And so this is Christmas

I set out this year to do Christmas right.

I got my first tree, decorated it the way I always wanted to decorate a Christmas tree, swagged the house with greens within an inch of its life, and bought more presents than I ever have for any holiday, ever.

And lo, it was good.

I even managed to get myself invited over to a friend’s house for dinner, which meant that the only food preparation I needed to concern myself with was the de-foiling of chocolate Santas and the unwrapping of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

I want to tell you all about it, but you know when something is just so much more than the sum of its parts?

That.

So I woke up yesterday morning, opened presents with my husband, and enjoyed our traditional Christmas Day breakfast of dark chocolate and fresh oranges and very strong coffee. Then it was time for a quick little nap, before we hustled ourselves through the shower and made ourselves presentable for dinner across town.

After a dinner that will cause us both to wear elastic waistbands for many days to come, we swung by another friend’s house to feed her cats one last time before she returns home from her holiday travels. These cats not being particularly sociable — or at least, not with us — we headed home shortly thereafter, taking the long way around so that we could take in some of the more delightful displays of lights festooning all of the big, drafty old houses that line good old scenic Route 6A.

Then Matt settled in to watch some basketball games, whilst I retreated to the bedroom to catch up on a little Downton Abbey.

None of it sounds terribly earth shattering, does it?

And yet, it was. Every single little piece.

To go into the hows and whys of the day’s perfection would be to ruin it, and would sound ridiculously mawkish to boot.

You’ll just have to take my word for it, that’s all.

It was the best Christmas. Ever.

Hope yours was, too.

xo

MacGuffin

Opera BoxIt’s now two weeks before the end of the year, and I have a million things to do.

Oh, it’s not the Christmas presents, or the wrapping. It’s not even the food or the party planning, or some silly old year-end budget at work.

No, all that’s long since been done and dusted. My problem is not the holidays, or a performance review, or even the truly disturbing lack of salt pork and black eyed peas in my pantry.

My problem is that the year is almost over, and I’ve got all these damned loose ends to tie up.

Projects that need finishing. Questions that need answering. Stories that need endings.

It’s the end of the year, and as usual I have a desperate need to wipe the slate clean and start again.

Maybe it’s because I stayed in school too long. It’s probably because I stayed in school too long. But I always feel like a big, red curtain drops down with a thunk at the end of the year, and then lifts up again with a flourish at the start of the new. And it’s my job to wrap it all up, hustle the actors off of the stage, and get all the scenery dressed up for the next show.

Do you ever feel that way?

Did you stay in school too long?

So what is it that’s got me up all night soliloquizing like some shiftless Danish prince?

Well, it won’t sound like much to you, but I am knitting a hat. One of those really, really long stocking caps, with the point that hangs down over your back in a somewhat slightly comical manner. It’s bright red, and awesome. I was thinking that I would give it to somebody for Christmas, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

But I still have to finish it before the new year.

I’m also knitting a sweater, which is for me. It is one of those rollneck sweaters that I used to love wearing in college, but which seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, and so I apparently have to make one for myself. The Gap won’t sell it, so I gotta make it.

And the last one I had in college, I left behind at an after-hours party in Amherst.

I’m knitting this new sweater out of this soft, nubbly brown yarn that is the color of hot chocolate, all smooth and silky and so wooly that you want to chew on it. Beautifully drapey, lusciously swingy, with a big wide boatneck and edges that curl at the cuff and the hem like the edge of an oyster shell.

Yep. That one’s for me. And I clearly have to finish it before the new year.

I am also making opera gloves, minus the fingers. Ultra-fine merino wool, in the deepest, darkest blue you’ve ever seen. Knitted in the finest possible gauge, all the way up from the crook of your elbow to just whisper over the knuckles of your hands. Perfect for those long, tedious evenings at the opera when the draft is blowing through the dark velvet curtain lining your mama’s private box on the mezzanine floor, and you want to stay warm, but you also very much want to keep your fingertips free to caress the small bunch of flowers that were brought to you by a servant mere moments before the curtain went up. Peonies. Where the devil does a person find peonies at this time of year? And who on earth would have sent them to you?

You can only discover that it was a gentleman, and that he did not leave a name.

You would wear these gloves on such a night.

But only if I can finish them before the end of the year.

I’ve also picked up the embroidery hoop again, after a fairly long hiatus. There’s a lovely bit of muslin in my workbasket that is just dying to be embellished in a cryptic pattern of swirls and glyphs of mysterious intent. It is coming out looking a little like something that Edward Gorey would stitch, if he were having tea with Lemony Snicket. And it will serve no earthly function whatsoever, it hardly needs saying.

This article is scarcely likely to please anyone but me, but still I hope to finish it before the year is out.

What else? Well, not to bury the lede, but I’m working on another story. One of mild intrigue and extreme romance, of course, which has been steadily accruing both mass and volume for some weeks now. It’s nothing too terribly similar to  other stories of mine, except in that it concerns two voluble and engaging young people who spend most of the story being obstinate about accepting the fact that they are made for each other. They naturally are willing to go to very great lengths to convince themselves and everyone around them that this is quite entirely not the case.

Oh, but don’t worry. It all comes out right in the end.

Naturally, I am fully planning to finish this story before the end of the year.

You see what I mean about staying in school? It always twists you, in the end.

It must be because this is the time of year when I always had three papers, four lab reports, and two oral exams to complete, and things just don’t seem to be in their proper place unless I’m under that same kind of pressure today. I just can’t shake the feeling that the last day of December will be my last chance to get it right, to give my work one final proofread before I sprint across the green and slip it under the professor’s door.

It just feels like nothing should take longer than a semester to finish. And that everything that the Fall saw begun needs wrapping up before the Winter term can get under way.

Or maybe I just really need something to keep my head toasty warm when I sleep, and a stocking cap would be just the thing.

And I really just want to recreate that sweater that I left at some boy’s house in college, in the hope that he’d call and invite me over to pick it up.

And I’m only looking to conceal the pulse that is pounding beneath the skin of my wrists while I try to puzzle out who these flowers are from, and how in heaven’s name he discovered just what peonies mean to me, and what they can do to my otherwise implacable sense of propriety.

Or perhaps I am just obstinate. And I am willing to go to great lengths to see things out to the last, as I do every year, racing toward the final curtain in a fever of anticipation, knowing — hoping, at least — that it will all come out right in the end.

Which I’m sure it will. Aren’t you?

Kicking Back In The American Wing

I was up in Boston for a little shindig at my old school the other day, and I neglected to notice until it was too late that this particular little shindig would be finishing up right in the middle of rush hour. On a Friday afternoon.

I hate rush hour.

So I stood there on the front step of the main school building for a few minutes, hands on hips, idly gazing out across the mighty Fenway (not the ballpark, the parkland, which is really quite lovely, you should absolutely go for a stroll there someday) thinking muttery thoughts to myself about how very little I wanted to get in my car and sit in rush hour traffic for the next two hours.

Then the serenely glowing columns of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts caught my eye.

Immediately, I realized that:

  • The MFA is open late on Fridays
  • They opened up the new American Wing over a year ago
  • And I still hadn’t been to see it
  • Which can’t be right
  • And did I mention
  • The MFA is open late on Fridays
  • I did? Oh good.

Never one to shy away from putting two and two together, I set out at once across the fens to seek my fortune. Or at least, to avoid sitting in traffic for a while, and to see some damn fine 19th century art while I was at it.

It was, in a word, awesome.

Okay, to be honest, the first two floors were awesome. The third floor was all 20th century modern crap, and we all know that this is just not my bag. But the first two floors were just room after glorious room of gleaming and perfect 18th and 19th century American art, furniture, and textiles.

To which I can only say: Hells to the Yes.

Shall we?

We’re greeted at the entrance to the new wing by an extremely large and imposing equestrian portrait of a very old and dear friend to readers of this blog. And although I’m always happy to see him, I’ll admit that I was a little surprised to find him guarding the entrance to this particular exhibit.

Let’s see if you can guess who it was!

Here’s one little corner of the man’s epic-sized canvas, featuring two wee little soldiers, tooting their horns!

Tootle-oot!

Tootle oot
Another minuscule little bit of the same picture. Note the massive boot for scale:

Giant boot
Pull back to a more respectful distance, and you’ll see that yes, this is in fact a portrait of that noted  and hardy veteran of many a battle, the Prince Regent of Great Britain. Yeah. Heck of a war hero, Prinny was. Heck of a guy.

Okay, whatever. Always nice to see you, George. Don’t hurt yourself.

And for god’s sake, don’t hurt the poor horse.

Prinny

Once we move past the noble Prinny’s towering and undeniably Georgian presence, we can proceed through the double glass doors and into the warm, welcoming arms of the American Colonial era.

It’s very well done, really. You should go. They’ve mixed together portraits and furniture and household goods into these very prettily staged little assemblages, so that you can see all of the things in context with one another, as they might have been seen in their day. They’ve even slathered rich swaths of representative period wallpaper into most of the spaces, which I must say lends a very distinctive air to the proceedings.

The place was pretty deserted while I was there, thank god, so there was no one there to hear me gasp and shriek with glee when each of my old friends loomed up in front of me in all their glory.

It was like a high school reunion party of all my favorite hot-headed Bostonians!

John Hancock, looking spectacular as usual.

John Hancock

The extremely well traveled John Quincy Adams, looking very much his mother’s son:

His aged father John, of course, hovered not far away, looking like he still had a thing or two he wanted to set you straight on:

And of course everyone’s favorite matinee idol Virginia planter was there:

Thomas Jefferson

Do try to restrain yourselves, ladies.

But it wasn’t all a Revolutionary era sausage fest, I’m happy to report! Cape Cod’s very own Mercy Otis Warren was in attendance as well:

Mercy Otis Warren

Hi Mercy! You rock.

And I quite enjoyed this hand-painted print of the Boston Massacre. Lovely bit of propaganda. The very best.

Boston Massacre
Not to mention all the extremely fine young gentlemen who I had the pleasure of meeting for the very first time!

John Myers, looking resplendent in brown:

John Inman, showing off his very fine spectacles:

Washington Allston, in a rather sweet self portrait:

And you know, I missed this next gentleman’s name. I wasn’t even going to take his picture, at first. But every time I tried to walk away, something kept pulling me back. I just couldn’t leave without a keepsake. I mean, look at him!

IMG_2229

I am a complete sucker for a good miniature portrait, of course.

Miniatures

I wasn’t able to get any closer than this, much to my extreme vexation and annoyance, so when I got home I looked online for a better view.

Check it out — this first one is Washington Allston, too! I think I like his larger self portrait (above) much better. He looks very melancholy in this one. Like he’s been staying up too late, not getting enough to eat. Pining.

Oh! And did you know that Washington Allston was great friends with the fabulous Washington Irving? They met when they were both travelling in Italy as young men, and Irving was so taken with the young Allston that he even briefly considered giving up writing (he had already become rather famous as the creator of Diedrich Knickerbocker) and becoming a painter with Allston (even though he couldn’t paint and never had). Days after Irving met Allston, he was spinning out all these elaborate fantasies in his diary of how they would live together forever and paint and exhibit and be best buddy artist pals and live in a near-constant state of adorable bliss.

Seriously. You should read Irving’s diary sometime. Love that guy.

And this, of course, is the famous naval hero Commodore Perry, who I actually think might be some sort of relation of mine.

Well, I would, wouldn’t I?

There was only one dress, which was disappointing, but at least it was a good one. Henry Tilney would have been pleased to have seen such a fine display of muslin on hand, although I’m not sure I’m on board with pairing that gaudy necklace with such a maidenly frock. Seems a bit of a mismatch, don’t you think? I dunno.

Awesome dress

Sigh. Ah well, not everyone can have such an excellent understanding of muslin, can they?

And finally, I give you the latest addition to my growing collection of fine art featuring Kids Doing Weird Shit With Cats. In this case, dressing one up in a sad little gown and feeding it with a spoon.

Kid with cat

Seriously. Once you start noticing all of the kids and their cats that are littering the annals of art history, you realize they’re everywhere. If you want to see the beginnings of the collection, you can read through my post about Colonial Williamsburg. It’s a blast.

Oh, you remember that trip, it’s the one where I went around fondling everybody’s breeches. Or at the very least, unbuttoning them. Oh man. That was a great trip. I made so many friends.

Don’t you wish you went to museums with me? We could have so much fun together!

Where shall we go next?

Do you hear what I hear

Christmas lightsI decorated my very first Christmas tree last night.

Oh sure, we had Christmas trees growing up, every year. And yes, I always helped decorate them. But they weren’t my Christmas trees.

Then I grew older, went off to college, and lived in a dorm, where such things weren’t allowed. And then I went off to grad school, and lived in a crummy little apartment with a couple of pagan lesbians who refused to observe the holiday with The Co-opted Symbolism Of The Patriarchy.

And by the time I had become a Bona Fide Adult With Nobody Else To Push Me Around, I was too broke to buy one.

And so that happened. And it kept happening. For a really long time.

Then a couple of years ago, I finally got a decent job, I was married to someone who didn’t give a damn about the Co-opted Symbolism Of The Patriarchy, and I realized I was finally in a position to buy myself a goddamn Christmas tree.

I hesitated. I don’t know why. I didn’t buy one that first year. Or the next.

And then this year I did. And I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going about it all wrong.

Which brings us to yesterday, when I found myself buying a Christmas tree for the first time in about twenty years. Which was right about when the mournful little Greek chorus in my head woke up and started chanting.

I bought an artificial tree, and the voices sang out no, no, no, you’re doing it wrong, only a live tree will do.

I lugged my crated tree home in the car that doesn’t have a roof rack for a real tree, carted it inside my tiny house that doesn’t have space for a real tree, and let the cats — who would have chewed on a real tree and puked it up for all the fifty days of Christmas — start jumping on the bubble wrap that I pried from its fake, glistening branches.

No, no, awful horrible fake trees are so wrong.

I tucked the base into the little alcove that a real tree would never have fit into, rearranged the furniture, and pulled out the wrinkles in the rug.

No, no, simpleton, jerk — put it in the other window, put it in the side room, put it on the curb, you’re getting it all wrong.

The cats discovered and made a kingdom of the massive cardboard box on the floor, while I stuck Part A into Part B, and Part B into C.

No, no, all wrong all wrong.

I plugged in the lights; they went on like I’d invited the night sky into my tiny little house.

No don’t stop it wrong.

I took my little package of wire hangers and mated them with the sparkly silver ornaments I’d been secretly hoarding for weeks. Started hanging them up.

Started at the top when you should have begun at the bottom. Ruined it all because you hang the garlands up first. No. Wrong. Stop. Quit.

I stood back, raised my voice. Started saying shit out loud. I didn’t have any garlands, didn’t want them. I liked this tree. Liked my ornaments. I kept hanging them up in my own stupid way. Just kept hanging them up and waited for the chorus to fade away.

It backed off when I stared it down. It went off and sulked in the corner; slunk away and moped just out of view. It flew up into the eaves and conferred with the spiders.

The spiders, who have always been on my side.

Here is what I want to know.

How is it that I can write entire novels, 90,000 words of fiction at a crack, paying no heed to those damned voices except on the rare occasion they have something useful to say, but when I try to set up a simple Christmas tree the chanting is so loud that my pulse is pounding to the beat of their drums?

I have no childhood trauma bound up in the holidays. I love Christmas. I suffer from no seasonal blues. I enjoy a comfortable détente with the religion of my youth, and I yearn for the coming of winter like others long for spring.

But for some reason I’ve never had a Christmas tree until this year, more than twenty years after I left home as a kid.

I could blame all my housemates, I could blame years of poverty, I could blame any number of things. But none of that explains why the grey shouty thing in my head got up such a big head of steam the minute I got serious about buying a Christmas tree this year.

It’s a mystery to me, that is.

But it is one that I will contemplate, if I think about it at all, in the warm silvery glow of my first-ever Christmas tree, cats curled up warm on my lap, little white lights blinking in the dark like a thousand glad stars, like a million little answers, each of them a silent, laughing yes.