Branching Out

Pinch, pull, twist. Pinch, pull, twist.

It sounds like the world’s strangest football chant. Or maybe a post-Thanksgiving exercise routine. (“And PULL and TWIST … c’mon, burn off that stuffing!”) Both wrong, although the second one’s close.

Namely, this was the welcoming ceremony for our new Christmas tree. An exercise in focus, patience and tedium second only to being a Colorado Rockies fan.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve been part of the Fake Tree Faction since childhood, when my folks decided that cleaning up pine needles (and dealing with pets who found the ones they missed) was not how they wanted to spend a significant fraction of December and January. The plastic pine they purchased – say THAT five times fast! – became part of family legend. That was partly because it also became a family journal, with each of us writing a short note about the year gone by as we unpacked the tree each winter.

So when Heather and I struck out on our own, a false fir was de rigueur. For a while, it became a pre-lit tree, with the noble intention of saving our none-too-good spinal columns from having to twist a strand of lights from top to bottom. But of course, a pre-lit tree has its own distinct evolutionary pattern:

  • Stage 1: “Oh, how beautiful!”
  • Stage 2: “Honey, I think some of the lights are out.”
  • Stage 3: “Honey! I think some of the lights are actually ON!”

After dealing with too many Stage 3 situations, we surrendered and bought an unlit pine this year. One that came with a warning that we’d need to spend some setup time to make it look right.

Boy, were they NOT kidding.

The branches on each level looked like sheaves of wheat or maybe rolled-up newspapers, tightly bunched around a central limb. Transforming it from “greenish hat-rack” to “fully-formed pine” would require shaping each branch – namely, by pinching the tip of a smaller sub-branch, pulling it free of the mass and then twisting it in the direction you wanted it to go.

Pinch, pull, twist. Over and over. For at least 20 to 30 minutes that felt like an entire presidential administration.

Remember what I said about preventing back pain? Don’t.

As so often happens, the result was worth the effort. When fully fluffed out, the tree stood tall and proud, a sentinel of the season. Especially that part of it called hope.

We use that word a lot this time of year without really thinking about what it needs. It’s not the magical expectation that a tree will leap to life from the box as soon as you cut the tape free. It’s knowing where you want to be and then putting in the effort to get there, no matter how frustrating or difficult it may become.

Hope starts with a vision. But it doesn’t end there. Real hope stays for the long haul, motivating and pushing until you cross the finish line. It’s the knowledge that “You can do this!”, not the illusion that “This will be easy to do!”

This season of the year is often about a culmination of hope, a promise that after a long darkness, light still comes. The waiting and endurance are still real. But so is the glimmer that waits at the end, shining in darkened streets.

Remember that. Hold on. Keep the vision alive and work to make it real.

And if your vision includes a simpler way to shape a plastic pine, I’ll be sending you an invitation to visit for the holidays next year.

Fir sure.

A Bite of Tradition

At this time of gratitude, I am perhaps most thankful that I don’t have to write a Turkeybiter.

Unless you have friends or family around the area of Emporia, Kansas, you probably haven’t heard the word before. Like lightsabers in “Star Wars,” Turkeybiters are a vestige of a more civilized time – short, simple notes in the local paper about how local families were spending their Thanksgiving. Usually, it’d be something along the lines of:

“Sally Johnson is gathering family from seven states for the Thanksgiving feast, which includes turkey, cornbread and Aunt Willie’s Buffalo-Squid Surprise that she’s made for 37 years. Annual traditions include board games, bad football and keeping Uncle Matthew from talking politics again.”

You get the idea.

Some people would mail them in. Sometimes teachers would assign them for homework. But mostly, the newspaper staff had to go out and hunt down a certain quota themselves. Our regular sources learned to quickly duck for cover when they saw an intrepid reporter approaching with a Turkeybiter gleam in their eye. After all, even the most damaging investigative piece would eventually come and go, but chatting even once in November would mark you as a potential Turkeybiter every single Thanksgiving.

Which, of course, made them a perfect celebration of the holiday. Like the Thanksgiving feast itself, they were:

  1. A lot of work
  2. Grumbled about constantly as the work went on
  3. Seriously appreciated as a special tradition once everything was ready to serve

And they were. People would thank us for carrying on the old-time hometown tradition. Some readers would get a glow from seeing the news of their neighbors. Some reporters would get a glow from seeing column inches that they didn’t have to worry about filling when everyone was out of town. Everybody got a win.

Odd? Sure. But somehow it worked.

And that’s also a perfect description of Thanksgiving.

It’s a strange little holiday, isn’t it? It sits tucked away in a corner like a guest at the kids’ table, apart from the gaudier Halloween and Christmas festivities. Oh, long ago in the early 20th century, it used to be a time for masks and costumes as well (seriously!). But these days, the weirdest things associated with the holiday are “Alice’s Restaurant,” the WKRP turkey drop, and the fact that Detroit Lions football is actually considered worth watching.

It’s quiet. Respectable, even. No decor on the house or giant pilgrims in the yard, just  a lot of work that’s mostly seen by close friends and family. (Unless you’re one of the many who reaches out to the forgotten on Thanksgiving, of course.)

It doesn’t shout. And that’s OK.

In a country that’s so often extroverted, it’s OK to have a time about turning inward and considering gratitude.

At a time of year when the very landscape seems to become a little quieter, it’s OK to have a time that doesn’t need its own  Mariah Carey anthem.

It’s an unheralded celebration that can feel exhausting, even burdensome in the days leading up to it. But oh-so-special when the moment finally arrives.

I hope you get to touch that quiet appreciation this year. To lift someone up or be lifted in turn. To share in a spirit of thankfulness that deserves to last beyond a November afternoon.

Celebrate. Enjoy. Remember.

And if you feel like sharing those memories in a Turkeybiter, I know just the editor to talk to.

Waiting for the Light

“When are we going?”

“Not quite yet, Missy.”

That’s not an unusual exchange in our house at most times. Missy, after all, is one of the world’s quiet extroverts – a person of few words (due to her developmental disability) who loves to be around people. Even the most mundane errand often sprouts an eager tagalong, even if there’s barely time to smile at the checkout clerk.

But as the evenings get longer and the air gets colder, the question becomes The Question. When she asks after dark, Missy’s not looking for crowds.

She’s looking for lights.

And these days, she’s not alone.

If you regularly stop by this column, you may know that Missy and I make a series of holiday light runs across all of Longmont through the holiday season. And if you haven’t dropped in from Andromeda, you know the season for lights and other holiday decor keeps getting earlier and earlier.

Long, long ago, the excitement started on Christmas Eve, kicking off the celebrated “twelve days of Christmas.” In fact, it was considered bad luck to decorate any earlier than Dec. 24.

A few generations ago, that shifted to Thanksgiving. After a day of good turkey and bad football, it was time to dig out the ladder and start hanging up the roof lights … once you’d shaken off the exhaustion of consuming 10,000 calories in one go, of course.

These days, and especially since the pandemic, it seemed to be fair game any time after Halloween. Our own family’s earliest record is the day after Veterans Day (attention must be paid) but some homes seem to have the clock-change motto of “Spring Forward, Fall Back Into a Blaze of Glory.”

it’s not hard to guess why. In times that feel dark – both literally and metaphorically – it’s natural to reach for all the light we can get. Some studies have even shown that early decorating can lift spirits, tapping into a reservoir of nostalgic feelings.

For myself, I worry a little bit about making the magical mundane. When something special becomes ubiquitous, it risks losing some of its wonder. We start to tune out what’s always there, and it would be a shame to consign something so brilliant to the realm of the ordinary.

But here’s the thing: it’s not a hard boundary. Each of us knows what our heart needs. And if reaching for a strand of colored lights brings you joy at a moment you need it, I’m not going to be the Christmas cop. (Likewise, if reaching for NO lights keeps your soul content, that’s OK, too.)

We all push back the shadows however we can. And anytime we can strengthen joy or ease pain, we’ve made the world a little better – regardless of the season.

That doesn’t require lights on the house. Just lights in the heart, as often as we can kindle them.

So best wishes to you, whether your own seasonal colors are spread across the front lawn or tightly packed in cardboard. Whatever you celebrate, however you do it, may it give you the strength and reassurance you need in the time ahead.

And in a couple of weeks, when Missy and I hit the road at last, we’ll make sure to wave as we go by.

Hour After Hour

Attention, my fellow passengers. Welcome back to Standard Time. Please make sure all clocks have been restored to the fallback position, and …

OK, I’ll wait for the grumbling to stop.

Twice a year we do this dance. Twice a year, half the country complains about it. And 10 years out of 10, nothing ever changes. Back and forth we run the time-shift tennis match, Standard Time to Daylight Time to Standard Time again.

We all know it’s crazy. But we don’t seem to know how to stop.

We’ve tried with logic, whether it’s “lighter mornings are better for your body” or “lighter evenings are better for the economy.”

We’ve tried with safety, noting the brief surge of traffic accidents when the clock changes in any direction.

We’ve tried jokes, memes and satire – though I should note that a satirical piece by Ben Franklin is partly what got us into this mess.

We’ve even tried legislation and ballot issues, pursued with much fanfare and little efficacy. The one time we did see a change – shifting to year-round Daylight Saving Time for two years in the Nixon administration – the popularity quickly soured amidst wintertime images of kids going to school in the dark. (The counter-experiment of nationwide year-round Standard Time has yet to be run – except of course, for all those years before 1918.)

So whether you’re singing “Here Comes the Sun” with the Beatles or “Thank the Lord for the Night Time,” with Neil Diamond, we seem destined to confusion and disappointment for at least part of the year. Kind of like being a Rockies fan, but without the hot dogs.

But there’s something else we can do.

Maybe we can’t figure out how to set our time. But we can consider how we spend it.

For a people who live by the clock, we’re really good at letting it get away from us. It’s easy to let minutes blur into hours into “Where did the week go?” Most of the time, it’s gone to the routine – some of it necessary, much of it just habit.

That’s part of why big events shock us. Aside from any inherent wonder or horror they may hold, they force us to break out of our reflexes and notice. (Or if you’re a Talking Heads fan, to ask “Well … how did I get here?”)

Remember when the pandemic started? Those first couple of months that never seemed to end? With most of our usual options for filling time gone, we had no choice but to notice every single minute and figure out what the heck we were going to do with it. Sure, some of those choices were a little strange, but hey … what wasn’t?

There’s still little bits of that rattling around in our “normal” today. A reminder that our moments hold more than we sometimes realize.

The thing is, it doesn’t require a pandemic. (Thank goodness.) But it does require some conscious effort. Stepping out of the flow always does. But if we take a moment to see beyond the schedule, we can put those moments where they belong: with the people we care about and the calls that need us. To live, not just exist.

If we do that, then we really can define our time.

No matter how shifty it may be.