Every year when I take down the tree decorations, I think about “Mrs. X," one of our former parishioners. Once on a visit to her home, Ed and I discovered that she loved Christmas ornaments. She told us that in fact she had every Hallmark Christmas ornament dating back years and years, all their special editions, and before I could express awe at this collection, wanting to ask whether she alternated various ornaments each year, or whether she used them all at once, or whether she had them displayed in a cabinet somewhere, she informed us with great satisfaction that she had every ornament in storage in its original box under her bed, never used. This increased the value, she assured us.

Mrs. X would probably be aghast at our motley collection of tree ornaments - things the kids made when they were little or inexpensive but meaningful ornaments given to us by friends. She would have been particularly disgusted by our poor little feather-bare birds, a few cardinals which have seen better days, and one seemingly drunk naked partridge who must think he’s a bat - he refuses to perch upright on the branch and maneuvers himself to hang upside down. I do have a few more expensive, fragile ornaments, such as a glass-blown head of Lincoln (with lipstick, it looks like), but I would never think of putting them in their boxes and never using them.

I believe things are made to be used for their intended purpose. I remember when I was a little girl that some women (maybe they still do) were given beautiful nightgowns as gifts, but put them away “in case I have to go to the hospital.” Some of those women died without ever even having tried on their pretty new gowns.

When I was a teenager, with several years of piano under my belt, my musical tastes were eclectic. I couldn’t afford much sheet music, but I enjoyed going to the library and borrowing everything from Chopin to Broadway to Strauss to Cole Porter. I would play anything. One day an older, wealthy, very genteel lady in our church named Mrs. Stacey gave me an large, old music book. I think it was from the 1800s, and I know it probably belonged in a museum somewhere, but she knew I enjoyed playing piano and she was generous enough to give it to me. It had that distinctive old-book smell. It never occurred to me that it might have been valuable.

It was an oversized book and as such was reluctant to sit upright on my piano, and it wouldn’t stay open on its own, so I was constantly having to stack heavy books on both sides as I played the music. The music was not easy, it was very challenging, but it was lovely and different, and best of all, it was mine. Soon the fragile pages started to tear. Some of them would crumble when I touched them. Other pages would just fall out of the binding, yet on and on I played. I played from that book until it was a crumbly, unidentifiable jumble of torn paper. I had played the very life out of it. Then I threw it away.

Every so often, I think about that old book, wishing that I had taken better care of it, wishing that I had not used it so much. It probably was valuable then, and 40 years later, I imagine even more valuable today. But do you know what? I used that book for the exact purpose for which it was published. I played its glorious music. Things that are well used don’t last forever.

As a quilter, I have frequently read that antique crib quilts are hard to find, because their very purpose ensured that they would be used - dragged, spit up on, washed, dragged some more - therefore, few antique crib quilts exist today, especially in good condition. It’s the same with toys. If you watch Antiques Roadshow or read about the antique toy market, you will soon learn that a toy that still has its original finish, no broken or missing parts, and - particularly - its original box, is one of the valuable ones. Every time I hear that, it saddens me. A toy that is in such pristine condition is usually one that hasn’t been deeply loved by a child, and that, after all, was its purpose, just as the crib quilts were meant to be used and loved. In their purpose lies their destruction, but in the process, the pleasure and joy they bestow upon their owner(s) is what determines their value, not how much they are worth monetarily.

My old music book, my Chatty Cathy doll without a string or her original clothes, our bedraggled Christmas ornaments - they are all testaments to a life of love, each broken piece or torn page evidence of the pleasure they gave. Oh sure, if I made a gorgeous quilt for my grandchild, a part of me would love to see it delicately preserved for generations to come. But on the other hand, if it’s dragged across the floor and spit up on and washed until the patches come undone, then spends the rest of its ragged life as a dog blanket, that’s fine by me. It was used completely and ultimately for its intended purpose.

Now if we could all discover what our purpose in life is (and we are each called to a life of love and service, I think) and steer our lives toward fulfilling that purpose, I think the world would be a happier place. The remarkable difference between humans and things is that the more love we give, the more we have to give, and though our bodies exhibit the wear and tear of lives well lived, our souls are still able to demonstrate purpose, generosity, and compassion. I want my quilts to be used, and I want my life to be used. That’s my prayer for 2008. I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, and thanks for being a part of my ongoing journey!

Chipping away

One of my favorite tasks involved with Christmas is unpacking my little Christmas village. It’s not one of those beautiful expensive ones (most of the shops were bought half price), but it is truly lovely, with each shop lit up from inside, the tiny Victorian people milling about, dogs and cats, horses, trees. I even have a boy skating on ice. The problem is, I’ve never found an object to use for the ice. I had a little square mirror, but it looked ridiculous.

Finally the other day, I opened a new roll of wrapping paper that I bought last year (at half price, of course!) and realized that it was unlike any other wrapping paper I was used to. It was like a thin foil, very silky - draping, not stiff - and I soon found out that it was very difficult to work with because it kept sliding around when I tried to cut it, fold it, and tape it. As I struggled with this paper, I noticed that the reverse side of it was reflective. It looked just like water. It was like a mirror in motion. I knew then that I had to cut a circular piece of that paper and use it for my “ice.”

Every time I laid the paper down with the mirror side up in order to wrap a present, I was required to look at my reflection. It made me smile, in spite of the older, lined, unfamiliar face peering back at me, because it reminded me that this is the time of year I reflect. Most of the year is filled with activities and pursuits and deadlines and mundane chores of paying bills and going to work, but in late December, I try to take some quiet time to think about the year that has passed. This reflective process is started when I write the annual Christmas letter, but that focuses mostly on outer things. Now it is time to focus on inner things. I’m actually taking next week off to do just that.

As a woman with a to-do list a mile long, my first impulse is to list my accomplishments. Yes, I got my CMT. Yes, I was honored to appear in a few magazines. Yes, I made a quilt square for organ donation in memory of my Dad. Yes, I made a few Christmas presents (with a few to go!). But these are not the things that weigh on my mind in late December.

I learned a lot about myself this year, and that’s a good thing. I learned how to work through deep grief. I learned how to appreciate simple things. I re-learned the value of family and friends, people over things. I reminisced about my own amazing grandfather (basically the only grandparent I knew who was in good mental and physical shape), and thought about my role as a grandparent and what I want to impart to Caroline and Charlotte. I thought about the friction with people where I work, and the lesson I learned when Ed kept telling me that the only person I could change was myself, so I did.

Organizations that specialize in goal direction and life coaching sooner or later get around to Michelangelo’s David, because the story of the great sculptor’s mindset has been repeated for generations. Here is one version:

The story has it that when Michelangelo was commissioned to do the sculpture of King David he looked at hundreds of blocks of marble before he decided on the "right" one. To most of us all those blocks shown to him would have looked more or less the same but for Michelangelo it needed to be a certain piece of marble - nothing else would do. Why was that?

It was because he knew exactly what he wanted his David to look like. He could see the end result in front of his eyes. When asked how he was going to create such a fine figure as King David out of such an enormous chunk of marble his answer was: "That's easy. All I have to do is chip away everything that isn't David."

The usual lesson these organizations glean from this story is that you have to know your goal before you start on your journey, and keep that goal at the forefront.

That’s fine, but the lesson I draw from it has a little different perspective. Instead of trying to discover who I want to be, I have to chip away to reveal “who I already know I am inside.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do this year.

I consider myself basically a good person. I know that deep inside me, I am honest, dependable, loving, compassionate, forgiving, patient, creative, nurturing, encouraging, accepting, grateful, intelligent, and generous. This is not a list of things to brag about - this is what my insight tells me is my true nature, the kind of person I not only want to be, but the kind of person God has already made me. Most of these attributes are probably in us all in different degrees, but we don’t realize it, so we don’t start chipping away to find them.

Many churches teach that humans are basically evil, owned by the devil, and accepted and tolerated by God because He sacrificed his son to pay their sin debt. We don’t believe that way. Ed and I believe that God loves us because we are the children of God, that most people are inherently good inside, but because of life circumstances or horrible treatment or even genetic problems, the good is squashed and the bad takes over and the person lives with hatred of self, hatred of others, and acts accordingly.

So at this time of reflection, I have to ask myself, looking back over various times of 2007: “If my true nature is kindness, why am I being unkind? If my true nature is generous, why I am being stingy? If my true nature is compassionate, why am I ignoring? If my true nature is forgiving, why am I holding a grudge? If my true nature is blessed with talents and gifts, why am I not making more use of them?” Then I review my priorities. "If my priority is family and friends, why am I wasting my time with things that don't matter? If my priority is simplicity, why am I buying more stuff? If my priority is health, why am I continuing bad health practices?"

As you can see, the list goes on. There’s a David in me somewhere, and all I have to do is chip away at everything that isn’t David. It’s a hard process, but it’s a necessary one. I believe we are most happy and fulfilled when our pattern of behavior and priorities match what we know is deep down inside of us. The best Christmas presents I can receive this year are a clear mirror and a good, sturdy chisel. Won’t you join me in your own sculpture of self-discovery? Who knows - in the process we might find a thing of beauty that was there all the time.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Signs of the Season

Everyone knows by now that I get extremely frustrated when I see signs with spelling or punctuation errors. It’s one thing if an error is in print; I read it once, groan loudly, and that’s that. It’s one thing if I hear it on TV; I hear it once, shout my disgust, and that’s that.

It’s quite another thing altogether if I see a mistake on a sign. For one thing, it’s bigger than life. If I see a sign outside a business, an unnecessary apostrophe might be bigger than my whole head, and on top of that, it’s usually lit up to shine its misspelled word for a mile. And as the most exasperating thing of all, I have to pass a sign day in and day out, enough times to raise my blood pressure.

Sometimes I try to rectify the situation. Wendy’s in Ellsworth, for instance, has a big sign out front containing the word CHEDDER. After I had shuddered innumerable times and tried not to look the rest of the time, I finally got an opportunity to go in.
“Do you know the word “cheddar” is misspelled on your sign out front?” I ventured. “It is AR, not ER.”
The clerk just said, “Huh?”
I repeated my question.
“Oh,” was the response I got. This was a couple of weeks ago. The word CHEDDER is still there. Nobody cares.

My only consolation is that it’s winter. In the summer, millions of tourists make their way to neighboring Acadia National Park, and the only way they can get there by land is through Ellsworth, and the only road that leads to the park boasts a lit-up sign right by the street that says CHEDDER. How embarrassing!

So yesterday we were going to Bangor and, right on the road into Ellsworth, I saw another sign. “WINDSHIELD WIPERS INSTALED FREE.”
I snorted, and Ed said his usual, “What now?”
“That sign,” I said. “It’s missing a letter.”
I pointed. Ed looked and rolled his eyes.
“But,” I said cheerily, “at least it’s in keeping with the season. We ought to go in there and thank them for their Christmas message.”
Ed was perplexed. “What Christmas message?” he asked.
I smiled. “NO L.”

It’s an old joke, but hey, whatever gets me to laugh at a misspelled word has something going for it!

The Short List

We had a girls’ day out yesterday. Our daughter, Rachel, and our daugher-in-law, Sarah, drove with me to Freeport in southern Maine for some outlet shopping. Since that popular area was crowded, we had to park in a distant lot which hadn’t been plowed well (Maine has just had up to 2 feet of snow in places), and we had to walk gingerly on slush and snow and ice up to the main street.

When we were in Gap, almost everything was on sale, so Rachel had her arms full. When she mentally added up the cost of her items, she was somewhat shocked and started to choose items to put back. I suggested to her that I pay for a few and call it part of her Christmas. She agreed, and I ended up with her pair of pants and shirt to add to my three purchases.

Everything went according to plan. We checked out, and then, deciding that we had spent enough for the day, walked back in the slush to the car. Since I had already sustained a bad fall once this week (which injured my tailbone), I tried to walk very carefully in the slippery parking lot. Back inside the car, Rachel asked me what the final price of the pants had been. She knew they had been on sale, but didn’t remember what the final discount was. I retrieved the receipt, intending to check the price of the pants, but was surprised to find that that particular item was not on the list.

“I don’t think they charged us for the pants,” I said. Rachel thought I might have missed it, so she took the receipt and checked it herself. We all agreed that the Gap cashier had put the pants in the bag, but had somehow failed to charge us for them.

A discussion ensued as to the next step. Ed and I have always been diligent when we have eaten out to make sure that the server had not omitted an item from the bill. In several cases, that indeed had happened, and we always called the server’s attention to the discrepancy, an act which always seemed to surprise them. Nobody wants to be ripped off by having to pay more than they should, but it seems fewer people mind ripping off the business. “Oh well, it’s their mistake, too bad for them,” is a common response.

But in this case, there were extenuating circumstances, or so the rationalization went. As we discussed it, we were making two distinct mental columns - should we go back and pay for the pants, or should we just forget it and accept their mistake in our favor?

The column of “Just Forget It” had a few key points.
1) I had already had a bad fall this week and was not enthralled with the idea of walking back out in the slush up the hill to the store. What if I fell again? If I broke a hand or arm, I might be out of work for weeks!
2) The store was extremely busy and I didn’t want to get back in a long line.
3) It was their mistake and not my fault.
4) It was already 1 p.m. and we had to find somewhere to eat lunch and head back before dark.

The second column of “Go back and pay” had only one key point.
1) It was the right thing to do.

Sigh. Sometimes the short list trumps the long list.

So Rachel drove the car back up to the shopping area and parked off the street in a “No Parking” zone, keeping the car running, while I went back into the store. I bypassed the long line and went straight to an employee who was folding clothes at the end of the counter. I explained the situation, showed her the pants, and she charged my credit card for it. She did say, “Thank you for coming back in. Not many people would do that.”

Of course, we didn’t get a reward for coming back. No coupons, no extra discounts - I paid the appropriate price for the pants and that was that.

Oh, wait - we did get a reward. It’s called Intact Integrity with a Clear Conscience. Sometimes it’s the only prize - but it’s the jackpot.