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.
Nights were dark behind the pine curtain. I have written before about our relative comfort with cemetaries. I’ve been thinking on that a little more lately, perhaps because it’s the “spooky season” and it’s getting dark a little earlier. But there is more to say, because the bigger picture is that we were just pretty fearless.
We were never really afraid of the dark, period. Literally or figuratively. We weren’t afraid to go out at night, we weren’t afraid to take risks to pull pranks or do silly things. We loved who we loved, no matter what, and we were so loyal to each other long before “Ride or Die” became part of the pop culture lexicon.
As the Bible says, to paraphrase Romans 8:31, if you are for me, then who can be against me? The verse is referencing God, but for us, it was each other as well.
During slumber parties, after we tired of making prank calls, we would inevitably clean out the hosts’ toilet paper supply and load into someone’s car. (Sorry for any rude awakenings, moms and dads!) We would then drive to a house or two or three and proceed to toss toilet paper into the trees, across the shrubs, over the mailbox and whatever else we could. When plain toilet-papering became too predictable, we upped our game to “Oreo-ing” (Take an Oreo apart. Stick the icing half to house or car windows. Eat the other half.); “Forking” (Plant a million forks in someone’s yard); “Hot-Tamale-ing” (Similar to the Oreo, bite a Hot Tamale candy in half and stick it to windows” and general sign leaving (posterboard, markers and phrases that ranged from encouraging to amorous.)
During these attacks of extreme creativity, we were chased by angry people on four-wheelers; had popper firecrackers thrown at our legs, bumbled into a herd of geese and were almost always made to go back and clean up, if the victims’ parents knew ours. Once, in an impressive counter-attack, someone was hiding in a tree watching for us, jumped down and ran to his neighbor’s house (next on our list!) and woke him up so that they could lie in wait for us. I don’t remember what they did to defend themselves, but it was extremely well-played. (Unsurprisingly, that person went on to join the military and plan counterattacks and defensive actions for the government.) Another time, a house light came on and in our infinite wisdom, we fell down in the yard and “played possum.” That person didn’t confront us then, but his college-age girlfriend was absolutely ringing my phone the minute we got back home.
When you’re a champion, others try to knock you down. Once, a group of guys planned to wrap MY house when I was having a slumber party. Luckily (for us!) my mom had turned a mailbox into a bird feeder and hung the metal part from our biggest tree. One of the wrappers, sneaking around, stood up under it and saw stars. They all had to come inside for the adults to decide if he needed medical attention. (He was fine.)
All of these things took place after midnight with very, very minimal supervision. Before we could drive, our parents drove us, but then we were set free. My friend Courtney and I were recently brainstorming ways to entertain her daughters. Wrapping came up, but was then dismissed with “well, now they’d just get shot.”
We could just as easily have been shot then! Or the cops could have come, or someone could have come out of their house and cursed at us, or hurt us in other ways. Were we naive? I don’t think so. I think we were just confident in the dark.
Because we may have been vandals, but we were a UNIT of vandals! My bestie may have thrown that particular toilet paper roll, but if it knocked over a rose bush, we accepted that were all in trouble. We had faith in God, too but at the time we didn’t really articulate it as such. We certainly didn’t go around saying “Every Oreo Stuck Perfectly. God Bless Us, Every One.” or anything like that. But we did have a basic faith that something, someone, somewhere would make sure we would be ok.
And I know we were lucky. I do realize, especially as a grown up, that in some communities and some groups, this kind of “fun” would not be fun at all. We were lucky, and privileged. The worst we got was cleaning duty.
It’s October, almost Halloween, and I had originally wanted to write about things that scared me. But honestly, looking back, the things that scared me weren’t shadows in the dark or bumps in the night, or even the desolate streets and spooky back roads we drove after dark in our clackety “starter cars” before cell phones existed. As I have thought about this and other things we did, I think “wow, we should have been more scared!” Some of the things we did make my heart skip.
But my friends were with me. We were emboldened. We were safe. If we were together, if we were for each other, then who could be against us? There were so many things I truly was scared of – being made fun of, doing something wrong, the asshole on the school bus, my English teacher. But not this. Not this darkness, and not these risks. WE were the things that went bump in the night. WE were the prowlers, the instigators, the throwers of toilet paper and catchers of fireworks and consequences. And we loved every minute of it. Call it naivete’ or call it faith, I mostly call it friendship.
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.