No room at the inn, Mary and Tall Joseph trust they will find a place to rest.
She began the journey on her own (don’t we all?)
and knelt in awe of what was to come
before forging on
only to have Joseph joyfully join her journey
when they were promptly overtaken by the world
and taken to New Orleans
where they set out again
traveling through the early morning light
only to once again get lost in the weeds
before getting back on track
and within shouting distance of the end where it will begin
* thanks again to Sybil MacBeth and The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist for this idea—the implementation is my own
I attended a class today to learn what to expect when having hip surgery. It was okay information, stuff like what drugs to quit taking, when to arrive on the day, how long to wait before driving after surgery, that type of thing. The nurse was very helpful and patient with all my questions (“Can I ride home in my husband’s Camero?” Answer: No), but I found it incomplete. Here’s my more essential list:
#1 Get a pedicure. Your legs are going to be the focus of attention for at least the next six weeks. Doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and strangers wondering what is wrong with you—they’re all gonna be staring at your legs. At the bottom of your legs will be your feet. Often, your bare feet. Make sure your toes look pretty.
#2 Buy a new bra. You will be removing your clothes, stripping down to your essentials. You don’t want to be laying a janky bra on top of your heap of clothing. Take the time to get a nice, pretty bra. Or two. If anything’s worth doing, it’s worth doing twice.
#3 Make a list of people who need to be called with updates on your progress. The nurse recommended such a list, but what she didn’t say was to limit the information to three words: “It went well.” In this age of TMI, don’t add to the onslaught.
#4 As long as you’re making lists, make one for the chores your husband will need to perform the first two weeks following surgery. Most of what you do around the house is invisible to him. If you don’t write down, for example, “Get More Toilet Paper from the Closet,” he could find himself in a delicate situation.
#5 Do NOT review your living will. This will freak you out. Be prepared for Admissions to ask about a living will, but don’t dwell on it.
#6 Make up a cover story. In fact, make up several. Every time someone asks what’s wrong with you, use a different story. Your story can be extravagant (“I knew I wasn’t ready to do a half-pipe but, man, the snow!”) or simple (My favorite: “I fell on my ass.”). Just make it sound more interesting than arthritis eating away your joint and birthing bone spurs that hammer into your leg like railroad spikes.
#7 Buy sexy new panties. It’s bad enough you’re getting a hip replacement at your young age. The least you can do is not arrive at the hospital wearing granny panties. Do whatever you can to keep from feeling any older than necessary. (see #6 above)
#8 As you quit taking any type of pain relief prior to surgery (required), also quit drinking alcohol and caffeine and quit eating refined sugar and fatty foods (suggested by my very own internet search). While you’re sitting around chewing shoe leather, dream about a post-op banquet at Cafe Du Monde of beignets and chicory coffee (a fried doughnut covered in powdered sugar, paired with the strongest coffee known to woman).
#9 Gather unto yourself as many paperback mysteries as you can afford. Stack them beside your bed. Use them as an incentive: do one more set of exercises and you can read the next chapter. (p.s. I stole this idea from my mother who used her chapters to make herself write her wedding present thank-you notes)
#10 Take this opportunity to buy new shoes (odd how so many of my preparations have to do with buying new clothes . . .) The guidelines require flat shoes with a back, but I don’t want to tie laces, either. Currently, I don’t own a pair of solid non-skid shoes with no laces. I think I have a right to be picky about my shoes—after all, I’m going under the knife.
#11 This is purely optional, but light a candle. As you light it, whisper your deepest fears (don’t let a UTI occur and travel to the joint, crippling me for life; please let them find a hip to properly fit my small self; don’t let them leave my legs different lengths; please let my insurance pay for this). Then blow out the candle and watch your fears drift away with the smoke.
#12 This one’s hard to handle retroactively but try to have lived your life well enough over the past two years that you’ve acquired a friend who will make you a set of one-of-a-kind prayer beads featuring precious stones and antique silver and olive wood from the Holy Land and Buddhist treasures and African trade beads and then add puns to the gift tag. When you’ve got this kind of mojo working on you, you’re prepared for anything.
Standing at the point on Poplar during rush-hour traffic waving at the passing cars in the most half-assed living nativity I’ve ever seen-what was missing, you might ask? Mary for one. And Joseph. And the Baby Jesus (except for the moment when the bearded man in the toga (a shepherd) lay down on the hay bale and popped his thumb in this mouth.) Tom and I were stars. I mean, we had huge silver stars scotch-taped to deely-boppers. Plus, the nativity had a dinosaur. And a cow. It was awesome.
Our friend the director of the coolest theatre in town bursting out laughing when Tom asked him to take our picture with Mrs. Clause—”You want me to take your picture?”—then doing it, choreographing the photo so that it was PROFESSIONAL with Tom seated on Mrs. Clause’s lap.
The delight on the authors’ faces when I told them I’d learned Memphis Theological Seminary was using Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness in its classes (“I’m being taught in school!”) and the Binghampton United Methodist Church was featuring readings from the book during their Advent services as the Word from the world (“Word!”).
Buying my grey and pink “Go Ask Alice” t-shirt from the Literacy Mid-South Book Sale, which features an imprint of Alice in Wonderland reading a book but for me is a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” the closest thing Tom and I have to “our song” and without which we might not have gotten married. Then wearing the t-shirt for 5 days straight.
The Advent tassels (that means purple) awarded to, and modeled by, the cleverest writer at my Memphis writing group. What I’m saying is you have to be way clever to be the cleverest writer in our group. And you have to wear purple tassels when you win them.
Presenting at the 8:00 service the newly-completed banner (off of which had fallen a D so that the Window to the Soul was a Win ow to the Soul) but no one gave a damn about that because they were all busy rounding the corner and smiling wide at me, greeting me with “good morning,” because I had said during the presentation that connection with them—when they rounded the corner and made eye contact—was the Window to the Soul.
Tom buying for me a necklace “just because I wanted it.” After which I wore it for 3 days straight. (I fall in love quickly and devotedly).
After I announced at writing group that I wouldn’t be seeing them for a while because I had to have hip surgery, one of the writers coming up to me and asking, incredulous, “They’re gonna cut on you?” FINALLY, the proper amount of admiration for this journey I’m about to embark on.
The image of all of us writers parading (our host’s word, not mine) into one of the largest Methodist churches in Shelby County—invited, beloved guests—where we filled two pews; gave an impromptu (and solo—the only person in the sanctuary who hopped up) standing ovation to the bell-ringers; and otherwise sat when all around us stood as we enjoyed “in action” the gracious men and women who lead writing group every week: preaching, bell-ringing, sermonizing, loving all God’s children.
Finally, the sparkle of the Traditional Christmas Peacock:
I love this book. It’s about a young woman who goes on a cross-country train trip to clear her dead daddy’s name and winds up repairing her relationship with her mother. It’s funny—really funny—and sad. And, in parts, wise and faintly political—it decries the commercial abuse of chickens. The main character is Southern to her core, but she’s wildly open to new experiences and people and learning. I just adore her. And the ending. The ending is great.
The thing is, I wrote it. I started writing it too many years ago to count, and I put it in the drawer for a while. I picked it back up two years ago and began an extended revision process that included an interested agent and a wonderful editor. When the agent ultimately decided to pass, I put it aside again.
Then I thought to myself, Ellen (I always use my name when I think to myself), you need to take ownership of this novel. You’ve had wonderful advice from the editor and readers and, yes, even the agent. Now. Pick it up. Imagine it has been published. And no one but you is responsible for what is on the page.
When I did that, long-ago comments from readers burbled into my brain. I merged scenes (“the scenes are wonderful, but are they all necessary?”). I killed off characters (bye, bye Biloxi school teacher). I fixed some back-and-forth scenes (why are we leaving the Gminskis, going to dinner and returning?). I also added back in some phrasing I loved, because—remember—I am totally responsible for what is on the page.
Most importantly, as one of the readers had suggested, I moved an interior monologue to the opening paragraph. This paragraph created a lens for me to see the novel through. I spied the true message of the thing. I changed the title to reflect that message: Love Your Heart. I saw, as the agents say, the “bigger story.” The novel changed from a “Southern” novel to a “Universal” novel told in a Southern voice.
I’m serious. All this happened. And I love the novel. I am ready and willing to fight for it. I feel like—and this is really sappy in a meta kind of way—that I went through the process my main character went through, learning what she learned. I learned to take advice, listen to comments, then love my own heart.
I have only one question: how do you feel about exclamation marks in a book title? Is it too cheesy? (Obviously, cheesy is okay, but I don’t want to be too cheesy). Love Your Heart! It’s how Lucinda Mae says it. What do you think?
I am so thankful for this novel.
“I never procrastinate, except for Christmas shopping,” I told the woman . . . as I bought my last gift the evening before I left at six am the next morning to see my folks at Thanksgiving and exchange gifts. “So I’m still procrastinating, just earlier.”
It’s no surprise, then, that I am a teensy bit late telling you about Sybil MacBeth’s wonderful new book The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas & Epiphany Extremist. For those of you knew to the Advent concept, this liturgical season preceding Christmas began this past Sunday. But according to Sybil’s calculations, the season of Epiphany that follows Christmas rolls right on through Ground Hog’s Day so you’ve got plenty of time to enjoy her book. And enjoy it you will.
Many folks—like Sybil—did not grow up with the practice of Advent. I did, and it was boring. A stupid paper calendar where you opened a door to reveal—surprise! . . . the day of the month. I already knew what day it was. This practice was improved somewhat when people began making chocolate Advent calendars—a piece of chocolate was stuck behind the door—but still, what was the point?
Then I’m reading Sybil’s book and one of her suggestions made me smile.
“Create a progressive crèche,” she suggests. This suggestion echoes my family’s tradition of not putting Jesus in the manger until Christmas morning. (It’s hard sometimes to find a nativity set where Jesus isn’t glued into the manger, but it can be done). When my sister began to host Christmas, she expanded this concept to include, first thing on Christmas morning, everyone running through the house to scoop up all the baby Jesuses we could find and gathering them into one spot of celebration—Jesus always got a birthday cake, too, at her house.
Sybil’s idea is even more fun. First, you decide where you want to locate your nativity scene. Put the animals in that spot. Gussy it up with some fake hay or greenery. Place Mary and Joseph way across the room or even in another room—after all, they are traveling to Bethlehem.
Let them take the journey through Advent toward the manger with you. Move them a little closer each day. On Christmas Eve move them to the manger. Until Christmas Eve, hide the baby Jesus or find a way to attach him to Mary. (Season of the Nativity, page 80)
Now how cool is that? A physical movement toward Christmas, maybe including an actual pregnant Mary? I’ve already started Mary on her journey—she’s outside under a bare-limbed maple because Sybil isn’t the only extremist in our midst. I’ll also let additional animals converge, including all types of critters to symbolize the extravagant presence of God in everything.
Of course this idea of physical movement as a contemplation of the mystery of God would appeal to me—I wrote a book about making crosses from broken and found objects. (Making Crosses: A Creative Connection to God (Paraclete 2009). Such is the genius of Sybil’s book: her abundance of suggestions on how to celebrate the time before, during, and after Christmas appeals to writers, drawers, gardeners, dancers, meditators, crafters, givers, teachers, singers, prayers, readers, talkers, candle-lighters, yogis, and yes, even Tweeters. When so many of us are searching for paths that we can use to truly connect to God, this book is a gift.
Along the way, you get to meet Sybil, if you don’t already know her: she is the author of the tremendously popular Praying in Color series. Sybil has a delightful voice, and it shines on the page. Her exploration of faith is an inspiration, and the soft-cover book is beautiful. Almost every page (did you read that? almost every page) of the book is illustrated with a great photo or line drawing; Christmas ornaments act as bullet points; and purple, the color of the Advent season, abounds.
If you can, imagine yourself seated in a big comfy chair with a steaming cup of tea by your side on a grey winter day, slowly turning the pages as you sip your tea, when that spark of recognition lights inside you: oh, you breathe, I know this. This is how God comes to me.
Thank you, Sybil, for giving us that gift.