Two Strangers, Two Christmases

I’ve written more than once about how the power of storytelling, especially through film in my own case, can open our eyes to truths we somehow just didn’t see before.  Certainly, I’m a firm believer in the importance of sharing our own true life experiences – honestly, openly in the hopes that others might find encouragement as they pursue their own unique journeys. But, works of fiction, whether in literature, film or other art forms also can bring inspiration – and have done that for me many times in life.  As this will be posted in time for Christmas 2020 – a year without peer, I dare say – my thoughts drift towards two such tales that have very different origins, yet whose primary characters perhaps more in common than one might expect at first glance. 

Charles Dickens created many great works, but for many his most loved is “A Christmas Carol” first published in 1843.  In 2017, a lovely film (not of course entirely factual) gave some insight into how it was created – “The Man who Invented Christmas”, with Christopher Plummer as the Scrooge of Dicken’s creative process. Endless versions and variations have and will continue to be enjoyed long after this year;  the most vivid in my own memory was a one man performance by Patrick Stewart at Cal Tech decades ago complete with multiple characterizations, sound effects and a sense of energy and discovery that he brought to new life. (The full audio performance is available on iTunes, I believe).  

I will never forget seeing this incredible one man performance by Patrick Stewart!

In film, for me, 1970’s “Scrooge” which I first saw in the little Corona theater at age 12 is still a part of my annual celebrations. The musical starring Albert Finney was in many ways a triumph of casting, art, and song – yet it did not initially register with audiences who were more interested in the new cinema of MASH and five easy pieces than a dancing Ebenezer. 

 I bought the soundtrack LP long before VHS made home viewing possible – listening to the songs by Leslie Bricusse, including my personal favorite over the opening credits – a chorus of joy and encouragement.  

Look around about you and see what a world of wonder this world can be! 

It was probably a few years later, in my teens, when (thanks to a gift from my Dad and stepmother of a small black and white tv) that I began to see older films at home, after school.  The ABC affiliate had a 90 minute afternoon movie time slot at 330 – and one day I turned on a black and white film that was spread over two days.  Later, I would see it first “screened” in its entirety at college – then, eventually in theaters in California, and even one December matinee in London, for it’s 50thanniversary.  At first I was mystified why the audience there didn’t seem to love it as much – but, it is a distinctly “American” narrative, made by a director and star who had worked together previously, won Oscars, and both served in World War 2, one as a pilot, the other making films that still are highly regarded for their honest portrayal of that epic struggle.  When they returned home to eventual peacetime, the director wanted to finance his own production – based on a very short story the original author, Philip Van Doren Stern, had included in a 1943 Christmas card to friends – “The Greatest Gift”.  He expanded on the concept and pooled together some of the best talents in Hollywood, including his prior star actor, and built a small town for the location filming.   Perhaps surprisingly it wasn’t a big hit, from an independent production company; and in time, without the licensing and copyright being maintained, the film fell into “public domain”, like the chopped up airing I saw in the 70’s on that little tv.  That circumstance led in time to it being aired so many times, more people saw it, and came to love it – becoming the classic it is today. 

“It’s a Wonderful life” portrayed an America that endured through the Spanish Flu, depression, and World War 2, through the life of its protagonist, George Bailey, in the small town of Bedford Falls. In the years since then, I cannot say how many times, or with how many friends, I have “visited” the Bailey’s and that little town; last year, my husband and I enjoyed a live performance of the score with the film by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus, which was unforgettable. 

The film “finale” as performed by the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus

 I’ve had the chance to meet Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu”, the little girl in the film; collected memorabilia (and given it away!), and decorated my tree and now our home with reminders of that story.  It is such a perfectly detailed story, of a time, a place, a family and a set of circumstances – challenges, failures, love, disappointment, loss and hope.  But, mostly to me, the message was – your life matters.  Even if you cannot achieve your dreams; even if you never become what you hoped, or others expected – you can make a difference in this world, one that is uniquely yours – one that is irreplaceable. In my lonely teens, escaping to a world where the promise of redemption was realized at Christmas was one way to hope for a better future. And there was one that I could not then see, but was waiting for me. 

In 2006, I gifted Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu”) this British 50th anniversary poster!

Much has changed in my life in the now 50 years since I sat in that little local cinema for Scrooge; and the decades since I first watched George Bailey jump off a bridge to end his life on that little black and white screen.   Of course, both stories have happy endings – life doesn’t always offer those, or at least at times the possibility of happy endings seems very difficult to imagine.  Perhaps Christmas 2020 is one of those times for many more than usual, in a most unusual year, bleakness dimming the lights on our homes and in our hearts. 

So as our TV plays the familiar voice of Clarence, George, Mary (and, my special friend Bert the Cop) on Amazon Prime while write; and tomorrow, as I join my husband to again enjoy the dancing, singing cast of Scrooge (with Alec Guinness as Marley!), I have a lot of feelings come up.  If you’ve read anything I have blogged about this year, you KNOW I share my feelings – because I hope that reaches others, and does some good, perhaps – a little George Bailey in me trying to get out.  And I realize – Old Ebenezer and George have a lot in common. 

For my bunny lover friends (and I know at least one!) – here is a special treat!

History – not just fiction – tells us that most cultures have representatives of that part of life which we cannot understand, whether we consider it the afterlife, some representative of eternity, or other spiritual beings that exist outside our ability to measure, but – somehow, we sense, or want to sense, their existence.   Perhaps as some suggest this is just our desire to understand what is beyond our comprehension; for others, these beliefs become deeper truths, very personal truths.  Centuries of faiths with various representatives of such spirits have uncounted stories which most of us will never read or otherwise enter our thinking.  The 3 spirits of Christmas that visit Ebenezer, and the angel hoping to “earn his wings” that answers the prayers reaching heaven as George considers ending his life in despair, are such beings.  Outside forces that enter the lives of two very different men, both on Christmas eve, in very different times and places. 

If you ever wanted to visit “Bedford Falls” – here is one option …… I hope to one day!

Ebenezer, of course, was a selfish, bitter man, hated by many;  Dickens suggests that the spirits visit him because Marley hopes that will save his only friend in life from a similar, doomed fate.  George, a beloved husband, father and citizen who, through his character as much as through his deeds, touched the lives of so many in his small town, had reached a place of hopelessness; through an act of selfishness by Mr. Potter, a “modern day” Ebenezer of post war America, he stumbles onto a bridge hoping to end the life he sees as wasted as the only way to escape his own, undeserved fate.  The spirits help Scrooge, and Clarence helps George, see his life (and the lives of others around them) from a new perspective – and to realize that they want to embrace life anew.    

Many of us know what despair feels like.  Right now, many of our friends and family may be suffering through it, perhaps not with our awareness; trying to find hope.  In other posts, I have talked about some of those periods in my life; thinking back about those who helped me, who either reached out in love or responded to my own seeking of a new way to move ahead, they were the “spirits” helping me to see there was a promise of a better life, perhaps not obvious or easy, but possible.  I remember a counselor sharing with me about the concept of “liminality” – not something I am qualified to explain, but I feel applies in some way to the experience of both our Christmas Eve characters, and perhaps you and I as well. 

The ending you always wanted to see, but Frank Capra left out!

If you look online, where of course there are MANY interpretations of just about any philosophical concept, you can explore perspectives (here is one) on liminality.  I recall that from a purely anthropological sense, the “liminal” state is that “in between” – the middle stage of a “rite of passage”, or a period of growth and becoming.   In religious traditions, similar concepts exist – a stage from separation, between beginnings and the future.  For our two (eventual) heroes, Eb and George – Christmas Eve became a liminal space, in a way – a place between what was, and what could be.  Where spirits could speak to them, and minds, hearts and souls could be open to new understanding.  

I wish I was learned enough, and literate enough, to bring home some insight, awareness to share from these musings with you; all I find I am able to do is to open the door, or perhaps a small window.  To say – or ask – what are the lessons that I learn, that you can learn (or share with someone you love who needs that more than ever at this very instant) – to be open to this moment, now.  To know there is a possible waiting for discovery; a Christmas morn where the presents are not wrapped in paper, but in a renewed spirit that awakens and cries, just like a child at birth, and embraces the future, in faith.  These are OUR unexpected turning points.

To my “Angels” and guiding spirits – THANK YOU for lifting my heart!!

For now, I can only, as always, share what little I have to offer – the thought comes, “to play my drum” for you, perhaps, on this Christmas.  To remember the words of fictional characters that still represent real truths – from George Bailey, his prayer of despair – 

Answers to prayer may not come in the form we expect ……

And from Tiny Tim – not at the triumphant end of the tale, but during the “Christmas Present” where his family struggles with little food, and he is living what the Spirit shows Scrooge is his final Christmas – despite all their travails, faith –

By the immortal Norman Rockwell

Wherever you are today – know, there is hope.  For you – and for you to share.  Until next time – Merry Christmas, and wishes that the New Year brings new joys, discoveries – and renewal, for us all. 

Christmas 2019 – SF Symphony Hall – God Bless us, Everyone!
Thank YOU for reading my blog, as I finish 2020 – see you NEXT YEAR!!!

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No thanks – but thanks – in 2020

Yes, it’s been nearly half a month since Thanksgiving, I know! Why am I so “late” in writing?  Well, I prefer to think that I needed to get to the right place and time to express something worth offering to you – and, perhaps, to discover for myself.  As I go through my reflective/creative process for sharing here, which (like me) is evolving, I often achieve some realizations, awareness, about the issues that are “troubling the waters” of my soul.  There seems to be more troubling of the water, these days.  Some of my friends might be surprised at how much I struggle, daily, and have for many years, with inner conflicts, doubts, depression and uncertainty.  Whether online – here, Facebook – or in person (or zoom!), it’s not that the words I share, or the photos, are not from my heart – they are deeply sincere – but my day to day existence does not always match my aspirations.  

But I have been thinking about thankfulness, gratitude, where it fits in my life – how easy it is to set aside or pretend and just go through the motions.   In reality, choosing to be and express thankfulness is HARD WORK! But also, a very powerful, even life changing force. At last, for now, here are my own small reconsiderations, and reflections on that subject. Or, as an alternate title – “A heaping plate of regrets and a side of disappointment does not make for a pleasant dinner”.

This is not the Thanksgiving you want to have … but it would be memorable!

Even though I am sure anyone reading this has enough weighing on their hearts and is not seeking to focus on my challenges, I am convinced anything I have of value to share are the lessons for which I paid dearly, whether in blood, sweat or tears – that our mistakes offer more room for growth to lead to hopefully our triumphs.  And I know others are like me – struggling to focus on having a positive attitude, expectations and hopes after so many months of, well, everything.  But in that struggle, somehow, the beacon of grabbing onto gratitude in the midst of disappointment still calls out to me. 

I wonder, in my early morning sleep deprived ruminations, what role does the giving of thanks play in our lives today?  What meaning does it have?  If we do not personally believe in what is generically termed a “higher power”, however we frame or conceptualize that – does giving thanks and prayer have any substantive value in our lives?  Are we just begging for help out of desperation, hoping there is someone, something “out there” that will “deliver us from evil”,  eliminate COVID, wipe out our political enemies who so clearly wrong about whatever we are what so clearly right on, and bring back everything we loved about our lives while somehow vanishing the problematic social, economic and other nasty realities we just want to exclude from our awareness?  Or do we just want our “old lives” back – and in the case of far too many, the lives of our loved ones taken from us, struggling to reconcile our grief with our faith. 

Oh, sure, I can put on the “attitude of gratitude” for a while, to fool myself, or maybe appear to for others. It is so very, very easy to mouth the platitudes that I was taught from an early age, whether they be prayers, or songs, or sayings – being thankful for family, food, shelter.  I am very aware that in the larger reality of population I am among the most fortunate of humans, in terms of basic needs, care, and more.  But just saying words is not enough – it is not from the heart.  Perhaps anger and frustration from the heart are more powerful, more real than the practiced pleasant statements that we feel we are expected to include in our traditional gatherings.  Soaking our hearts daily in anger and frustration is like a poison that seeps into every aspect of life.   Our hearts began to be choked into silence by the thorns of despair. 

I have felt like this too much lately … but as I am discovering, there is another way.

So if I was to describe my Thanksgiving – we (my husband and I, and our two cats) followed our local guidelines, and spent the day without in person contact with family or friends, with a low key meal (we are not the chefs that some of our friends exemplify), zooming instead, and enjoying some entertainment.  In many ways, it was a lovely day.  But underneath the traditions, I am dealing with the same frustrations, anger, fears and uncertainties that swirl around us all, daily.   And in that, in the quiet moments when my heart puts all the chaos briefly on pause, somehow, the thought of gratitude keeps bubbling up, saying – “remember me”.  

And I have been trying to do just that.  To remember what it is like to be truly grateful; to think about what that means, when there is so much going on that seems to be coming from someone else’s nightmare, day after day after day.  I try to turn off the news but find myself obsessively checking websites for the latest edict, the latest data, and the latest projections of doom and death.   I juggle that with planning when to go to the store, when to manage our limited time outside the house, and, oh yes, Christmas!  Because I am not going to lose Christmas, dammit! (Try to picture me saying that with a smile, at least in part!) 

2020 has been the year of unwanted presents – but also unexpected gifts

Yet I sense that the way ahead – whether it is “through”, or “out of”, this current state of frustration is not changing the situation – not getting the reality I want – but accepting, embracing the reality I have.  It’s sort of like reaching for something but you can’t because you are too burdened with what you are throttling, trying to choke the life out of, or dragging along with you – you haven’t released it.  If this sounds similar to an entry a few months ago – you are probably right.  I may be circling the same water because I never stopped to taste it.  

I was raised in the traditional Christian church of the 60’s. I didn’t stay in it; I questioned what I was taught versus what I could see in people’s lives; I couldn’t conform to what I felt was expected of me. I don’t have a background in world religions, but I sense that whatever truths about human nature, the way we are built, the way we learn and grow, are central to many faiths.  After all, in many ways, we are a single race, mixed in innumerous cultures and subcultures, families, neighborhoods, classes.  But all of us, in some way, are trying to reach for something we sense but cannot name.   The answers may be unknowable, for us, today.  But the broader truth may be that we must embrace what we have now, make peace with it, yes, even love it and give thanks for it, to be free to move on. 

It’s as though we are trapped in a room and cannot see the door because we are so desperately trying to break through the walls. Think of yourself as a battery – you have energy stored in you; it goes away; but it can also be replenished.  That energy has a focus, where you are centralizing your attention.  If it is on all the things you are frustrated with, it goes into that and produces – probably next to nothing, other than perhaps more frustration for you and those in your life.  Acknowledging our inability to change something is not what my culture taught me. 

Yet, however contradictory it may seem, I sense that it is in a deeper, daily acceptance of our current reality – through giving thanks, gratitude, whatever you want to call it (and to whomever or whatever you wish to express it) – which allows us to eventually be freed from the expectations, demands, fantasies and dreams that we cannot achieve. They have been so deeply woven into our focus, priorities and purpose that they become a cocoon, eve a prison perhaps.  Focusing on our disappointment prevents us from seeing that the path we wanted to take is not the path before us.   We have fixated on the walls of our cell that we want to escape so firmly that we are blind to the doorways which were there all along. 

If the way ahead is not apparent, we must be open to the unexpected and undiscovered

To put it another way – Accepting, truly and completely making peace with the reality we would like to change (and our expectation that we cannot be otherwise whole) allows us to see choices we that were once invisible.  We cannot fully see the possible while we cling to the wished for or expected.  Creating an equilibrium of peace in our current state opens our eyes, and hearts, to new possibilities. 

I am sure those familiar with the history of philosophy can identify the origins of just about any perspective we might take today – I don’t pretend to know those facts.  I just am trying to listen to my heart, and to something outside of myself speaking to me there.  Surely many are familiar with the 12 step programs, initially formalized with AA, and the Serenity prayer in all it’s iterations – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.   I have learned that we do not always share the same challenges, or purpose, or destiny, or understanding – and we cannot let someone else tell us what ours must be.  We have to find our own way, as individuals, and yet – together.  But we are all facing a lot of what we cannot change today, and we all need serenity, equilibrium – stilling the waters of our souls. 

If you google “gratitude quotes” you’ll find an endless listing of helpful websites.  Two rang true with me today, as I work to bring these thoughts to a close.  First, Charles Dickens, whose own life was far from problem free (here is an excellent profile), but whose words still bring hope to readers around the globe in so many cultures – 

And, author Melody Beattie, whose work is not familiar to me but who has written on addiction related issues and provided helpful insights to many – there is no “one size fits all”, of course – 

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melody Beattie (follow this link for more) on gratitude
In the process of trying to understand what I cannot know … I discover, anew

Thanks for sitting with me for a while, and for reading my little thoughts.  I hope something here may ring true for you – give you some “food for thought” as a post-Thanksgiving feast for the soul (well, maybe a snack, then).  As challenging as times are, the process of focusing on gratitude gives me hope – and that’s something we all need to find, and share, everyday more than ever.  

Until next time – be safe, and find hope – for yourself, and to share. It’s out there!

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