Where Are You Christmas? (aka: Rants of a Holiday Cynic)

I hate LED Christmas lights Oh Christmas, how you have failed me! How you have drained my pockets of every spare cent, so that my family can have the latest, shiniest toys wrapped in glittery premium wrapping paper. How you have crowded the stores with piles of cake pop makers and mini sno-cone machines and other useless Thneeds, which nobody, nobody, nobody needs. You have ruined my eyesight by surrounding me with ultra-bright LED Christmas light displays. (Why on earth does anyone think that LED lights are pleasant to look at?).

Then there was that Black Friday incident in the high-scale shopping mall near my home, in which some men got into a fist fight in the Victoria’s Secret. In Victoria’s Secret! Over a pair of lacy panties! (I was just in that same Victoria’s Secret hours before the fight, and believe me, there was nothing worth fighting over). Oh Christmas, with your empty promises of goodwill and peace…well there is NOTHING peaceful about listening to Rockin’ Around the Christmas tree five times per hour on the radio (please, somebody kill that song), not to mention the plethora of songs worshipping the snow. Um, hello? Some of us live in California, where snow is practically a myth, unless you count the artificial spray-on snow we use for decorations.The Grinch

Okay I know, I know…I am Scrooge, looking with scorn at the meaningless trappings and festivities that seem to make everyone else happy. I am also The Grinch. My heart has become three sizes too small, while my cynical mind has grown three sizes too big. And I am Charlie Brown, throwing my hands in the air with frustration and yelling, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”

And suddenly, a song begins to play in my memory. No, it isn’t a bunch of villagers singing Fah-who Foraze. It is Faith Hill, singing Where Are You Christmas? When that song ends, another begins. It is Aislin Debison, singing The Gift. And just like like the Grinch, my cynicism begins to fade. Because Christmas is here…Christmas has always been right here, waiting for me. It has not failed me. It is I, with my critical eye and self-absorption, who has failed Christmas. It is not that Christmas owes me peace, love, and goodwill, but it is I who owes the world my peace, love, and goodwill.

The realization is so simple, and so stunningly beautiful, like Disney magic or a surprise snowfall in California. And suddenly I feel like whistling Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree while hanging up decorations…not for me, but for other people to enjoy. And I feel like walking through the crowded shopping mall while wearing a Santa hat…not to buy a bunch of stuff, but to smile at people, and drop my spare change in a charity bucket, and spread the Christmas spirit. Because the good in Christmas, the wonder in Christmas, is in the ability to do good for a fellow human being. It is in the joy of giving back to the world, whether it is through charity, or homemade cookies, or raking leaves for a neighbor (okay, well, shoveling snow if you live anywhere but California).

Christmastime is here, and so I will swallow my cynicism, wrap gifts for my kids in shiny, glittery paper, and call my relatives to remind them that I care. I will drink (low-calorie) peppermint cocoa and sing along with the radio, and maybe get so carried away that I go out to look at all of your LED Christmas light displays. Look for me. I’ll be the one wearing the Santa hat and the sunglasses.

On Becoming Pandora

On Becoming Pandora

In the middle of an empty space
a box appeared
wrapped in shiny paper
and tied with colorful ribbons.
And inside the gift, I knew
lay my heart’s desire
or rainbows
or happiness
or love with wings.
So with courage
I tore away the shiny wrappings
and untied the ribbons,
and with hope
I opened the lid
and peered inside.
And wept.
For all I found
within the depths
was empty space.

Turning Down the Voice

Will someone please tell that little girl
to quiet down?
Her voice is so loud,
always complaining
always hating her short, curly hair
her voice, her skin, and even
her poetry.
Always wishing for longer, straighter
thinner, lighter
So blind to the colors
of her own art
So deaf to the lyrics
of her own song.
Please, someone quiet down
that little girl.
Her voice is louder than mine,
louder than yours.

How a Photo and a Flower Taught Me to Love My Name

Tiare Flower (Gardenia Tahitiensis) National flower of Tahiti

The first time I changed my name, I was seven years old. Why? Because I hated my name. Hated it. With a passion. No one could pronounce it. No one could spell it. It seemed like a ridiculous, made-up name that no one had even heard of. I longed for a normal, boring name, like Jenny or Tiffany or Heather or Stephanie. Or if I had to have a unique name, why not something glamorous and beautiful, like Alexandria or Lydia? Ooh, how I hated my name! And so I changed it. I began to turn in my schoolwork with a variety of names that, at the time, I loved. Alyssa. Christine. Star. Anything but Tiare. (I assume that my teacher always knew that it was my work based on the sloppy handwriting).

When I was ten years old, I settled on my new real name. I announced to my entire family, “My name is now Jamie Katrelle.” After that, I refused to answer to Tiare. It had to be Jamie, or my new initials, J.K. I stuck with this new name for the next three years or so, until I reached high school and decided that Jamie was not such an interesting name after all. Still, I secretly loathed my name, including my middle name, La Brea, which I eventually learned means tar in Spanish. (Really, Mom and Dad? Couldn’t you have researched a little before picking a name in a foreign language?). When I had children of my own, I was determined to give them nice names. Somewhat normal names. Names that meant something, instead of names that just sounded nice to the ear, as is the contemporary naming tradition in many black families.

“But your name does mean something,” my mother informed me a few years ago when I complained. The year that I was born, she explained, she came across a Pullitzer Prize-winning photograph of a little girl falling from the fifth floor of a burning building. The child, whose name was Tiare, miraculously survived the fall. The photograph had a tremendous emotional impact on my mother. She gave me the little girl’s name — the name of a survivor. The name of a child who faced a fire and a tremendous fall, but was strong enough and lucky enough to go on living.

Of course, learning the story behind my name completely changed my opinion. Did I love the story? Well, no. In fact, the photo is very disturbing to look at. But it helped me to see that my name was not just something meaningless, pulled out of thin air. My mother loved me so much that she wanted to give me a name that touched her heart, from a story that impacted her life. My name was a mother’s gift. I could no longer hate it. In fact, I began to love my name, especially after I discovered that a Tiare is actually a beautiful, fragrant flower…the national flower of Tahiti, worn behind the ears of young women. I  also learned that my name is somewhat popular in Hawaii, Chile, and throughout the South Pacific. It is not so weird after all. My name is exotic, fragrant, beautiful, meaningful. And I am grateful to my mother for her gift.

(But sorry, Mom and Dad…the middle name has got to go. My name is now Tiare Liberty. There is no story that will make me embrace the old name).

A very disturbing image of a young girl and her godmother falling from a burning building after the fire escape collapsed. The little girl, Tiare Jones, my namesake, survived the fall.

Sunrise Surprises (aka Bringing Easter to the Neighbors)

The kids and I woke up very early on Easter morning. Earlier than the birds. Earlier than the Easter Bunny. Possibly earlier than the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. But most importantly, we woke up earlier than our neighbors. Then we set out for a stroll around our block, armed with a big basket full of colorful spring flowers. Every now and then, we stopped in front of a neighbor’s house, picked out a pot of flowers, and left it on the doorstep.

What was the point of our early morning adventure? My seven year-old summed it up beautifully. “People are going to find these flowers when they wake up, and they’ll be so surprised and happy!” Exactly. Giving flowers to someone, especially when the person does not expect it, is a simple way to show someone love. And so today, we chose to show love to our neighbors, even to some we do not yet know. We will not get to see their reactions, but I hope that at least a few will smile. And I hope that they all have a very Happy Easter.

Happy Easter to the grumpy woman next door, who yells at my kids when they accidentally kick a ball over her fence. Happy Easter to the elderly woman who walks her dog around the block every day (and who caught us leaving flowers on her porch this morning). Happy Easter to the family with the whiny little boy who comes over our house nearly every day and makes huge messes. Happy Easter to the neighbors who have lived next door forever and who once left a basket of pumpkin muffins on my doorstep one autumn afternoon ten years ago (yes, I knew it was you). A very happy Easter to all of our neighbors, including the ones whom we have not yet met. May you be blessed by our gift of flowers.