Tag Archives: stories

The Christmas Story

24 Dec

In one of my previous posts, I wrote, “God had never spoken to me before (except he maybe hit me in the head with a fifteen-pound cross on Christmas Eve last year, but that’s a story for another time).”

I am now going to tell that story.  It is a story about how Jesus gave me a bitch slap and a black eye for Christmas.

I left Richmond for my first semester at the University of Virginia last August with a carful of carefully-chosen room decor, my very own Swiffer, and a selection of cutout dresses that I would be too lazy to wear to parties.  I promised myself to do something that scared me every day.  I told myself I would join every club that vaguely interested me and find all the best hole-in-the-wall cafés.  When December rolled around, I was involved, all right, and stretched too thin.  The skin under my eyes had turned a permanent shade of purple.  I had a malingering illness that left me unable to eat much more than a few slices of bread and some fruit each day.  Although I faithfully responded to every email I received each night, by morning my inbox would be bursting with notifications from professors, announcements from the extracurriculars I’d joined, and minutes from the student government council meetings I attended.  I had lost weight.  My attitude was more depressing than Eeyore’s.

When I returned for Christmas break, I felt like a stranger in my own household.  Had I never noticed the stench of dog pee emanating from the living room carpet?  What was so bad about eating Chunky Monkey straight from the container at 2:00 A.M.?  When we dressed ourselves in our finest to go see The Nutcracker, a family tradition, I realized that my younger sister had been wearing my favorite pair of black pumps.  Her feet, a size bigger than mine, had stretched the faux leather beyond redemption.  I trailed behind them as we walked from the parking lot to the theater, hissing threats at her and hobbling down Grace Street like a drunken mountain goat trying to scale the Alps.

In addition to the usual prelude duties I had at the late night Christmas service, my choir director had asked me to accompany the children’s choir on flute for the pageant.  A less-than-perfectly-melodic bunch at the best of times, the choir kids were less than pleased to be asked to harmonize with any instrument other than the triangle and the bongos.  Rehearsals made me want to bang my head against a wall.  On Christmas Eve, I threw on a dirty dress and slunk into church five minutes before the service began.

“Where were you?” said the choir director.  “Our last rehearsal was half an hour ago!”

“I was…baking gingerbread,” I muttered.  “Lost track of time.”

We stood in the sacristy among the bustle of acolytes tugging on white robes, clergy going over the service notes, and toddlers running around with shepherd’s crooks or angel wings, haloes askew.  One of the acolytes, a glasses-wearing boy of about twelve, ordered the younger kids around, boasting about how heavy the crucifix was.  “You gotta be strong to carry it.  Someone with muscle,” he said.  “Like me.  Lookit.” I cleaned my flute and glared at him.

“All right,” said Lyndon, one of our head priests.  “Are we all ready to -”

Suddenly, a blinding pain exploded in my right temple, and I staggered sideways.  One of the little angels screamed.  I blinked and realized that my vision had gone fuzzy.

“Oh, shit,” said someone.  “Sorry, I mean oh my God…I mean, wait, hold on…”

It was the acolyte.  I saw him, as if from far away, holding the heavy, brass cross like it had come to life and begun to dance the two-step.

“Did you just…” I began.  Pain lanced into my cheekbone and behind my eye.

“I swear it was an accident!  I was just lifting it and -”

My mother, a soprano in the adult choir, appeared from nowhere and grabbed my wrist.  “Let’s go to the bathroom, okay?”

“Mom,” I said, a few minutes later, looking at my blurry reflection.  “I think I might be concussed.”

“No, you idiot,” she said, fondly patting my arm.  “He knocked you so hard both your contacts fell out.  I found them on the floor.”  And she offered the two withered discs to me.  I slid them onto my irises, wincing.  “Do you know how close he came to taking out your right eye?  Half a centimeter lower, and…”

An enormous bump had begun to form under my eyebrow.  “Don’t I have to go play now?” I asked.

“The choir director says you don’t have to.  You know, considering the circumstances.”

“No,” I said.  “I have to.  I have to.”

I adjusted my wrinkled dress, grabbed my flute, and proceeded to give the worst performance of my life as my black eye started to grow dark and fat.  And that was, somehow, cathartic.  I looked like shit and I played like shit on a night when all of Christiandom was supposed to offer up their talents for the Christ Child (or something like that, anyway).  Between services, I nibbled on bread and clamped a frozen steak from the church pantry to my face.

At St. Thomas, the 10:00 service is always meditative, filled with candles and the delicate melodies of quieter Christmas hymns.  My friend Darren and I had rehearsed Dave Matthew’s “The Christmas Song” as the prelude.  It was a tradition from the place we’d met, an Episcopalian summer camp where I attended and he worked during the summer.  The wood cabins clung to the foot of a mountain on the border between Virginia and West Virginia.  On the kind of July nights where the air was saturated with cricket songs, one of the musically-talented counselors would pull out his guitar and treat us to a rendition of “The Christmas Song.”  That’s where a song like that is most appropriate: the quiet places, the ones with clasped heads and pensive thoughts.

As Darren’s fingers danced over the guitar fret, I sang the first verse and glanced around the shadowy nave.  Maybe, I thought, this was what I’d needed all along: an actual blow to the head to make me sit down and recognize the beauty of everyday things.  And maybe it was Jesus and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever his or her name was probably didn’t form the most important part of the picture.

By the time we’d finished the song, my temple had begun to pound less.  Darren and I returned to the pews and joined the congregation in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  It was cold in the church, and all the churchgoers had chosen seats close to the warmth of the chancel.  Perfect strangers smiled at me as we progressed through the hymn.  If this was how the Ghost of Christmas Whatever wanted to get my attention, I mused, I was perfectly fine with that.

It’s exactly a year later now, and although I’m hoping this Christmas Eve won’t be quite as physically painful, I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to sing something so true in the quiet of a church in the nighttime.  Christmas is a hectic time – especially for those of us who, like me, are just arriving home from studying or working abroad – and it can do a lot more good than you’d think to take a moment to sit down.  Listen to some music.  Drink a cup of tea.

Because my personal opinion is that it is better to realize this yourself, before some metaphysical being bludgeons you with fifteen pounds of metal.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all those who stumble upon this essay!

The Power of a Single Story

28 Oct

I think it’s fair to say that I am bamboozled – in the best way possible – by all the responses to my last post.  Thank you all so much for reading, sharing, commenting, and thinking about my words.  Yes, I was trying to make a point, but all I was really doing is what I try to do with the majority of my writing:  tell a story.  The timing of that post coincides perfectly with what I’d like to do next, which is focus on other peoples’ stories.

There’s no way to deny the power of a single story.  J.K. Rowling became one of the most beloved and influential authors in the world by scribbling one in cafés and on her old typewriter.  James Joyce’s Dubliners helped inspire the Irish independence movement and the Easter Rising of 1916.  Dreaming of heroes and bounty hunters, Flash Gordon, and Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, young filmmaker George Lucas wrote a series of scripts in the early 70s that would become Star Wars, the third highest-grossing film in the history of cinema.  A diary given to a Dutch girl on her thirteenth birthday would be found two years later and published as The Diary of Anne Frank, the quintessential warning against the Holocaust.

I don’t pretend that my stories (or most stories) are nearly as influential, but it’s clear that stories in general hold humanity enthralled.  That’s why, when I got to Spain this semester, I wanted to investigate the stories we hold dearest to us.  As part of an independent study, I’ve created Everyday Folktales, a blog of interviews in the vein of Humans of New York and other sites that aim to shine a spotlight on what at first seems ordinary.  The posts will have two questions, which anyone can answer:

  1. Tell me a story.
  2. Why did you pick that story?

I want to know what you think when I say the words Tell me a story.  Is it your favorite fairy tale from when you were younger?  A memory?  The plot of your favorite book?  Something you make up on the spot? Whatever it is, I firmly believe that the stories we tell ourselves and each other also reveal what is most human about each of us.

If you’re interested in participating, feel more than free to do the following:

  1. Write down, in no more than 750 words, the answers to both questions.  If you’d like, create a video of yourself telling the story to go along with it.
  2. Send it to epb3xw@virginia.edu.  If you’re friends with me on Facebook, feel free to message it to me that way.  Include a picture of you and a title for your story.
  3. The story will go up within a week, and you’ll get the enormous satisfaction of knowing that a) people get to listen to you, and b) you’ve helped me a good deal in my independent study

If you’re in Valencia, Spain with me right now, good news: you don’t even have to do the work of filming yourselves!  I’d love to have as many UVA program participants as possible become interviewees, so comment or shoot me an email if you’d like to join in.  I’m working on getting good filming equipment, and we can talk/film whenever is convenient for you.

Although there’s nothing on it yet, you’ll be able to check out Everyday Folktales in under a week, so stay tuned and keep it on your radar!

To cap things off, here’s Isabel Allende with my favorite TED talk.  “There’s a Jewish saying that I love,” she says at the very beginning.  “‘What is truer than truth?’  Answer: ‘the story.’”

 

Love-in-Idleness

26 Jul

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell:

It fell upon a little western flower,

Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,

And maidens call it love-in-idleness.

-Oberon, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Her voice smells like violets crushed underfoot, a pungent whisper of a scent, the kind that comes in a crystal-cut perfume bottle.

“ – a meeting tonight, I won’t be home until ten,” she’s saying, the crackle of phone static distorting her voice. But even though she is fifteen miles away, shunted into a ten-by-ten cubicle on the fifth floor of Baker & Allen, he can still smell the violets on her breath. “No need to get me anything to eat, I’ll scrounge up something on the way home. Bye, honey.” A pause. “Love you.” The message ends with a harsh beep, and the cool monotone of his cell phone asks him if he would like to delete it. He jabs his index finger at the number pad, indicating that no, he would like to store the message away in the annals of his phone so that he can take it out like a favorite memory and savor the smell of her voice.

For a moment, he wonders whether to call her back, wish her luck for the meeting. But in the end fear overrides his desire to speak to her. What if she’s busy? Talking with her boss? Making another phone call? Out to lunch? He has become irrationally terrified of talking on the phone. Confronting the mechanical silence of the answering machine makes him talk softly, his words coming out in short, incoherent bursts. Nerves make him run his hands through his hair, which is an un-color of dull brown and gray, and he feels his fingers slide over the bald spot that tops his scalp, a traitor to his body. That morning he had tried to brush a few strands over it, but they only hang there limply like colorless pieces of dental floss, concealing nothing.

He paces, nervous, counting his steps as they echo through the empty house. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two, three, four. Turn. One, two… Doing this makes him feel secure, and if someone asked him why he would not be able to answer. It is the same compulsion that makes him languish by the window for hours during the night, waiting for a star to fall into his open hands. It is the aloneness that makes me do these things, he thinks to himself. If Allison were home more often, then maybe I could…

Could what?

He hasn’t told her about these compulsions, which have begun to lurk in the crevices of his mind, secrets without names. He is getting older, his eyes turning rheumy and pale as though he had left them out to dry in the sun, and the space between them is becoming uncrossably wide. He has seen her staring a moment too long at one of her coworkers when he escorts her to work functions. Thomas, he thinks. His name is Thomas. Thomas is young and animated and sharp, unlike himself. When he looks in the mirror he sees a blurred outline, as if he were a figure drawn in pencil that someone has rubbed out with water.

Allison will not be home at ten. He knows this.

He takes out his phone and replays her message, wishing he understood himself again, that he understood any of this. He closes his eyes as he smells the violets on her breath and remembers when they were young, when the morning sun tasted like eggs fried in butter in a house full of windows.

“Would you like to make a call?” his phone asks him when he is done.

He considers the question. “No,” he tells it, and begins to pace again.