Holiday Letter, 2015

Below is our annual Christmas/holiday letter. I notice that as the years pass these are getting to be less about me and mine and more about you. I guess I'm okay with that.

Onward:


Dear Everyone,

Friend of mine’s dad was a roofer. Roofers, like all contractors, got stories.

This was one of his: One job, he was doing a full rip-and-replace on a house. He was pulling up decking on the backside when he slipped, fell between the joists, and crashed through the ceiling below.

It was a bedroom he landed in, one covered in a good quarter inch of dust. Furnished, but undisturbed for months, maybe years.

He tried the door. It was walled in.

He pondered options as quick as he could, settled on the certainty that whoever would wall up a perfectly good furnished room probably didn’t want it found for reasons. So he built himself a Jacob’s Ladder to freedom out of the furniture, shimmied up through the hole, and put new decking on in a big damn hurry.

See, this is what gets me whirling. Things in treeholes. Hidden tunnels. I look at an unmown chigger farm at the bottom of a runoff ditch and I am certain there is a small city of something bustling in that brush. A place where the real stuff goes down.

I’ve chased those places most of my life. I percolated upon the notion that there would come the day when I’d find a key or accidentally switch identical bags with a stranger or crash through a ceiling, and down the rabbit hole I would go.

They were beautiful thoughts. Incomplete, but it’s what’s left out of those stories that matters most.

Someday, I’d think. Someday I’ll learn the secret. The world behind the world.

But there’s another thing. Look:

Years ago I introduced my boy to Star Wars. I sat him down and turned it on and watched him watch it. I watched him laugh and cry and grope for reassurance and jump up and down and clap and cheer.

I awoke in his world, one I hadn’t inhabited myself for some time. I was, just for a moment, unbound. It was 1981 and I had more time than I could conceive of spending. He took my hand and said look, come and see. Pull out the blue book with the strange writing on the top shelf and stand back.

Right now one of you is feeling alone. One of you is suffering a loss.

One of you is sitting in your favorite chair, farting contentedly. One of you is thinking about how you’re in love right now and hoo-boy, you’re going to bust. One of you is grappling with a bad decision you’re going to make, even though you don’t want to.

One of you is just done for today.

And later you will need to go out, and maybe you will close those doors to the public, maybe wall them up for good.

Those are the secret cities I was looking for. I tried to find them by shutting out what I regarded as noise and turning inward, and it took me most of four decades to figure out that that was the exact wrong thing to do.

Look:

One of you is not so sure about what you just ate. One of you is afraid to open your mouth and let the bag of crazy tumble out. One of you is really happy with your socks right now, and no one could possibly see how much you needed that.

All of you are, in some way, afraid.

I learned this in stumbles and skips, usually by falling through someone’s ceiling, or seeing them fumble and fall through their own walled-up door.

I needed only to see you, to hear you. You were the hidden city. And I nearly missed you, because I was looking in a goddamn shrub. Because I am slow sometimes.

Still, I found you, and here we are. I have seen what you see. I have wondered why, just like you. And I will do what I can to help you figure it out too. I and my family are here.

And we are. We are here. We are harried and awash in mess and sleep-deprived and eating WAY too much refined flour just like you, and we are here. For you, and with you.

Look. Look: We are here.

We hope this unnervingly warm holiday is as good to you as it has been to us. Because frankly, it’s been so good to us that we’re feeling a little guilty and we need to spread some of that joy around so that we may sleep the sleep of the just.

So tell us. Tell us everything. About your secret place, if you’re comfortable. About your socks if not, but remember: We’ve seen weirder. We’ve been to Texas.

My Mom Once Dressed Up as Cyndi Lauper, AMA

So this week I got to nurture my inner narcissist by standing up in front of a roomful of strangers and telling them what I think about my mom.

The venue was Listen to Your Mother's Little Rock show. I met a bunch of very brave people who carved off big chunks of themselves and dragged them out under stagelights.

It's the first public reading I've done in years, which had my pulse around 120. But it sounds as if I didn't suck, if audience reaction is to be believed.

Video will go up sometime this summer, if you're interested in watching a dude who looks like Voldemort wearing a summer blazer publicly work through his mommy issues. Meantime, here's the screed.

Oh, credit: One of the best lines of the piece (the one about changing the world) was shamelessly stolen from Jessamyn West with her permission. Jessamyn's pretty damned amazing, as is fitting for famous librarians. I'm proud to call her a friend and steal her bons mots.

Also, credit to my mom, who is also amazing. When she is not calling me "numbnuts".

Anyway. Here you go.

She will put Chaos into fourteen bullet points

Came the day my dad was drafted. He managed to get leave from Officer Candidate School long enough to come home and marry my mom before he flew out to war.

It was a hasty wedding in a small and indelibly Christian town, so the rumor was of course that he'd knocked her up. One family friend gave them a case of RC Cola for a wedding gift with a note: "I'll get you a real present if it lasts."

She showed me a photo of them at the reception, holding the case of soda between them. I asked if she ever got the real gift. "I did," she said, "but I didn't want it." I imagine she smiled and said thank you.

Dad's renal cancer happened 25 years ago. There were Mayo Clinic visits. Surgeries. Radiation. Walkers. Wheelchairs. Somehow he beat it.

A doctor had told her Dad would be dead in two years. She suggested to the doctor that, if he was having trouble locating his optimism, perhaps he could try looking places other than up his own ass. She didn't use those words, but I have little doubt that they lurked in her meaning. Midwestern farm girls are easily the equal of Southern women when it comes to feathering a thick layer of unassailable manners atop a sheetcake of disdain.

There were our teenage years. The time our dog ate Dad's face. My near inability to finish my first college degree. The rumors that sprang up when we shut down one of the family stores, including, remarkably, that she had died. She kept her back straight through that and more.

She has a Buddhist's understanding of the inevitability of suffering, if not their practiced detachment. She is a mother, not a Buddhist. Detachment is not an option.

So she makes lists of everything. She checks her calendar. She makes phone calls. She makes more lists.

It was those lists that got her married in record time before dad went off to war, that got him through his cancer treatment. Those lists changed Missouri law to allow deaf children into public schools. Those lists brought her to the deathbed of a woman she knew only through the window of a McDonald's drive-thru.

The lists are her handle on the world. They are her clarity and focus. The next action item. The next job. The next person who needs someone.

Those lists mean that she's going to show up. She's going to be present. And that can mean happy things, but it's almost certainly going to mean work.

As for me, I am an aficionado of sitting. Withering sarcasm is fun, too. Being pushy while a holding a checklist sounds like a special kind of hell to me. But she knows what I don't want to know, that being pushy with checklist is the only damn thing that can change the world.

It was only when she called last Thanksgiving, when she was in the middle of comforting her dying father-in-law while protecting his estate from vultures and trying to contain the pain of her bad feet, her failing digestive system, and her own recently-dead mother. It was when I suggested that I not bring the family up for the holidays, when she sobbed and thanked me for offering what she couldn't bring herself to ask, that I heard it.

Her voice shook like a newborn after a bath, and I heard more of mortality in that than in the three funerals I would attend that season. I learned another thing that I didn't want to know: that there are limits to what even she can bear.

But within a day her voice was perpendicular and smiling again. She was calling me on the phone. She was making lists for when we'd do Christmas in January.

And her joy shamed me. There was no sermon, no reminder that "life for me ain't been no crystal stair". She just let me know that she was still climbing, and that if I needed it, she could probably carry me for a bit.

I have in my possession a translucent yellow envelope. It is the kind you fasten shut by closing a flap and winding a string around a couple of plastic discs. Inside of it is a transparent plastic folder with pockets and brads for fastening hole-punched paper in the center like a binder. The center section is a crisp, three-quarter-inch-thick stack of paper interleaved with multicolored tabs.

It is unadorned but bears the mark of a string of careful choices. The whole package is assembled simply, clearly, with an eye for aesthetics and user experience. It is meant to be durable, dependable, serious but not somber, and both easy and pleasing to use.

The center tabs are carefully labeled in black gel ink in her hand, which is, like the folder, like her, a balance of professional competence and reliability against a deadpan but lighthearted flair. The feminine rise and fall of the bottom stroke of her capital L's, like a small sledding hill. The Marlo Thomas hair flip at the end of her lowercase N's.

General Information for Trustee. Joint Revocable Trust Agreement. General Durable Power of Attorney. Bills of Sale/Assignment. Warranty Deed. Health Care Directive. Last Will & Testament.

Things to Remember.

It is her final set of lists, the ones she will never be able to finish. The ones she's putting into my hands to see all the way to completion. I try to tell myself that I will see it done on my own, but I suspect my back won't bear up like hers. I suspect that my wife, who is also a mother, who knows what it is to lose a mother, will see before I can that I am broken, and she will scrape me up off the floor and help me to check off those last few boxes.

Christmas Letter 2014

Dear Everyone,

This year's letter has been a tough one to nail down.

We had a banner year. 2014 up and tattooed itself all over our lives. New jobs, new friends, new priorities. New possibilities revealing themselves. The year showed us what we could be, what we could do. Then it ended by reminding us of what we already had.

My maternal grandmother died early last month. The wake of her passing was enormous, even if the fact of her death was an overdue mercy. We gathered together in that wake, held each other and wept. And laughed. And ate. And then I wrote you a letter.

Just a few weeks later, my paternal grandfather died too. Just like my Nanaw, his death was a mercy, and just like my Nanaw, he left behind one hell of a wake. He left a hole in things. So again we gathered and held and wept and laughed and ate. And then I scrapped that letter and wrote you another one.

This morning I came to work to discover that a friend and coworker, a 33-year-old husband and father, was killed in a car wreck the night before. He left a hole in things too, one we weren't braced for. So I scrapped that second letter and am starting over again.

I'm unsure of what to say.

My temptation when I write these is to wrap a tidy little bow around things, to shoehorn the events of our lives into some kind of theme. But however comforting that may be to write or to read, those lives defy an effort that small and limiting. It feels dishonest even to try. Losing so many drove that point home.

But it's not just the barrage of loss and tragedy. It's everything, every mark on our lives, good and bad. Each one a single drop, some bigger than others, but none of which is easily contained.

I can't get my head around the sheer mass of all those drops, even just from this year: Loved ones lost, loved ones gained. Corners turned. Chance encounters that rearranged everything. They leave me with no neat little gift to give you. They leave me gobsmacked.

A single life is an inscrutable, baffling, insane thing. There is no order to it, no theme. There are only those drops, added one by one to a great, churning sea of longing and laughter and fear and all-too-brief satisfaction.

The chaos of all that churning is living, moving art. It seeks infinite rearrangement, and that means infinite possibility.

And therein lies our hope. Because as long as the chaos holds, as long as the sea churns, the possibilities don't run out. We can still do more. Be more. There is still time.

There is no map for this. All you can do is wade in, see where it takes you. Maybe keep an eye out for anyone who looks like their arms are getting tired. It can be terrifying as all hell, but it's also pretty damn thrilling, and I am discovering that even that terror is a gift. Even the heartbreak.

We hope your year has been a good one or, failing that, that it has laid the groundwork for good things to come. We couldn't stay afloat without you, and for that we thank you and love you and will be certain to sacrifice the small forest creature of your choosing to Zalgo, the Nezperdian Hive Mind of Chaos. Or maybe we'll make pie.

2015 looks to be at least as terrifyingly full of possibility as 2014. I propose we hold hands.