ENTERTAINING ANGELS UNAWARE

‘Tis the season of charitable giving.  The most cheerful givers tend to
be those who’ve been on the receiving end, often quite recently.  This week, I would like to share a Christmas story that’s near and dear to my heart.  They say you cannot spread joy to others without some spilling back on yourself.  Luckily, joy won’t stain your shirt, like turkey gravy or cherry pie.  So feel free to spread and spill as much as you want:

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a young couple who lived in a drafty rental house in upstate New York with their five cats, three of which were not sanctioned by the landlord and had to be kept hidden. They dreamed of owning a home and taking in all the strays they wanted. When they learned the Air Force was moving them to Dayton, Ohio, they contacted a realtor in Yellow Springs, a liberal village that felt right to them.  There were only a couple homes in their price range.  They trekked across I-90 three times that autumn to check out the possibilities and made an offer on the best one, a small, sturdy brick ranch with a fenced backyard, located on a quiet cul-de-sac.

The bank required a thick stack of paperwork, their finances laid bare on the loan officer’s desk.  They had overextended themselves in the past:  a new car, a motorcycle, a vacation to Europe, vet bills for the cats.  They had gone through credit counseling and reined in their spending, but they were still a long way from paying off their debts.  The loan officer reviewed their forms and shook her head.  But if they were willing to jump through some hoops and obtain a VA guarantee, maybe she could swing it.  The VA packet was thicker and even more daunting, but they persevered and the guarantee was granted.  Even so, their application was iffy.  The loan officer issued strict instructions not to touch their credit cards or deplete their accounts for anything frivolous.  Just rent, utilities, food, and existing loans.  Nothing else.  Every dollar counted and the approval of their mortgage hung in the balance.  This meant there would be no tree, no presents, no trip home, no Christmas.  They sighed heavily; the thought of it was almost too depressing to contemplate.

The next morning, they took stock of their assets.  A trunk of lights and Christmas decorations.  Flour, sugar, and cookie cutters.  Miscellaneous craft supplies.  Paper, envelopes, and a book of postage stamps.  They pooled the cash from their wallets and added the change from the big Mason jar, a grand total of $64.  They obviously couldn’t buy and mail gifts to everyone, so they devised a plan.  They would fulfill one wish from the Angel Tree, spending fifty of their precious dollars on a fancy dollhouse for an underprivileged child.  The wife sent a letter to their closest family and friends explaining their circumstances.  Inside each, she enclosed a handmade angel ornament crafted from white felt and lace and buttons, a reminder that however little one might have, there is always someone who has less.  They baked sugar cookies to munch on.  There wasn’t enough left over for a tree or a holiday dinner with all the trimmings, but it didn’t matter.  All they really wanted was good news about their house.

Two evenings before Christmas, they heard a knock at their front door.  On the porch was their neighbor, Tim, wanting to know if they needed help putting up their lights.  He could lend them a ladder.  Tim peered into the living room, wondering aloud why they had no tree or decora-tions, and the whole sad story came pouring out.  He invited the couple to join his family for Christmas dinner, assuring them there would be plenty of food.  Having nowhere else to go, they gratefully accepted.

The following night, Tim dropped by again, this time dragging a lush evergreen he’d gotten for a song from a tree dealer eager to clear his lot and head home.  They retrieved their decorations from the attic.  Tim steadied the tree while they secured it in the stand.  They finished stringing up the lights and arranging the ornaments just in time for Midnight Mass.  On Christmas day, Tim and his family welcomed them, inviting them to fill their plates and grab a seat by the tree.  Little did they know, there were gifts for them, too.  Overcome, eyes glistening, they opened up packages of slippers, a throw blanket, hot cocoa mix, cashews, popcorn, and candy.  It was one of their most memorable and joyous Christmases ever.  Tim smiled ear to ear, accepting nothing but their gratitude and the promise that when they were able, they would pass it on.  He could not have imagined what he set in motion that day.

Soon after, their mortgage was approved and they moved into their very own home.  By the following Christmas, they had added a pound puppy to their menagerie and saved up enough to make good on their promise.  For twenty-three years now, they’ve been paying it forward, largely under the radar.  They’d like to keep it that way, so I’m not at liberty to say who they are or exactly what they do, but rest assured, they are real people, just like you.

There are still eight days until Christmas… it’s not too late to spill some joy.  Keep your eyes and ears and heart open; you’ll know what to do.

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JUST 29 MORE SHOPPING DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS

We were out of town for Thanksgiving, so I had little time to prepare a new post.  Enjoy this updated version of “A DOG’S LETTER TO SANTA” which was originally published in Dec 2015, before I had any followers:

I was dusting the other day and found this lying on the printer:
letter to Santa
You’ve probably deduced that parts of this post are fictional.  The part about me dusting, for instance.  Congratulations, Sherlock, well done!  Now we can move on to more perplexing mysteries, like where Tailor learned to write.  And in outline form, no less!  Do you think he knows where I keep the envelopes and stamps?  Can he reach the flag on the mailbox?  What will happen when he finds out the truth about Santa?  And discovers that my credit cards are the key to the wonderful world of Amazon.com?  What if he grows up to be a lawyer?  Like so many pet parents, I worry.  But for today, I’m content to let him revel in the magic of Christmas.  I’ll hug him tight for remembering Peaches and Callie in his letter and vouch that he’s a good boy if the North Pole should call me requesting verification.  Of course, Santa will bring him everything he asked for, except the heated indoor pool.  And that giant stick from the back yard, the one he knows he isn’t allowed to bring in the house. Maybe I’ll slip a Roomba under the tree, just because he was cheeky enough to go behind my back and ask Santa Claus for the stick!  After he and Roomba are done chasing each other, we’ll take turns bobbing for chicken, straight from the bucket, and flop down in front of the TV. From my cozy corner seat, I’ll count my blessings, beginning with the one wielding the remote control, the one sprawled across my lap, the one meowing to go outside, and the one snoring from the depths of an extra-crispy food coma.  If I start crying, you can blame it on Hallmark; those sappy holiday movies get me every time!

Wishing you a blessed season filled with laughter, love, and memories.

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WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE NEW YORKERS DO

Hubs and I spent a year in Rome.  Rome, New York.  It’s upstate, where winters are long and cold and snowy.  Our rental house was four floors: full basement, first story, second story, and full attic, square footage that costs a fortune to heat.  To save money, we decided we’d tough it out and not turn the furnace on until November 1.  Such an idea might pass for reasonable in Ohio, but up there, it means watching TV in long johns and a sweater.  Under a winter coat.  Wearing mittens.  I became passionate about baking, a good reason to turn on the oven and linger in the kitchen.  Precision tasks like knitting or carving a pumpkin had to be done a bit at a time so I could stuff my hands in my pockets or wrap them around a mug of hot tea to restore flexibility.  Somehow, we did it, and the memories flood back every autumn when I turn the furnace on, wrinkling my nose at the dusty-stagnant air rising from the vents.

Last year, the furnace went wonky on us.  It would run one cycle (five minutes), then quit.  It wasn’t the pilot light, so we did the only other thing we know to do:  turn off the power, wait a couple minutes, and turn it back on.  I’m told it resets the circuit board, similar to rebooting
a balky computer.  When that repeatedly failed, we called “THE GUY.”  Between diagnoses and returning to install parts and troubleshoot, he made seven trips.  We were hopeful at the outset, but soon, each new repair was regarded with wariness.  Would it work for a day?  A week?
A month?  Were we going to freeze to death before Mr. HVAC actually got it fixed?  The VILLANELLE, with its endless loop of repeating lines, seemed the perfect vehicle to drive this story home:

FURNACE VILLANELLE

My furnace has an intermittent glitch
And inexplicably, the heat goes out
I toggle off and on the power switch

the sole maneuver in my bag of tricks
I call the man and say, without a doubt
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

He reassures me HVAC is his niche
and pencils me onto tomorrow’s route
I toggle once again the power switch

Hot air escapes the vent, a little titch
The motor cycles once, then peters out
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

Qualified to sort out what from which,
the man returns with toolbox, skills, and clout
replaces flame inducer, pressure switch

unblocks a drain, addresses every hitch
It runs like new a month or thereabout,
then crashes from an intermittent glitch
I toggle off and on the power switch

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SHIFTING THROUGH THE SEASONS

Autumn moves in like an inexperienced driver, one who hasn’t quite mastered the gears that make the earth revolve smoothly around the sun.  He’s wary at first, but soon barrels ahead into sweater weather, only to backpedal into summer for two sweltering weeks in October.

Speaking of which, my nephew and niece turned sixteen and started driving this year, stirring up memories of my own early experiences behind the wheel.  I can appreciate why parents aren’t especially eager to ride shotgun while their progeny learn to navigate the open road.  Mine sent me to a two-week driving school.  My first in-car instructor was a very pregnant Hispanic woman.  It terrified me to realize three lives would be at stake if we crashed.  The teacher, blithely unaware
that I was a driving virgin who had never even backed the family Buick out of the garage, told me to “adjust the seat and mirrors” while she popped back inside to use the restroom.  She returned to find me ill-positioned and completely perplexed.  How was I supposed to adjust the seat if I didn’t know what I needed to be able to do or reach?  How could I adjust the mirrors when I didn’t know what I should be able to see?  She sighed; it was gonna be a long two hours for both of us.  We went no faster than 35 mph, circling clockwise, then counterclockwise around the block, me struggling to keep the car between the lines as
I practiced stops and right and lefthand turns.  I must have scared the poor kid right out of her; I arrived the next morning to find she’d been replaced by an easygoing hillbilly with long hair and a scraggly beard.  On the entrance ramp to the highway, he slid one foot out of his man-sandal and pulled it up onto his lap. “Turn your left blinker on,” he said.  He barely glanced up from the callus he was picking as I merged, white-knuckled, into the speeding traffic.  I learned to drive a stick shift in my boyfriend’s Mercury Lynx.  It was surprisingly easy; I can recall only one embarrassing incident.  I was first in line at a traffic light, waiting to make a left turn.  When I got the green arrow, I manipulated the pedals as I had been taught, but somehow, I stalled the car.  I tried again and again, to no avail.  Traffic backed up behind me.  Angry honks filled the air.  Stymied, I fingered the shifter, realizing as the light turned red that the car was in third gear.  More precisely, jammed in third gear.  When the light changed, I punched the gas and held on as the engine caught and the car bucked and jerked around the corner.  I managed to coast safely into a parking lot and use a pay phone to call my boyfriend, who dispatched two of his mechanically-inclined uncles to the scene.  Mark and Rich were kind enough to get me un-jammed without any snickers or snide remarks.  At least, none that I ever knew about.  It was a life lesson in having patience with beginners… both ourselves and others.

AUTUMN DRIVE

Another one of Earth’s boys
must have gotten his learner’s permit
Suddenly, the orbital ride
is downright jerky and unpredictable
Stalling out and stopping,
creeping cautiously through summer,
then punching the gas,
tossing equinox headlong into solstice,
only to jam on the brakes
and throw the spin of the entire planet
into a wobbling reverse
Trees blush in embarrassed empathy
Earth sighs and sets his jaw;
they will tackle parallel parking later

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TINY FLASHES OF HALLELUJAH

Have you ever witnessed a miracle?  You probably have – they happen all the time, but we often chalk them up to serendipity or coincidence. “Flashes of Hallelujah” my friend Julie calls them.  Not flamboyant stuff like winning the Lottery (though that would certainly count), just small everyday miracles like making it to the gas station with the needle on “E,” discovering that your old jeans still fit, being escorted by a pair of dragonflies along a footpath in the woods, finding a handwritten letter among the bills and junk in your mailbox, or getting the laundry down off the line in time to beat the storm.  Last week, I stuck my hand into the pocket of a rain jacket I hadn’t worn since spring and pulled out a twenty dollar bill.  This past Thursday, I harvested a dozen blushing-yellow tomatoes from my garden, more than I’d be able to use, and in short order, the extras were adopted by a most grateful neighbor. On Friday, my dog did his business a minute before we reached the front door, so I didn’t have to carry his reeking poo-sack for the entire walk.  Some are a bit more mysterious, like two Sundays ago when I went out to get the paper.  I glanced around the quiet cul-de-sac, finding myself mesmerized by the colors of sunrise reflected in an RV window.  To the east, the sky it mirrored was still dusky violet.  The sun, though up, had not yet cleared the treeline, leaving me to question how I’d seen what
I saw.  A wise person said, “Let up a little on the wonder why, and give your heart a try.”  So I put pen to paper and let it speak.  It was cool to picture God with His Crayolas.  The 128-pack including “sunrise” is only available in heaven.  No sharpener; up there, crayons never grow dull.

AS THE SUNDAY PAPER
LIES ON THE DRIVEWAY,
FORGOTTEN

An early riser thrusts
His sunrise crayon
through a portal
in the copse to the east
coloring the camper’s
rear window
with a gleaming
pink-gold reflection

Framed just so,
it grabs my retinas,
focuses them
on a keyhole miracle,
the Divine Projectionist’s
sleight of beam,
just for me,
just for a moment

His dazzling epiphany
supplants my low purpose
with a higher one:
seeing the unseen,
grasping that these
impeccably aligned rays
offer a mirrored
self-portrait of God

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CAN-NOODLING WITH PARODY

A PARODY is a humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing.  In the following parody of Charles Kingsley’s famous poem Young and Old, I have made every effort to mimic the flavor of the original piece:  the discourse on opposites, the finished length, the galloping cadence, the unusual rhyme scheme.  “Don” is,
of course, a narcissistic president more concerned about his dessert than the plight of the refugees in…  uh… whichever country he just bombed.  Don’t be a Don, folks.  If you have food on your table, give thanks.  If you have extra, graciously share it with your neighbor.

THE TOP AND THE BOTTOM

When every meal is fine, Don
all lobster tails and steak
Paired with the perfect wine, Don
and gorgeous chocolate cake
Then raise your glass to wealth, Don
A toast to billionaires!
Indulge your precious self, Don
Reach for your silverware

But don’t forget the ones, Don
whose budgets barely stretch
They make their grocery runs, Don
the day they get their checks
All beans and rice and staple foods
for soups and casseroles
Yet bow their heads in gratitude
to He who fills their bowls

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