencing the thrill of the printed byline, the book jacket, even the glossy exhibition brochure. And some of this I may very well realize still. But most of it I won’t. And as I get older, the disappointment over what I haven’t done is starting to sting a bit less. Because being a parent means I will have many opportunities to experience moments like this one, when I sit in a darkened auditorium and listen to my kid performing his very own creation and feel firsthand right along with him those sublime seconds of greatness.
And these are the real capstones in my life.
“Mom, I’m F#$%*! I can’t! I skipped three classes during add/drop time and now I’m going to be late again!,” he said. He stood in the kitchen with a wild look in his eyes, his hair disheveled and dryly sticking out from underneath his ball cap. He was hyperventilating slightly. I’d seen him do this many times through the years and it no longer rattled me. I noticed the dry skin on his face from shaving, the aggravated acne. He was wearing an oversized black sweatshirt, and his LL Bean slippers with no socks.
“You should at least put socks on,” I said to him before he left the house the first time with my hastily scrawled check in his hand.
I watched him go over to the dryer, where there is perpetually a pile of folded clothes on top, unfolded clothes inside, and wet clothes in the washer. He ruffled through the piles, picked up one sock, and gave up.
“I’m F^#@$#@$!” he said. The obscenities started rolling out again and he slammed his way down the stairs.
“This is going to be a great morning,” I thought to myself. I already witnessed my partner in the kitchen huffing and racing to shove things in an already overstuffed backpack she leaves open and lying against the closet door on the floor.
“I don’t have coffee today,” she said with disgust, throwing the silver bialetti coffee pot in the sink. It’s the seal. It’s broken. It’s not working.”
“Ok, well, you will buy coffee at the station,” I said calmly while bending down to slip on socks, slide on shoes and grab my red coat.
While my partner fumbled with the zipper on her long black coat, I ran down the stairs to the basement and called down for the fourth time to the teen still lying in bed. “Get up! I’m coming right back, after I get back from the train station,” I said.
“You ready?” my partner said impatiently as she opened the front door and pressed the garage door opener button at the same time. I grabbed my bag and my keys and followed her out the door on the way to the car. Just as I was walking out, I heard the sound of the bathroom pump in the basement. The teen had successfully made it into the shower.
And now, downstairs, the tantrum is continuing.
“F@##%#$^ I don’t have my bank card. I can’t find my bankcard. I’m F´#$%##$ed!”
I wait for a break in the screaming and walk halfway down the stairs. In my most stern, and yet surprisingly calm mother voice, I yell down to the teen. “Get up here right now.”
This must be why I’m in the house today despite the work I waited for over the weekend having not yet arrived in my email inbox. Life is unraveling at home.
He storms up the stairs and stands before me in the kitchen, adrenaline racing, looking ready for a fight.
“You will take my bank card right now, fill up your tank, and drive back here to give it back to me. And yes, you will be late but you won’t miss the entire class,” I say.
I start to think about the $50 check I just wrote to him and the money he is about to put in the tank from my card, and my own dwindling bank account on the last day of the month, but I push it away. I open the front door, push the button that lifts the garage door, and push him out into the cold. I watch him shuffle down the driveway, in his brown mocs with the white stitching around the edges and his bare ankles showing, and get in the driver’s side of his buick. The front left tire with the slow leak has caused the tire to sink slightly into the driveway.
“He really shouldn’t drive with that tire.” I think. But this is another fight for another day.
Instead, I turn on the stove, toss a little olive oil in the cast iron pan and crack a couple of eggs into a small orange and blue porcelain bowl. While the oil starts to shimmer in the pan, I whip the eggs with a whisk, then reach for the skillet in the dish drainer near the sink, place it on the stove, and turn up the heat.
Splash and crackle. I dump the eggs in the hot oil and they instantly start to firm up in the pan. With my wooden spatula, I stir them around three times, shut off the heat, grab a handful of shredded Mexican cheese from the package and toss that onto the hot eggs. I lay a whole-wheat tortilla onto the other skillet, and search the refrigerator for a jar of salsa. I find it, and a red pepper, and grab both and leave out on the counter near the drain. While the tortilla is cooking, I open the drawer that holds the tin foil, pull out a single sheet and flip over the tortilla once. I grab the red pepper and a large knife and cut half of it into long strips and throw the handful into a tan wax paper bag.
The teen is already back, and he hangs his head as he gets out of the car with my green bank card sticking out of his hand. I grab the tortilla and flip it onto the foil, scoop out the eggs and drop them onto the middle of the tortilla. I open the jar of salsa and drip a couple tablespoons out of the jar into the middle and fold the whole thing up, wrapped quickly in tin foil.
In one swift motion, I grab it all and open the front door and press the garage door opener button. As the door slowly lifts, I watch the sunlight crack at the bottom of the floor get wider and wider and eventually there he is with his eyes lowered, his body in a slumped position. He hands over my card silently and I take it while giving him the foil wrapped burrito and the bag of red pepper.
“Take three deep breaths, eat this, and eat the red pepper, too. It’s good for your brain. When you get to the class, stay after it’s over and talk to teacher,” I say. Okay?”
“Okay,” he says.
I watch him turn and walk slowly back to the car, get in, and back his way out of the driveway turning left and holding the foil wrapped burrito with one hand. I stand there silently, listening to the heat in the house kick on, the coffee maker sputter its last drips into the pot, and I stare out the kitchen window watching to see if he takes a bite.
But I can”t tell from this distance now. The car, now onto the street, lurches forward and starts to roll away out of sight.
“You sure you like the tree?” I ask nobody in particular as I set down my plate at the table. The new Christmas tree is adorned with a multitude of white lights and a few ornaments I stole from my ex’s stash. “Come over with your ornament box,” I pleaded to him in my cellphone the day before as I was snapping the three prelit pieces of plastic splendor together in my new living room. “Hey, I watched Charlie Brown’s Christmas with the boys this year and I really enjoyed it,” my ex replied with enthusiasm. I was focused on bending my tree’s wire branches into position. “Uh huh… so I think there are some I want and you’re not using them, right? And come over now if you can, I want your opinion,” I said. I clipped the cellphone shut, plugged in the cord, and stood back to get a better view.
The glow of the tree’s millionth mini light bulb gave it an overall neon look, less like the “faintly-reminiscent-of-snow covered” look it had in the Big Lots store. It was now looking even more fake than I thought.
“Mom, the tree is fine. At least you got a tree. I can’t believe you were thinking of skipping it. You can’t have Christmas without a tree,” says the younger teen walking past me with his plate of food in his hand. Across the table, the tea light candles shimmer in the new mercury glass holders and cast a glow on my partners face as she nods in agreement. It’s dusk outside on a mild December day and the horizon glows pink in the spaces between the pine trees in the far back yard. Two boxwood wreaths in each window, designed to match the ones from the page I tore out of the Olive and Cocoa catalog, hang from a red grosgrain ribbon. A green blinking triangle starts to form in the very corner of my eye, and I try to pretend I don’t really see the artificialness of the tree.
The younger teen plops himself down at the head of the long rectangular table and puts his plate down on the mat just as I’m sliding it into place. This is the room where my partner has traditionally hosted large dinner parties and holidays and the three of us now look slightly lost. We are crowded over at one end of the table, a large plate of italian sausage and white beans before us, the place settings flanked by cloth napkins, and the table center studded with three small flickering candles.
“Do you think you added enough olives to this, mom?” asks the younger teen creating a brown cone-shaped pile on the edge of his plate.
“This recipe has olives and capers to give it that salty taste,” I say to him. “You like the rest of it though, right? You are eating the escarole right now.”
“Hey! what about me?” asks the older teen now emerging from the basement and sniffing out the smells of dinner wafting from the kitchen stove.
“Go get yourself a plate,” I say to him. “But I”m not sure you will like it.”
“Mom, can we order the IPad now? I can show you the one I want,” says the younger teen.
“Hey, I left my Christmas list on the table too, did you see it, Mom?” asks the older teen.
“Do you like the tree?” I ask him as he sits at the table beside me.
Without looking up from his plate he says, “It’s great. Nice tree.”
“Should I put it in an envelope and send it to Santa?” ribs my partner directing her fork toward the older teen across the table.”
“Yah? you think you’re funny, huh J dog? And you over there, son, don’t say anything or I’ll hurt you,” he says, looking at his younger brother.
I tune out the flurry of Christmas list conversation and remember my mom’s text message to me as I walked the aisles of the Big Lots store days before. “I can’t believe you are shopping at Big Lots, you have changed.”
And she is right, in a way. A lot has changed this year. It’s been five months since my teens and I moved in to my partner’s house down the street from my old apartment. The house is different, the tree is artificial, and we are ordering high-tech toys from my laptop computer at the dinner table with a credit card and calling it Christmas cheer. But what’s really new is that I don’t know when I’m going to muster up some holiday spirit this year. And maybe it’s ok if I don’t try to fake it. Maybe it will arrive magically over dinner on Christmas day, when we all sit together sharing a meal like this one, and the sun sets in the backyard, the candles start glowing, and we are all suddenly and brilliantly reminded of how grateful we are to have each other. The same as always.
“Yeah that’s better,” I think to myself and look directly at the bright spectacle in the corner. I conjure up images of Charlie Brown and his unadorned real tree in contrast to my spanking new, pre-lit fake one.
It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.