Friday, November 26, 2021

Ramona's Christmas List

     There are many Christmas stories and most people have a favorite one or few. Of course, there is the original Christmas story of the birth of baby Jesus. Then there are stories involving Santa Claus, or stories of families getting together, or a miracle in the spirit of Christmas, or the very strange stories that have nothing to do with Christmas except that it takes place during Christmastime. 

    My favorite Christmas story, besides the original one, is the book, Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary (spoiler alert!) Although it is not labeled as a Christmas story as such, it's a beautiful read, connecting the specialness of the holiday with combining touches of both the secular and religious. It's also a book about faith.

    Those familiar with books involving Ramona Quimby may recall how she started out as a side character in the book, Henry Huggins, as the two-year-old neighborhood pest. Later books showed the world through Ramona's eyes, fleshing her out as a real person with feelings the reader could relate to. Readers followed her though triumphs and tragedies such as standing up to a scary dog, the embarrassment of misunderstanding song lyrics, fearing that her teachers don't like her, and the proud satisfaction of personalizing how she printed the letter "Q." However, Ramona and Her Father takes on a new level of her experience of the world around her, as she realizes that there are things in the world that are out of her parent's control, and it can be a scary realization.  

    The story starts out in September and Ramona, aged seven and "making a joyful noise," as prompted by her Sunday School, is happily starting early on her Christmas list. When her father comes home, however, and the family learns that he had lost his job and money was going to be tight, Ramona's list suddenly seemed like a sad dream that could never happen. Hoping to make the list achievable, she crossed out the items she had happily wrote down just a little while before, and added One Happy Family at the bottom. 

    Ramona quickly learned that stress over money problems spilled over into everything else. Her family seemed moody and distracted. Even the family cat was resentful of the cheaper brand of cat food. 

    Ramona felt helpless against the grown-up problems that weighed her family down, yet being the only happy family member left, she believed that it was her responsibility to save them from despair. She looked for ways to make money herself, yet her attempts to get herself noticed enough for some talent agent to offer her an acting career had all turned out wrong by annoying her family, embarrassing her teacher, and having her own hair stuck full of burrs. Other ways that she tried to bring smiles to her family members had a tendency to backfire leaving her with fewer ideas on how to save them. 

    In early December, her Sunday school teacher started laying out plans for their annual Christmas Nativity. To Ramona's surprise, her older sister, Beezus, was given the role of the Virgin Mary. Suddenly filled with yearning to play a major role as well, and not just be a face blended in with the children's choir, Ramona spoke up to say that she wanted to be a sheep. Since sheep had not been a part of the pageant lineup before, there was no sheep costume, but her Sunday school teacher assured Ramona that she could be a sheep if she could get a costume. 

    Unfortunately, Ramona did not foresee the problem attached to asking her mother to make a sheep costume. Her mother, with her full time job, had no time to sew together a costume with material that they could not afford to buy. However, she did agree to try her best to get a costume together. Ramona's father, however, did not approve. Eavesdropping through the air vent, Ramona learned that he felt that giving in to her request would make her a spoiled brat. Hearing this made her feel that all her attempts to make her family happy were invalidated. 

    The next few weeks were tense for Ramona. Her mother indeed had very little time to get a costume together and it looked as if it would not be done in time for the Nativity. On top of that, Ramona was angry with her father about what he said about her behind her back, but she could not talk to him about it without admitting that she had eavesdropped. 

    Come the day of the Nativity, they were in the car, on their way to the church. Ramona's mother was happy that she had completed the costume, using an old terry-cloth bathrobe for a tail and headdress with ears, and faded pajamas for the body. Ramona's father was happy because he had been offered a job that would start after the New Year. Beezus was happy to play the role of Mary. 

    Ramona, however, was all happied out. Months of her family being unhappy had finally gotten to her. She was cross with the world and annoyed that her family was happy. She was especially upset that her costume consisted of pajamas that was printed all over with pink rabbits. They were very faded and hard to see, but Ramona could see them, and to her, the costume was ruined. She was a very grumpy sheep and tried to foul her family's mood by announcing that she would not be in the Nativity. Her mood did not improve when her family, rather than recoil in shock, blithely accepted her announcement.

    Upon reaching the church basement, where all the children were getting ready, a sad little sheep slipped unnoticed behind the Christmas tree, and felt very alone. She wanted to join the others, but in light of her announcement to her family, she did not want to admit defeat. She was even hoping that someone would see her and make her march upstairs and be a sheep but poor little Ramona was forgotten. She prayed to God to get her out of this mess. 

    Amidst the chaos of the basement Ramona noticed three older girls who started putting on outfits and using makeup to make themselves look very different. Intrigued by the makeup, Ramona moved to get a better look, and one of the girls spotted her. They coaxed her out, called her costume adorable, and tried to encourage her to be in the Nativity. Nobody seemed to even notice the pink rabbits. When Ramona asked what they were doing they explained that the boys who were supposed to play the part of the Three Wise Men backed out at the last minute so they were filling in as the Three Wise Persons. 

    Inspired by how the girls looked very different with their makeup, Ramona asked for some too, so that she could have a sheep's black nose. This way, she could be in the Nativity and her family wouldn't recognize her. When the girls helped her out, she happily ran upstairs to join the other children. 

    During the Nativity, Ramona was awed and mystified that her sister could look every bit as lovely and holy as the Virgin Mary appeared on Christmas cards, and was proud of her. Then, looking out at the congregation, she saw her parents looking at Beezus with pride. Ramona suddenly wanted them to be proud of her as well! She wanted to be a part of this happy family that she had spent months trying to preserve. Then she noticed that her father was looking at her, had recognized her through her makeup, and indicated that he every bit as proud of her as he was with her sister. 

    Ramona's edited Christmas list had indeed come true! She did indeed have a happy family!

    I am inspired by this Christmas story because it's very moving and real, with elements of the power of God, but without the forced in-your-face religion. 

    Ramona had faith that she could save her family from the very adult-world sadness. As we all know, faith does not mean that disappointments, embarrassments, and misunderstandings do not happen. Sometimes faith, especially when handling it alone, could be exhausting, as Ramona had experienced on the day of the Nativity. But faith does not go unrewarded. She just needed some encouragement to help her to do the right thing to complete her Christmas list. 

    One thing that she did right was that she prayed. It wasn't a wordy or a complicated prayer, and in the moment, it seemed that her little prayer in the church basement would be lost in the larger scheme of things. But was it?

    Why did the boys suddenly back out of being Wise Men, prompting the Sunday School teacher to find Wise Persons, who needed to put on costumes and change their looks at the last minute? Why couldn't the Sunday School teacher find three other boys willing to play the part, who wouldn't need that makeup which fascinated Ramona? Had that not happened, would Ramona have spent the entirety of the Nativity hiding behind the Christmas tree? Was this because she had prayed?

    Although the book is, for the most part, a non-religious story, I find it beautiful how the story wraps together inside a church, and that it was Ramona's faith that completed it. Although the book never specifically mentioned faith, Ramona's belief in God combined with the love for her family brings together for the reader a gentle example of acts of faith, making this a very sweet and tender Christmas story. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

I Love You Forever...

     Often times in our lives, we are faced with ambiguity, leaving us unsure where we stand with someone. Then, sometimes, it takes only a small gesture to displace the ambiguity forever. 

    Such was the case with my Aunt Mary Carol. She was a relative who was just kind of there for the taking or leaving. She did not impose herself nor was she standoffish. She just was. 

    I, too, just was. I was an unconventional child who never fit into any social group. Not that I never tried, of course. I just never fit into any conventional box. Because of this, I was under constant criticism, and my self esteem was in the dirt. 

    Sometimes, a relative or family friend would invite me to spend some time with them, only for me to realize (too late to escape) that they were not interested in actually spending time and getting to know me. It was only an opportunity for them to lecture to me on all the things I was doing "wrong" yet giving me no keys of advice on how to achieve "normalcy." Being a very trusting and lonely person I fell for this dehumanizing trap many many times. 

    In the summer of 1987, when I was 14, I was visiting relatives at the far end of the state from where I lived. My Aunt Mary Carol lived in the area, and showed up, wanting me to go to her place for the night. At the time, I never had much to do with her. Don't get me wrong, I liked her okay, there were simply some other relatives that I was closer to. I opted to go with her. This could be another trap but I was used to those. I thought those were normal. We got in her car.

    One thing about me that seemed to irritate some people was that my music traveled with me. I had my boom box (remember, this was the 80s!) and several cassettes that traveled with me. It was just one of my many "things" that just came with the full package. Quiet drives just didn't happen with me. 

    I figured that if this was going to be another "I love you but your problem is..." visit, we may as well get that part out of the way as soon as possible. Maybe if the lecture was done first she might want some real time with me afterwards. It was worth a shot. I loaded my weapon, the ammunition being Billy Idol's Whiplash Smile, and slipped the cassette in my boom box. I turned the volume knob up all the way.

    The song, Don't Need a Gun, began. It starts out abruptly, yet quietly, with an ominous feeling that steadily grows for about a minute. When suddenly, Billy screams:


    Aunt Mary Carol's eyes went BOING!!!

    I laughed and asked her mischievously, "A little loud for you?"

    At this point, most people would have started in with something to the effect of, "Actually, I've been wanting to talk to you about your failings..."

    Instead, she said simply, "No, I like it."

    I did not expect that. Not at all. What she said had a much deeper meaning than the simplicity of her words. She was not just saying that she liked Billy Idol music or liked that it was loud. What she said told me that she liked me. All of me. Even the parts of me that the conventional society does not accept. This was not a lecture trip. Aunt Mary Carol wanted me to be with her just because. 

    I spent two days with her. We talked, played cards, went for walks. Sometimes we talked, but she seemed to understand that I was not terribly chatty, and she made no attempt to "fix" that so we had quiet times as well. She made no attempt to fix anything about me, except for the places in me that were broken for real, such as the lonely parts that craved acceptance. She accepted me. She loved me. There was no ambiguity in her love. 

    Towards the end of 2013, cancer ravaged my dear aunt. I stayed with her for the last week and a half of her life. We spent hours talking and not talking. That had been our way for decades. As the illness took parts of her away from me, both in body and in mind, she kept making sure I was there, not leaving her. She loved and accepted me. All of me. She needed all of me with her. 

    The day before she died, the last bits of who she was were reduced to her speaking a repetitive chant of, "I love you forever. I love you forever. I love you forever..." When she became to weak to chant, she spoke no more in this world. 

    I miss her. Her love for me was always real. I knew this to be true since 1987, thanks to Billy Idol. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Five Years, What a Surprise

 Five years ago, Planet Earth lost its Starman. 

The world reeled with sadness and loss when news had come over that David Bowie had passed away. He was, is, and always be my favorite singer. Even now, his passing doesn't yet seem quite real to me. 

He was also the largest influence on the members of Duran Duran. Without him, my favorite band just would not be. Naturally, the Duran Duran band members feel the gravity of his loss. 

Five years after Bowie's passing, Bowie's longtime pianist, Mike Garson, produced a concert that included various artists playing Bowie songs as a tribute to celebrate Bowie's life. This included Duran Duran playing one of Bowie's earlier songs, Five Years. 

This was an interesting choice. It was shortly after his father had passed away that Bowie had a dream that his father told him he only had five years to live, which distressed him greatly at the time. Of course, Bowie lived several decades after that, but it was beautiful how that song was used five years after his actual passing to keep his memory alive. 

As a Duran Duran fan, this was a delight for me! It was very sweet and moving to see them reach far back into the roots of their music to give the song a gentle embrace in a way that is so... Duran Duran. It was also good to see them look good while doing it. This has been a crazy time with the whole COVID thing, and John Taylor was even sick from it last year, but they all looked radiant and healthy. It was wonderful, and a relief, to see them in action again! Plus, it has been five years sine their last single, which makes the cover of the song all the more welcome!

As a David Bowie fan, however, I felt a bit conflicted with how Duran Duran covered Five Years. 

The first reason is that there was a slight change in the lyrics. Subtle, but I felt that the modernized lyrics was untrue to Bowie's art. David Bowie did not modernize. He recreated. He did not adjust his art to fit the times. He made the times fit his art. 

The second reason is that Five Years feels watered down without the angst. Don't get me wrong, Simon LeBon sang it beautifully, and with apparent care. But when David Bowie recorded it, he threw all of his emotion into what he was doing to the point that he was very nearly uncontrollably crying and screaming towards the end of the song. It was reported that it took him a while to collect himself after they were done recording. The song covered in a controlled manner has left me a bit... underwhelmed. 

However, being both a David Bowie and Duran Duran fan, I am so very glad that this tribute happened.  It was a very moving experience to see Duran Duran collaborate with Mike Garson to help keep the spirit of Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Aladdin Sane, Jareth, Black Star, and all of Bowie's personas alive for us all!

Smiling and waving and looking so fine~ Five Years