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.
Looking back, I wonder if my hometown school system was inspired by the game Pick-up Sticks. Order, chaos, order, repeat.
Kindergarten through sixth grades were at small elementary school campuses across the city. In seventh grade, we were shaken up and thrown together on a huge campus with a residential street running through it. (Inspired by Pick-up Sticks AND Frogger?) After a year, just enough time to get our bearings, we were spit up again into two junior highs, East and West. An “Us vs. Them” division perfect for sports team rivalries, petty factions and bullies looking for a reason. For our final three years, we were all flung onto the single high school campus to try and get along until we graduated. Quite the social experiment.
Prior to the seventh grade, my friends had come from three groups: church, my mom’s friends’ kids, and kids who had been seated near me from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until I was twelve, my friendships were mostly “you get what you get” situations.
So, I was overwhelmed on my first day of seventh grade at the big Dunbar Intermediate School from the moment I stepped off the bus into moving traffic. I was immediately lost in a sea of kids who not only didn’t go to my church, but who I had never seen before in my life. Who were these people? Had they been in Lufkin all this time? And they were all supposed to be seventh graders? Teased hair, acid washed denim, puff painted sweatshirts…in my memory, those kids looked like 30-year olds. At least compared to me, in my long skirt, button-up blouse and red scarf tied “nicely” around my shoulders. Dressed from bow-head-to-squeaky-loafer in Wiener’s finest that was chosen by my mom, likely with some input from my great-Aunt Lucy, a saleslady there. Thus ensuring that my only school friends would be the lunch ladies.
I don’t think I blinked once that entire first day, and maybe not the day after, either. Getting from class to class was a wild-eyed obstacle course. I kept tripping over my skirt. I regretted all previous life choices almost immediately. My elementary school friends seemed gone forever.
But then came Computer Science class, or what passed for computer science in 1988-89. I remember two things from that class: one, that I met Valeria and two, that she taught me to say “I love you” in Spanish. (Don’t get excited, she wasn’t saying it to me. She taught me so that I could say it and impress some pre-teen twerp who didn’t care.)
This is important, because Valeria was the first friend I ever made on my own. I came from the rural “bubble” and she lived in town. I was an only child and pretty isolated. My life advice until that point came mainly from people who were raised in the 1940s. Valeria had a big, busy family and lots of neighborhood kids to play with. So, we were different in some ways but we still clicked immediately. Even when we were too young to fully articulate it, we looked around this bisected city block full of future “*Lufkin bozos” and wanted so badly to fit in, and also wanted so much more than what we saw. And neither of us had any idea how to be anything other than exactly how we were, which was mostly braces, eyebrows and imagination.
We tried so hard. We passed notes by the hour, updating each other on the highs and lows of the day, a cycle of plotting and rehashing that has continued for 30 years. (Now, we text and Instagram message.) We were on the newspaper staff and made a whole column about who was dating who, who broke up, and what we thought about it. (Strangely, our sponsor never actually published this.) We made up unflattering, permanent nicknames for, well, pretty much anyone that so much as looked sideways at us. (Sorry, Hobbit Man. How are the grandkids?) We were each others’ biggest fans.
Valeria was not my only friend in seventh grade, but in general, I struggled to fit in. I ran for student council but was disqualified because I mixed up the date and passed out my campaign materials early. I was targeted by a group of “devil worshipers” who were going to “get me” at the mall. Groped in Science class. That sort of thing.
And there were other little dramas, some that I instigated, and right or wrong Valeria was there to egg me on or pick me up, whichever was called for. We have seen beginnings, endings and entire story arcs over the course of our lives together. She was there when I finally got a boyfriend, and she was standing at my side when he walked out of a school dance and broke up with me instead of inviting me to the dance floor.
At our ten year high school reunion, she was next to me when he approached us, recounted that day down to the detail. “I made a left out the door, and there you were.” He said it was something he deeply regretted. He blamed the whole thing on a mutual friend who had died in the 90s and could not defend himself, and implied that another shot would be pretty cool. I knew he had a wife at home. I never liked her, but I wasn’t going to do that to her either. Anyway, if you didn’t want me with my unibrow, then you don’t want me, mister. Valeria and I laughed it off. Our feet were hurting in our class reunion heels. (No more Wiener’s finest for me! I had since discovered Nordstrom Rack.) We were eager to go to Sonic and talk about all the people we’d seen. Maybe some new nicknames were in order.
Between seventh grade and our class reunion, Valeria and I did get the things we wanted from life, even if it hasn’t always gone how we imagined it would. But does it ever? We both muddled through junior high and high school, friendship mostly intact but our paths diverged a bit as friendships often do. She went to Nashville and I went to Austin. We found each other on Classmates.com sometime in the late 90s and resumed our “note passing” almost immediately. She eventually moved back to Texas. She got married in an actual castle! We were in each others’ weddings, our husbands get along and I saw her a few months ago with her baby. She has a little girl and twin stepdaughters who are in college. I look at them and know they will have great lives because Valeria is their mom.
As I said, Valeria was my first chosen friend. This is important because growing up in the “bubble,” it was implied that people outside the bubble were scary, and possibly even mean. Valeria was proof-positive that this wasn’t true. Meeting her, finding our commonalities, our shared goals and humor – this was the first step for me toward something different than was being handed to me. I have had someone to figure things out with since 1988 and that has been priceless. It was the first step in making my world bigger, in trusting myself a little bit, in seeing that maybe it was okay and valuable to trust in and care about things that I had to cross the street to get to. Valeria wasn’t mean – I am much meaner than she is – so maybe others wouldn’t be, either.
If not for my friendship with Valeria, I would not have had the courage to form close friendships with Courtney, Michelle, Mallory or others who came after.
Earlier, I used the term “Lufkin Bozo.” It is a given that any time something weird is in the news, it will have a Lufkin connection. Second only to “Florida Man.” The most recent “Lufkin Bozo” is the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker. Our hometown crime blotter is famously weird. Valeria and I are fanatical about the adventures of the Lufkin Bozo, texting constantly when they appear in the news, mapping any possible connections to us, our family or friends. We know that but for the grace of God, etc.
What would have happened if I hadn’t met Valeria? Would I have erased all my eccentricities, or completely devolved? If she hadn’t met me, she would still be just fine. If nothing else, she had a pretty, popular, older sister that has no problem making people correct themselves. But I had an echo chamber. An echo chamber that cared for me, but an echo chamber nonetheless.
If I had not met Valeria, I wonder if she’d be somewhere in her life reading online about a new Lufkin Bozo, because they are definitely created in echo chambers. Or if this Lufkin Bozo would have ever had the courage to be seen at all.
We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.
Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.
Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.
It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.
We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.
But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.
As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.
I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.
There is a light and it never goes out.
When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)
There is a light and it never goes out.
My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.
There is a light and it never goes out.
Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”
It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”
*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too:
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.
Think of the most embarrassing thing you did to get in front of someone you liked. “Liked,” I mean. Wanted to date. This thing you are thinking of – this act of bravery or creativity or a wild burst of assertiveness – I guarantee that I can top it.
Take, for example, Easter 1993. I was 16. My best friend, let’s call her Courtney, had just turned 18, and we had spent a busy Saturday being bunnies at our church Easter Egg Hunt. Our outfits were billowy onesies, cut from thick polyester and sack-like, with full hoods and wonky ears that gave us a slightly “off” appearance, similar to that kid in Pinocchio who turns into a jackass bit by bit.
I suppose spending the afternoon surrounded by old people who told us how cute we were went to our heads, because after the last Peeps-sticky kid was ejected from our laps, we decided that the thing to do, while we were still in these RAD costumes, was to pay surprise visits to all the boys we liked.
We efficiently combined a trip to the grocery store for chocolates with a pop-in on one guy who bagged groceries at the local Albertson’s. “Hi!” We smiled and waved our thick, rough mittens, bopping our baggy bunny tails to the Easter Candy aisle without one iota of self awareness.
At the next stop, a dog snarled and lunged at us, attempting to protect its maybe sleepy, maybe stoned master from the giant donkey-bunnies who appeared from thin air and wouldn’t lay off the doorbell. On our last stop, the young man’s parents were home and his mom thought we were really something special, even if our intended took his chocolate, rolled his eyes at us and went back to watching MTV.
It is an understatement to say that in those days, we didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. We had big ideas, strength in numbers and no one to save us from ourselves, probably because they wanted to see how things would play out and be entertained by it. The way things played out in this instance, unsurprisingly, was that we were hot and sweaty and out $25 for Easter candy that we didn’t get to enjoy. None of those people wanted to date us, before or after. With the wisdom of age, it’s totally fine. Life ended up like it was supposed to for Courtney and me.
But back then, we had so much love to give, and it needed to go somewhere. So we did the best, and in some ways the only thing we knew to do at the time. We gave it away, not once stopping to consider whether or not our gifts were deserved. We just wrapped up all that love in homemade rabbit suits and took it into town with the great hope that someone would see through our goofy disguises to our sweet, terrified, baby animal hearts and love us back.