Shall We Dance?

Missy’s finger unerringly found Feb. 27 on the calendar. Then her hand went to her collar, tugging it up and out at an angle – her signal for getting dressed up.

“I want to go,” she said firmly.

This one didn’t require an expert in Missy Charades to figure out. Once again, we would be off to the prom.

The prom, in this case, is the “Shine” dance for the disabled, currently held every other year at Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette. It’s a huge night in every sense, inviting hundreds of people to don their best clothes and then eat, play games and – of course – dance until the floor wears out.

For Missy, this is an experience just short of heaven. After all, it combines some of her favorite things in the world. It’s peoplewatching on a massive scale. It’s dressing up for your friends (and especially, in the case of Missy the Flirt, for the guys who can be greeted with a shy smile and a “Hi …”) It’s music cranked up past 11 and freedom to move with all the energy and enthusiasm you can muster.

And this year, it’s something else as well. By some odd coincidence of the calendar, Shine falls on my birthday this year.

That couldn’t be more appropriate. Because being with Missy these last four years and seeing the world through her eyes has been a gift beyond compare, for both me and my wife Heather.

Better still – to see how many people can truly see her.  That’s not always a given for the developmentally disabled.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: We have a gift of invisibility that would put J.R.R. Tolkien’s magic ring to shame. But it’s almost never used on ourselves. Instead, we grant the “gift” to anyone whose presence is too uncomfortable for us to bear.

That could be the disabled. It could be the homeless. It could be anyone we don’t know how to approach – or that we fear might approach us, as though misfortune were somehow contagious.

Maybe that’s part of it. Maybe it’s too strong a reminder that all our gifts are temporary, from the money in our banks to the thoughts in our heads. That at any moment, something could happen that resets our entire existence.

It’s a scary thought to look in the face. No one could deny that. But when it keeps us from looking others in the face as well, it’s gone too far.

Those others look back. They know. And they understand more than you would ever guess.

Certainly Missy does.

And thankfully, blessedly, she’s been lucky enough to be surrounded by people that understand her.  Friends and relatives and neighbors who know the balance needed, how to make accommodations without treating her like a pet or a doll. Because of that, she has a life – and a social calendar! – that still makes me blink.

Bowling. Softball. Swimming. Trips downtown. Always among friends, always with someone who gets a look of recognition and a brilliant smile in return.

I count myself lucky to get a lot of those looks.  And to truly see the spirited, mischievous person behind those dancing green eyes.

And when that means escorting her on her big night – well, strike up the band and never mind the crowds.

Our partner’s ready.

It’s time to dance.

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Inner Space

I’ll admit it. Cleaning our closets can be a bit of an adventure. It’s like an archaeological dig with clothing mixed in, where anything can pop up and often does. Forgotten games. Battered sneakers. Barely-legible notebooks that detail either the next great bestseller or last year’s Oscar winners.

I haven’t found any cameras from the moon landing, though. There, as in so many other ways, Neil Armstrong was in a class by himself.

In case you missed it – maybe your chores took a while, too – it seems that Armstrong’s widow Carol found an old bag while doing some closet-cleaning of her own. Inside were about 20 small pieces of gear that had gone to the moon with Armstrong. A mirror. Some tethers. An emergency wrench. And, yes, the camera used to record the Eagle’s final approach to the landing site.

Hey, some people take pens home from the office, right?

Now I know that to some folks, this probably sounds like an episode of Hoarders: The Final Frontier. But I can sympathize. It’s hard not to hang on to the small and not-so-small things that mark a memory.

In one of my own closets is an oversized map, one that would probably dominate any wall I tried to put it up on. The map depicts the after-effects of the 2013 flood, laying out the needed repairs in point-by-point detail. I used it for a story long ago, then put it away, planning to frame it someday.

These days, it’s become a frame, holding the larger pictures of my mind.

Other moments lie similarly “archived” from a lifetime of journalism and theatre. An aluminum can from an Emporia, Kan. factory that was never built. A spice jar of dry soil from a Garden City, Kan. “dirt collector” I interviewed. A sheaf of parodies, written for theatre cast parties so we could all laugh at our trials and triumphs.

Sure, it’s easy to accumulate stuff. I do it without even trying. (Just ask Heather.) But these are the things that go beyond mere stuff, the pieces that become memory in a tangible form. Where simply holding them and looking at them can bring back a moment, an event, a face.

You’ve got one somewhere. We all do. Maybe more than one.

And each one is the doorway to a journey of our own. Inward, not outward. Through time, not space.

But in that moment of rediscovery after a long absence, it can feel like the Eagle landing all over again.

It gives me a little comfort to know that Armstrong was the same way. Even in this cynical day and age, there’s still the temptation to lionize our heroes, to paper over the cracks and sand off the rough edges. It’s an unfortunate distancing, since it robs us of a certain kinship, a knowledge that, under different circumstances, it might have been any of us up there.

Well, probably not me. Not without some major improvements to my sense of direction. (“Houston, the Eagle has landed … somewhere.”) But you get the idea.

He was human. He gathered a few mementos in a bag, passed it off to NASA as “odds and ends” –you know, just keeping the clutter down – and took it home as a keepsake.

Which he then threw in the back of a closet and left for his wife to find. That, too, is very human.

Because of that, we’ve gained something neat. A few small artifacts. A chuckle at people being people. Maybe even a sense of wonder at how an ordinary moment can become unforgettable with just one forgotten bag.

And of course, the best closet-preservation excuse ever.

“I swear, honey, the Smithsonian’s going to want that bag someday. Look, I’ll take care of it later, all right?”

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Nonsense and Nonsense Ability

The weekly faceoff between me and my column had just begun. As usual, the battle was closely matched.

“So honey,” I called out to my wife Heather, “what should I write about this week?”

No hesitation.

“Turnips!” she called out.

I laughed, loud and long. After 16 years of marriage, I really should have known better.

The turnips are a running gag that began long before I met Heather. She started making that wisecrack in high school, though she’s no longer clear on why. It may have been due to a random episode of Blackadder or her love of medieval history, where turnips may appear on any random page. It may have even started with her love of  the “Little House on the Prairie” books, which include the deathless words “Carrie loved to eat a raw turnip.”

“I want that tattooed,” she joked. At least, I think she’s joking. With root vegetables, one can never be too sure.

Wherever it came from, it’s been here to stay. Turnips have sneaked onto grocery lists, into text messages and amidst quiet moments in otherwise ordinary conversations. One time, I even called her bluff and brought some home from the store after a grocery run. Heather was surprised, amused and a little perplexed.

In roughly 20 years of turnip jokes, you see, she had never actually used one in a meal.

“I should have had them laminated,” she said.

Weird? You haven’t known us long enough. While turnips may produce (har-har) our best punchlines, it’s far from our only bit of mild insanity. There’s the mandatory sound effect when someone says they’ll be “back like a flash” (psheewwww!), or the back-and-forth razzing about the romantic qualities of Bob Dylan, or singing the names of Heather’s medical conditions. (Yes, if you ever want to enliven the Mozart Requiem, just start singing along with “AN-ky-LOS-ing … SPON-dy-LIT-is!”)

It’s ridiculous. Even silly. And I think it’s why we’ve survived as long as we have.

A lot of things get promised when you enter a marriage: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, for Buffs or Rams, and so on. But I really think that somewhere in the wedding vows needs to be a promise to love each other “in sense and in nonsense.”

Yes, you want to take each other seriously. This is your partner, your love and your best friend, after all. But marriage throws a lot at you, from the life-and-death to the utterly mundane. It’s easy to drown and simply react to the next thing until you’re not one couple, you’re two people with Important Things that all need to be done Right Now.

Silliness is a way of taking the moment back.

It means stepping back and turning life cockeyed for a second, for no other purpose than a moment’s amusement.

It means calling on old memories of odd moments, because the best gags have deep roots.

And it means showing your partner that you still care. That you can reach outside yourself and spend an instant to make them smile, speaking in a language that only the two of you share.

The words may be ridiculous. But getting silly is serious business. “A laugh can be a very powerful thing,” Roger Rabbit once said – and really, if you can’t trust a cartoon rabbit, who can you trust?

OK, maybe that was a bit much even for me. Time to ground myself. To focus. To concentrate on weighty matters and serious things.

Things like … turnips.

Thanks, honey. That’s another one I owe you.

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The Impossible Dreams

It’s been rabbit season for a while now. And I’m loving it.

More specifically, it’s been “Harvey” season. And after a year’s break from theatre, I’m very fortunate to have been caught by the world’s kindest man and his giant invisible friend with the pointy ears. A friend of mine was once in a similar state of theatre withdrawal and wound up agreeing, sight unseen, to direct the first show that came his way – which happened to be “Oliver!”

“Oliver,” he said in a daze after hanging up the phone. “That’s the one with 50 kids in it, isn’t it?”

Theatre withdrawal. It’s a terrible and awesome thing.

Truth to tell, this is a show I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. (And a good thing, too, considering it involved two months of rehearsal with a little time off for Christmas.) There is a short list of scripts that I consider “drop everything” plays, where nothing short of blizzard, flood or alien invasion could keep me from trying out. At the top of that list are “Harvey” and “Man of La Mancha,” the musical about Don Quixote.

That’s not an accident.

In a way, both plays are the same story viewed from a slightly different angle. Both are about a man who walked away from mundane reality and embraced a dream. His world doesn’t understand. His family thinks he’s crazy. But his own life is an infinitely richer, more appealing place because of it – so appealing that it even threatens to draw others in despite themselves.

“I’ve wrestled with reality for over 40 years,” Elwood P. Dowd tells a bewildered doctor, “and I’m happy to state that I finally won out over it.”

“Too much sanity may be madness,” Don Quixote’s alter ego muses at one point. “And maddest of all, to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

That’s something that’s inherently appealing to an actor. After all, we spend a fair amount of time walking in dreams ourselves, treating fiction as true and living with people who never were. We create entire families – cast, crew, audience – from the sheer power of that dream. And if we’re lucky, we carry a piece of it with us long after the curtain goes down.

Crazy? I’m sure many of our friends and family think so, especially after weeks of late nights and hastily grabbed dinners. But essential, too.

To paraphrase another “Harvey” character, it’s our dreams that make us who we are.

Oh, it’s possible to live without dreams. Look around. The daily news seems filled with the consequences of the oh-so-practical people more concerned with being right than doing right, where winning justifies anything, where grand visions matter less than seizing a small advantage today. Politics, sports, business – in some ways, it’s a world more hostile to the Elwoods and Quixotes of society than ever.

But once in a while, something lifts us higher.

Once in a while, we gape as a spacecraft lands on a comet or a rover explores Mars. Or we marvel together at the adventures of a boy wizard with the power to make children read 800 pages without stopping. Or we … well, do anything that lifts us beyond survival and self, and into the imagination.

Beyond that line is where hope is born. The power to dream of something better. The desire to make it be.

The madness that can transform all of mundane reality in its wake.

OK, that’s heady stuff from a crazy knight and a guy with a six-foot rabbit. But when you find joy in the middle of an angry world, it can be a little overpowering. Mad? Maybe. It’s the end of a withdrawal from dreams, and that always has powerful consequences.

Though if those consequences involve 50 singing children, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

See you on stage.

 

(PS – Want to join the madness? Show times and tickets are at www.longmonttheatre.org. Tell ‘em Harvey sent you. )

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A Time to Remember

Missy’s been down lately.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’ve all been there. To parody the old title, Even Disabled Women Get the Blues, and Missy has occasionally had her own reasons to need a little comfort. Sometimes it’s an illness. Sometimes it’s an emotional moment in a movie. Sometimes it’s because Blake the Canine Trash Compactor has just eaten her crayons. All the usual motives.

But what’s interesting now is the timing. This one keeps a schedule.

My wife Heather first noticed it a few years ago when she was still just visiting and helping Missy, before we became guardians to the woman of few words and many mischievous smiles. At first we thought it was a coincidence. Then, after the second or third year, we realized what it had to be. By now, we’re positive.

This particular stretch always hits in late January. Right around the time that Andy died.

Andy was Missy’s brother and Heather’s uncle, a man who liked to tease and joke about as much as he liked to fly. And like many a brother, one favorite subject of his teasing was his little sister – not in a mean-spirited way, but in one that often set her laughing, too. Not a big , boisterous man but an open and friendly one that no one could help but like and smile along with.

But nine years ago, our favorite high flier came to Earth too soon. Brain cancer. It hit all of us pretty hard and still does.

But I’m not sure any of us realized at the time just how deeply it touched Missy.

Sometimes Missy almost seems to live in a world without time. Oh, not in the small sense. She remembers the daily routines: when her “bus” is supposed to come for her day program, when lunch is supposed to be, when to start arguing about having to go to bed. But on a larger scale, it’d be forgivable to wonder how much of an impression time makes, outside of major events like Christmas or Halloween (which carry their own rather obvious cues). Both she and her world seem to go on much as they always have, moving at her own pace in her own way.

But when the same “down” period always seems to hit in late January, centered around the same day each year – well, it becomes harder and harder to not notice.

Understand, we’ve never made a big deal of it around her. We’ve put up pictures and memories on Facebook like the rest of the family, but it’s not like she sees us stalking around the house in crepe and gets reminded. In so many ways, it could seem like just another day.

But to her, it obviously isn’t.

And while that’s sad, it also leaves me impressed. Because once again, it shows there is so much more to this lady than anyone would realize at first sight.

The mental disability that took or blocked so much has not taken her memory.

Not where it counts. Not where it ties her to the larger world.

It’s easy for that world itself to forget. To look at someone like Missy and dismiss her as “other,” unaware, apart. But she notices. She learns. She understands, even if it isn’t always the same understanding that an adult of her age would usually have.

Open and welcoming, she will avoid someone she’s been given reason not to trust.

Normally near-silent, she will react to the plot twists of a loved bedtime story – often with comments.

And for all the seeming changelessness of her life, she too holds close the ones no longer there.

It sounds obvious when you think about it. But how often do we?

The time will pass. The blues will lift. And soon we’ll be dealing with a restless Missy again, eager to bowl or swim or venture out on a Saturday morning trip downtown.

I think Andy would be pretty proud of her.

I know Missy still has one more smile for him.

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Peace Together

My wife Heather is not a fan of January.

The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.

With, of course, one significant and recent exception.

I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)

And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.

Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.

But that’s not what I mean by peace.

It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.

The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.

That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.

One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.

The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”

“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”

Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.

That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?

The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.

And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.

After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.

 

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Never Silent

I’ve started and stopped this column about half a dozen times so far. I doubt I’m alone. Some things, some events are just hard to wrap your mind around.

And when it comes to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, that may just be an understatement.

Understand, I’m used to people who don’t get freedom of the press. Especially this week. This week seemed to abound with folks who flunked Civics 101, reaching its peak in County Councilman Kirby Delauter of Maryland, who became a figure of national ridicule for telling a reporter to never publish his name without his permission or he’d sue. In response, the paper’s next editorial not only used his name in virtually every sentence, it used the first letter of each paragraph to spell out K-I-R-B-Y D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.

It seemed like a perfect time to smile, laugh and remember a few basic truths. To get silly in a good cause.

Then the news out of Paris came. And it stopped being funny anymore.

I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. I know the type, though. Satire always carries an edge, ready to skewer the sacrosanct and roast the untouchable, whether with the neatness of a rapier thrust or the messy vigor of a chainsaw.

It’s meant to shock people, often to make them step back and think. And it invariably makes enemies. Among reporters, there’s a saying that if you never offend anyone, you’re not in journalism, you’re in public relations. That goes double in satire, where targets are mocked deliberately and openly in a day’s work.

This time, the laughs were answered with blood.

For anyone who creates, this is the fundamental fear. And it’s one that can be fatal in more senses than just the obvious.

When ideas carry punishment, something important dies. When saying the wrong thing can get you fired, arrested, or even killed, the fences start to go up. The bravest fight on, perhaps, but most simply keep their heads down and watch their step. And self-censorship is the most insidious kind of all.

Kill one artist and a hundred more quietly die with her.

I’m aware that calling Charlie an “artist” may be a bit much for some, like putting Mad Magazine in the ring with Pablo Picasso. But freedom of expression and the press doesn’t just protect the elegant. It guards the crude, the irreverent, even the outright repulsive. The problem with saying “No, not him,” is that everyone has a “not him”; protecting those is the surest way to ensure it doesn’t become a “No, not you” someday.

All of which can sound awfully abstract when gunfire starts to ring in the streets. But it matters. Now, more than ever.

Now, a world has to show that fear will not win.

Not by declaring wars, or announcing new laws, or the dozens of things that societies often reach for in the wake of a murderous attack. But by continuing to speak. To laugh. To shout. To risk offense. To show that our voices will not be silenced, that our ideas will not be locked in a drawer and forgotten.

In a way, it’s Kirby Delauter all over again. How do you respond to a demand for silence? Speak even louder.

Delauter, of course, is still a civilized man. He apologized and withdrew his words. I doubt we’ll get the same courtesy from the Charlie shooters or those like them. But that doesn’t matter. The tactics remain the same. Hold the line. Stand the ground. And never let the walls rise.

This is about all of us, polite or obnoxious, French or American, left or right or center. This is about an idea, even a dream.

And it does not die here.

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This New Guitar

I twisted the peg, checked the tone. Way too low.

“Other direction, Rochat,” I muttered as I begin to reverse the tuning on the guitar. Better … better … perfect.

I smiled. Only 70 zillion steps to go.

Music’s never been a stranger to Casa Rochat, but it usually involves 88 keys and some desperate scrambling to turn a page without losing the rhythm or my sheet music. But this Christmas, Heather and Missy decided they were going to expand my repertoire a bit. Which is how I wound up with an acoustic guitar under the tree.
A guitar!

There has always been something about a guitar that sounds like home to me. Like a lot of Colorado kids born in the ’70s, I grew up listening to my parents’ John Denver albums, which probably set the pattern. That got reinforced by a lot of friends and relatives, especially acting buddies who would break out their six-string at a cast party. Often we’d play together, piano and guitar, chiming out folk songs or oldies or anything else we could think of.

When music became more available online, I adapted so many chord sheets that I began to joke about playing “rhythm piano.” And so, over the years, I began to think about chasing those warm, familiar sounds myself.

Easy to talk about, of course. Everyone’s got one of those friendly, fuzzy dreams from writing the next big bestseller to climbing the Fourteeners. They’re fun to bring up and cool to contemplate. But turning them into reality … well, that’s a different animal.

That’s work.

Or at least, that’s the attitude most of us take toward it.

Two attitudes, really. The first is to get disappointed when a new task doesn’t yield success right away. “I can’t draw Longs Peak on the first attempt, therefore I can’t draw.” “I tried auditioning and I didn’t get Prince Hamlet, so I’m done.”

The second … well, the second is viewing it as work in the first place.

Granted, to any objective bystander, work is exactly what it is. But most of us aren’t objective about what we do. Mark Twain hit it right on the money in “Tom Sawyer” when he pointed out that “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do. Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

I write. A lot. I read about writing a lot. Even when I read for pleasure, I catch myself breaking down the structure and style, like an architect studying a blueprint. It’s effort at times, but it’s not really work. It’s just what I do, how I think, who I am.

At least, until I break into a sort of writing I’ve not done before. Then the sweat comes and the doubt begins. The reflexes aren’t trained, the expectations aren’t familiar, and the work, so second-nature at other times, becomes visible, even awkward.

Arguably, I’m doing exactly the same thing. But my mind doesn’t know that yet. It sees work, and lots of it; a mountain to be climbed rather than a view to be discovered.

If I turned that around, I’d probably have half a dozen novels by now.

Turn it around and there’s a freedom. This isn’t school. Nobody’s making me write a book or learn guitar or become a kitchen virtuoso. This is something I can choose to do or not do, to my own satisfaction or disappointment.

Terrifying? Sometimes. But also attractive. And somewhere, buried beneath the surface of the work, a lot of fun.

We discover that on so many other things we love. Why be surprised to find it again?

And so, this year, I’m strumming. Not as a resolution, forced by the change of the year. But as a dream that can finally be real – and real fun – with some time and effort and joy.

And maybe, in the chords, I’ll even hear an echo of a distant time and a Rocky Mountain tenor.

Take me home.

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Bringing the Year to Book

With the exception of the Muppet version, my Mom has never really liked “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

It makes sense. Musically, it’s the holiday equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Logistically, it strikes a little too close to home for anyone who has to keep a house clean during the holidays and is beginning to feel run over by 10 lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing and all the assorted livestock, with the five golden rings having been accidentally thrown out with the wrapping paper long ago.

And personally, I always felt that I got the better deal anyway. Every Christmas, instead of having to feed and house 50 people and 23 birds that “my true love” wished on me, I could sit down and take hold of the world.

Or at least, of the World Almanac.

Every year, it sat like a gift-wrapped brick at the foot of the tree: the new World Almanac, the book that proved the World Wide Web would have an audience long before the first dancing cat ever hit a computer screen. I plundered that volume for nations and flags of the world, for county-by-county presidential results, for the true names of celebrities and the weirdest facts to hit the headlines. About the only thing it was missing was a random image of Rick Astley on page 47 singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

In a family where knowledge of odd and random facts was a given – a friend of mine once called dinner at our house “The Rochat Family Jeopardy Hour” – this was one of the vital grounding points, and mighty cool reading besides. Looking back, it was also a pretty good way to meet the New Year, getting a quick reminder of the year just past before stepping out into uncertain territory.

That’s an important function of New Year’s Day. Maybe even the only one.

When you think about it, New Year’s is a pretty odd holiday. Granted, all holidays are pretty odd. These are the times when we set aside a day to begging for chocolate in masks, or eating candy out of socks, or painting food and hiding it in the back yard for our kids to find (or, more often, for our dogs to discover, snarf and get sick on). Compared to this, a holiday to declare “Hey, we used up another calendar!” almost seems pretty normal.

Still, you wonder. It’s a birthday celebration for no one in particular, a chance to go wild over leaving the festivities of December for the bleakness of January. And it’s not like most of us have a choice in the matter. It’s a little like popping corks and playing music to celebrate going to the grocery store; the journey is going to happen, with or without the Auld Lang Syne.

Its sole purpose is to be a stopping point. A crossroads.

And maybe that’s enough.

It’s easy to get immersed in life, or at least in existence. When I was a kid, the Talking Heads had a hit with “Once in a Lifetime,” which hit a bit close to home for many people:

“And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack,

And you may find yourself in another part of the world,

And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile,

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife,

And you may ask yourself “Well … how did I get here?”

This is the “how” – the chance to break the surface of the water and understand the surroundings before diving back in. And that current moves fast.

At this time last year, I was still a full-time newspaper reporter.

At this time last year, I hadn’t yet gained my niece Emma or lost my Grandma Elsie.

At this time last year, we were still getting used to a Clydesdale of a dog named Blake. Still flinching at the sound of a rainstorm and the flood-filled memories it created. Still wondering if anything could stop the Broncos on their way to the Super Bowl.

Still wondering what lay ahead.

That’s a book I haven’t gotten to read yet. But I’m looking forward to the next pages. After all, it’s been a pretty exciting story so far.

Friends and readers, may 2015 be everything you asked for and a few things you didn’t.

Maybe even including the partridge in a pear tree.

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Christmas Presence

“He had eaten most, talked most and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”

 

Every year, my sisters and I knew that to wake up Christmas, we had to wake up Grandma Elsie.

We planned it with the skill of a military operation. I would stay awake through the night on Christmas Eve, softly singing carols to myself in order to stay awake. At 6 a.m. – the earliest time we were allowed up, amidst warnings that would chill the blood of Jacob Marley – I would wake Leslie. She would wake Carey. And together, we would let our rambunctious dog into the basement where Grandma slept, so that she could make coffee and trade silly songs with us while waiting for the caffeinated odor to rouse Mom and Dad.

It was her English-accented voice that taught us the words to “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” It was her presents that always included a package of miniature chocolate Santas. She was often the one who invited us to Christmas Eve services and always the one who would have a margarita with Christmas Eve dinner at the Armadillo, our standby restaurant on Dec. 24th for over 30 years.

And this year, it’s her absence that’s felt most around the Christmas tree.

It’s our first Christmas without Grandma. It still feels strange to say or write it. It felt strange back on Thanksgiving, when my Dad’s voice quavered slightly as he remembered her while saying grace. It was an occasion with good food, good family and lots of squirming toddlers – just the sort of environment she loved most.

The place she would once have been at the heart of.

They say the holidays can be the hardest time. I had no idea how true that was until now. We’d had an empty place at the table before – once, when my new job in Kansas had me working on the night of the holiday, and a few times since after Leslie moved to Washington and couldn’t join us as frequently.

But those were small things by comparison, shadows that could be put to flight if needed. All of us knew that, if it were necessary to have the whole crew at the old house, we would find a way there.

Not so easy this time.

It may be most powerful now because of the ritual. Christmas is the time when traditions wake and walk again, when we do things the way we’ve done them for years upon years. Favorite movies, favorite meals, favorite memories. The weight of that habit can become mighty, as Heather and I discovered our first Christmas, when we debated whether stockings were emptied before presents or afterward. (I still think I was right.)

But when the time comes to walk that ages-old dance again, there’s suddenly a step missing. A skip in the music.

And it makes the absence, the presence, more noticeable than ever.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. I’ve always had a disdain for “getting over it” or “moving on.” Memories should remain, just as love remains. How horrible to even contemplate forgetting, how hideous the thought of putting that memory away, like an unneeded ornament in a taped-up cardboard box.

But memory doesn’t have to be joyless, either.

Grandma loved this time of year. She may have had mixed feelings about the snow – or even spectacularly unmixed feelings – but she never failed to take joy in the lights, the music and especially the gathered family. She would not have wanted that joy to end, nor should it.

Not even when it needs to live side-by-side with grief for a while.

It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to remember.

But it’s also OK to celebrate.

And so, as we scramble to gather presents, I’ll also stop to mind a Christmas presence. Maybe even sing an off-kilter carol or two.

I’ll wake up her memory yet again.

And with it, wake up Christmas one more time.

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