When I was growing up, our church hosted First Friday potluck dinners. They were a chance for all of us from the satellite communities around our town to come together outside of Sunday services, and they often went late or included an activity for us kids afterward. For at least a few Decembers, that activity was a Bird Tree, balls of peanut butter, bird seed, sunflower seeds or other treats that a bird would like, plus soft yarn for nests and other things. We took our work very seriously, and hung each finished ornament with great care before devolving into slap fights and wrestling as was per usual. We weren’t a church that volunteered in soup kitchens or anything like that, but we were a country church that loved and served our community, even its feathered members. (And probably a few furry ones that enjoyed a spot of birdseed now and then.)
December is marketed as a time of joy, and of course it is. The birth of Jesus! The season of light!
To quote Lucy Van Pelt in A Charlie Brown Christmas: “You know, deck them halls and all that stuff?…You know, Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls.”
At the same time, it is a dark season for many people, including me. There’s a bittersweet feeling that comes each December. A coming to terms with the year that was and the present that is. A sense of an ending.
But I think that is normal.
After all, it is an ending. And if there wasn’t an understood, collective darkness, then we would not have so many songs, verses and stories about bringing light. The new year itself is a promise of light. The manger story is one of darkness and light. The two coexist at this time of year in almost every cultural touchstone that define it.
We are wired for the mixed emotions that many of us feel as we drink cocoa, sing carols and also miss our loved ones or feel apprehensive about the year ahead.
So, what’s the solution, then? I think the solution, as with many things, is to accept it. Lean into it and feel your complicated feelings. Know you’re not alone.
Look around you and see who you can serve, where you are and with what you have. Make a bird tree. Watch them flock to enjoy it, and then let them fly away.
Sometimes I miss painting Star Girls. When I first started creating art, I was in a place that was confusing and stressful, and I gravitated toward the idea that perhaps there were benevolent beings just beyond sight. If they didn’t have it all under control, they were there and that was enough. This was an early work that I’ve always liked. We all need a little help untangling the universe sometimes. Even if she can’t fix it, she gets it.
I wasn’t allowed to call boys when I was growing up. To do so was a sin worse than murder. I might was well have been dancing on tables in my bathing suit. But that didn’t stop me from calling boys, I just found a loophole – prank calls. Probably because I didn’t actually know how to talk to boys like a normal person since doing so was such a Big Deal.
Anyway, we spent most slumber party nights on the phone dialing out with made-up scenarios, intriguing lines of questioning, new and exciting personas and in some cases, multi-call serial dramas. We even did sort of spoken word bits to different types of background music. (No, not rapping. Not nearly that cool.)
My friend had a Swatch “funky twin” phone making it easy to group up on the call. Of course this was before anything digital, like star-69 or even saving numbers in Contacts. I kept doing it into college, and only stopped when my friend and I got bored and called a random person while were were vacationing in Florida only to have him call back (justifiably) pissed off and asking for the person we were staying with, by name. That was our introduction to caller ID and the last time I ever prank called anyone.
To this day, prank calling was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. We were never hurtful or harassing, and in retrospect, it was probably entertaining for some. Like their own, personal, interactive podcast, just with more giggling.
I had a friend, let’s call her “Michelle.” We were always mistaken for twins although we were polar opposites of each other. She is blonde and tan, I am pale, with very dark hair. If she is California, then I am New York City. Or Transylvania.
But, we are both tall and we went everywhere together. Like Gori and Washimi in the anime “Aggretsuko.” (We wish, haha.)
Michelle and I discovered the “alterna-kid” lifestyle at the same time, which coincided with our year on the Pre-Drill dance team.
On Pep Rally days, we had to wear what the general population called “chicken suits.” They were about what you’d expect for a small town school in the early 90s and by that I mean MODEST and poorly-fitted: a loose, polyester leotard with puffed sleeves and a high neckline, topped by a full, circle skirt that was too short to lay right and too long to be flattering or alluring in any way. And they were really, really yellow, accented with purple, including purple bows in our fluffy, teased hair, which didn’t really help with the chicken comparisons.
By the third month of high school, we had made cool new friends: guys and gals who wore plaid, combat boots and thrift-store t-shirts. Most days, we wore these things too. (Sporadically, since our parents had just spent money on “normal” back-to- school clothes that they wanted their money’s worth out of.)
But on Pep Rally day, we were were two baby chickens in a cloud of bats. We were “alternative,” dammit! That wasn’t going to change just because we sometimes had take a break from stringing beads and scribbling penciled Morrissey lyrics on the sidewalk to shake pom-poms and kick our legs in formation.
Maybe we weren’t the only “alternative” kids on the dance team, because some of our show pieces were choreographed to alternative rock. Including R.E.M.’s “Shiny, Happy, People,” complete with Happy Faces on sticks. Although it’s possible that someone in charge just didn’t have a firm grasp of irony (some say the song is based on Chinese propaganda posters.) Or, maybe they did, and Michelle and I weren’t the only ones sneaking in small rebellions back then! Who’s to say, really.
Anyway, fast-forward to that May, neither Michelle nor I were chosen to advance to the varsity squad. I would like to say I was too cool to care, but I wasn’t. I was devastated! I believe I may have even fallen to the floor, “railing at God” style.
We had practiced for hours! We had shown leadership and displayed team spirit! We had done everything that was asked of us! Maybe we weren’t the best, but now it was implied that we were among the worst? Just because when we did a drill turn to the left in our auditions, we ended up facing each other? Or some other minor offense? No way. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
But here’s what happened after that.
We continued to hang out with our friends, having adventures and those minor, essential, thrilling rebellions. We had more time to explore our personal preferences, discovering more different types of music, books, trends and movies that weren’t really mainstream in East Texas. We developed our own unique tastes and perspectives.
We had more energy and mental space to pursue other extra-curriculars that we really enjoyed, like Future Homemakers of America. We fit in and excelled there, volunteering with special needs kids, competing at conferences and learning life skills that I, personally still use.
I even tried out again the following year. I didn’t advance that time, either, but my life was much more full and diverse then. I was briefly and appropriately sad, and then hung up my dance shoes for good to focus on other things.
In the big picture, Michelle and I weren’t meant for the dance team, and that was okay. First because it had to be, and then because it just was.
Taking a cue from Stipe and co., eventually we took that disappointment and “Put it in (our) heart where tomorrow shines.”
There’s a saying about “gracefully letting go of things not meant for you.” At the time, I didn’t let go of that part of my life as gracefully as I should have, but in my defense, I was 15 and kind of dramatic histrionic.
But maybe Michelle and I weren’t meant to be “Shiny, Happy People,” ironically or otherwise. Maybe we weren’t meant to be two more chickens when we had other lives waiting just outside the coop.
East Texas is hot as sticky as a swamp. Thankfully, it’s also full of places to swim if you’re not too picky. We’d mix it up each summer spending most of our time at Boykin Springs, with Lake Tejas and the occasional drive to the Bolivar Peninsula or Galveston. Mud, silt or sand under our feet, seaweed and in those days, the mud puddle that was the Gulf of Mexico. Watching braver kids cannonball off of high dives. Burning to blisters. Wishing it would last forever.