We pulled off the highway in western Montana, on our way to Glacier. I had seen some promising signs of fresh cherries and peaches along the side of the road and directions to this town with a name I don’t remember. I expected a fruit stand – but the only promising place was a general store/antique store at the end of the road in the opposite direction. We appeared to be the only ones in town, although they seemed to believe there would be more by the looks of the flags and the for sale sign.
I kept thinking I was missing something but this is all there was, because the mountain raising up precluded any side streets. Just the highway, the mountain, and two people trying to sell something.
When I entered the store, a bell clanged loudly to announce my arrival and a woman appeared. No, she didn’t have any fresh cherries but she had fresh, pitted, frozen cherries.
“No, thank you.” It was a dark place, like the mountains and time had shut out all light entering. There was the usual merchandise a small general store would have – one or two containers of one choice of a wide variety of packaged food and toiletries. A few hardware items and some postcards. And interspersed were antiques and second-hand articles, seemingly placed where they would fit more than according to any grand plan.
I wish I hadn’t had cherries as my only goal. I wish I hadn’t been tired from hearing train horns blaring 50 yards from my bedroom for the past 4 nights. I wish we hadn’t felt the pull of having to be somewhere down the road that night and the bigger pull of starting towards home. I wish Jim hadn’t felt the misery of having a new cold set in.
I wish I would have chatted with the woman who came from somewhere in the back to help us. I wish I would have asked her questions that, even now, I can’t seem to formulate. I would have liked to know about her and the town and the other people who must live there, somewhere along the only street through town. But this is the knowledge that is gained from staying around a while, caring enough to put off doing what was already in the plans. You learn these stories by building trust that only comes from making a commitment.
In that first December of our married life, fifty-four years ago, we bundled up warm and set out on a quest for the perfect Christmas tree. A tree that would become a part of our life story that we were writing together, in one voice. It must be that our “one voice” has diverged over the years because our current memories are quite different. Sometimes I wonder if we lived different lives together – which I guess we did.
I remember the laughter of trudging through the snow in that first season together (or was that a few years later when we had small children?), finding a perfect tree and then seeing a more perfect tree twenty five feet further away – only to discover it had a very crocked trunk. I remember the excitement of finding the most beautiful tree that was just tall enough for the 10-foot ceilings of our apartment, but not too big.
Jim remembers being out in the cold, cutting a good bit off the bottom and trimming away branches. His story includes a way-too-thick trunk needing a lot of whittling to fit in the standard and us heaving and tugging to get the too-big tree through the front door. And his telling includes how long it took as he lifted and shifted and I twisted and tightened to get it perfectly straight in the stand after years of wind and sun sculpting it to nature’s specifications – only to discover as we viewed from another angle that it wasn’t so straight.
I remember the joy and excitement of having that perfect Christmas tree – the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. And I remember how that tree, on Monday morning as I was decorating it, started to fall towards me. And the panic of wondering if I was going to have to stand there and hold that monster of a tree until Jim returned from work after 5:00. I was able to push it back into the corner and I believe we put screws in the wall to tie it in place. But it was a beautiful tree.
There was a challenge and excitement inherent in getting a live Christmas tree because every one was different, due to each one’s unique imperfections. My fondest memories of those childhood and young adult live-tree-Christmases were outings to visit parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends during this season to see their trees. And after echos of “Merry Christmas” and hugs, stomping snow off boots, and shedding coats, scarves, hats and mittens, there were many exclamations of admiration and joy over their tree. And of course it was expected that everyone come to see our tree and for all to agree that it was the most beautiful tree ever.
Our Christmas tree traditions have evolved as our bodies and lifestyles changed. After several years, Jim tired of the cutting and hauling, the sculpting and straightening that went into getting the live tree in place and standing straight, while listening to the Messiah words about “the crooked made straight.” He also grew to dread dragging the dying tree out of the house leaving puddles of stagnant water and prickly pine needles on the carpet.
I remember when I assembled our first artificial tree, branch by branch as I strung each one with lights. After spending hours putting it up, Jim ascended from the basement and proclaimed how much easier it was putting up the tree that year. I would have given a snarky response if I hadn’t been gazing at our most beautiful tree ever. It was straight and perfectly formed. The branches extended at perfect angles so ornaments hung and nestled in exactly the right place. Visitors had to touch it to believe that it wasn’t a live tree.
We have changed and morphed the artificial trees we have had over the years, especially since chronic pain and aging have limited my energy. Even though I like the benefits of an artificial tree, I am feeling nostalgic for the unique imperfection and beauty of a live tree. I can be fairly certain what my tree will look like each year even though I pick and choose different ornaments for decoration. There is a sense of boredom that comes with the perfection of my artificial trees. But I also bristle at the thought of buying multiple trees to choose among and filling the landfill with artificial trees as I crave new and different.
I am sitting looking at this year’s tree. It is the same one we had last year, and that one was the same as the year before but without the bottom section, and that one was the same as the five years before but with the pre-strung lights cut off. With all of these modifications it is still a beautiful tree – except for the half string of dark bulbs about two-thirds of the way up.
Aah, the quest and the work continues to have the most beautiful tree ever.
Sometimes life feels really messy and I become overwhelmed, over-stressed. I want to fight for human rights, equality of opportunity, a healthier planet, kindness and generosity. I see problems that need solutions and solutions proposed that are purposely designed to take from those with the least to give to those who already have more than they need. I see hatred, corruption, sexual harassment, self-interest over caring for those in need and a planet in distress. My heart hurts at constant examples of people who value obtaining great wealth over doing what is right.
I work hard to take care of myself so I have adequate energy for living life on my terms. Over the past two and half years I have periodically realized that politics and the meanness in the world was going to bed with me, interrupting my sleep, and sapping my energy. During those times I would decrease my internet and television political time and would focus on all that is beautiful as an antidote for the messiness of life.
For some reason this strategy stopped working for me during the first part of October. I could feel myself slipping into a mild depression and frequently said to friends that I wanted to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. The problem was that I knew how not to be part of the problem – by not making derogatory comments about people who express support for incompetent politicians. I know I can maybe be a part of the solution by having the integrity of living a life that is consistent with my values of honesty, truth, compassion, inclusiveness, equality and living simply. But I didn’t know how to be part of the big picture solution. It sounds grandiose but I wanted to be able to do something that would fix Washington, to fix the injustices that were happening, overrule the harmful policies that hurt those without power. I wanted the power to do right but was realizing that I might belong to the group that is without power. Ouch!
My solution: for the past 40-some days I have been knitting hats. Lots of hats with more yarn being shipped for even more hats. I have been knitting almost a hat a day and hope to be able to make them available to low- and no-income people who visit a pantry that gives out personal care items and cleaning products in my community in Michigan. I have knit little hats and big hats, hats with stripes and hats with cables, and hats with fancy stitches. I have knit hot pink hats and blue hats and green hats and grey hats. I just finished a “roy g b” hat with red, orange, yellow, green and blue stripes (I don’t have indigo and violet).
Most important, I knitted every hat thinking about some child, some teenager, some parent, some homeless person who will be a little warmer during the cold Michigan winter. I knitted in a little joy and goodwill into every stitch, hoping that the people who get them will feel it. By knitting hats, I also knitted my soul back together (with a help of a couple of good sermons that were relevant).
There is one empty stool at the counter and we need two. I contemplate if one of us should take claim while waiting for a second but I am too late – a 60-something man walks past the final food prep station and sits down on my stool. The waiter places a cup of coffee in front of him without words or receiving an order. He sits looking intently at or through the soda dispenser as he drinks his black coffee. The people to his left finish their breakfast but are in no hurry to leave as their plates are removed, coffee cups refilled, he turns to a different page of his Sunday paper and she checks her e-mails.
The 5′ 5″ man on my stool stands up and disappeared to the back, behind the 5′ 6″ wall, above which the cooks’ heads bob and totes of dirty dishes disappear. Within a few minutes he reappears with a plate of food, just as we are taking the two seats to his left. In the center of his plate is a sausage patty and egg sandwich, next to a couple of sausage links and toast. Two pickle spears lie parallel on either side of the plate. Around the edge of the plate are eight little mounds of butter, arranged as if numbers on a miss-manufactured clock face. I acknowledge him and he informs me that he delivers the produce and the owner lets him cook his own breakfast.
As I open a packet of artificial sweetener, he leans towards me, points his sandwich in the direction of my mug, and says,
The wildflowers seem unusually abundant this year so I’ve been focusing on them. They are singing my name, and on this excursion down dirt roads they were beckoning me in unison, like a well rehearsed choir.
There were some soloists but even they appeared more elegant within their milieu. When I was seven, swaying the swing under the giant oak, I imagined myself teaching the different vegetables in the garden to sing in harmony. On this day, in my seventieth decade, I just listened.
On this day I drifted between hearing the whole as it worked together and then focusing on the beauty of the individual.
I listened to the symphony of an inland lake on a summer’s morning, telling its secrets of times untold.
I listened to the secrets of being free to bloom and age as nature intended, without pretense.
And I listened to the cords of caution, knowing they need to be respected.
May we all hear this music and allow its message to grow within our spirits.