Up on the Rooftop (Thinking Pause)

It’s cold out on this roof. My fingers poke out of tattered gloves, and I wiggle the fiddle curiously. How does one hold it? I think of performers I’ve seen, of hoe-down scenarios, and I snug the gleaming wood instrument under my chin. I drag the bow across the strings; awful, discordant sounds screech out.

I put down fiddle and bow, and I stare out at the silent night, at the velvet, star-studded sky. The street: so quiet. The neighbors’ spotted white cat darts behind the white pillared house across the street. Muted lights glow behind drawn shades and drapes pulled tightly shut. Way down on Linden Avenue, car tires thrum. A buried, throbbing, bass pulses from the college bar a half a mile away, way over in the industrial district. To the south, the Christmas lights on the courthouse flare up: first red, which dulls to rose, then pales to white, then flickers away. Then a blast of green shoots up, fading, fading…It’s replaced by a triumphant golden glow.

Cold, clear, peaceful, I think. And I eye the fiddle again.

Then, “What are you doing out here?” asks Mark. He leans halfway out the open window of the spare room, hands flat on the black-clad roof. He pauses, he ponders, and then he crawls out to join me. The roof here is flat and broad and rimmed with a little railing: no danger of sliding and falling. I sit with my back against the wall, legs straight in front of me, silent fiddle in my lap. Mark slides over to join me. He slips his hand over mine and we weave fingers. We sit, quietly together, looking out over our little world.

And then, again: “Why are you on the roof?” asks Jim, his head out the window. There’s a little pause, and, “Wait,” Jim says. His head disappears.

He reappears a minute later with two warm, silky duvets, which he throws out the window ahead of him. He butt-slides over next to his dad, and we pull the coverlets over us, glad of the warmth, contemplative in the quiet night.

I handle the fiddle to Mark, who shakes his head. He says, “Oh, no. Not me.”

“I’ll try,” says Jim; he positions the fiddle backwards on his extended legs. He presses a finger on the frets, and he draws the bow across the strings. There is a long, sweet, lingering note. It splits the night and fades away. We listen to it disappear, and then we are silent.

Finally, I say it. “Without tradition,” I intone solemnly, “our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!”

We’ve got the fiddle. We’re on the roof.

But we are, all three of us, feeling pretty firm.

**********************

My December Country Living magazine comes in the mail. It is my guilty pleasure, a full half hour of guaranteed enjoyment: a celebration of home and hearth and hearty foods. This month, there’s a white house on the cover, the kind of house built, maybe, in the 1880’s—sprawling, two-storied, pleasingly gabled. The red front door sports an evergreen wreath with a crimson bow. Evergreen garlands wrap around the wrap-around porch, and two regal collies step off that porch to greet the viewer.

A vintage turquoise pick-up truck, Christmas tree resting on a plaid blanket on its roof, waits in the drive. There is a story here, of family and festivity, of grand preparations and gleeful anticipation of a great day.

I page through the magazine, and the story continues. I visit homes decorated for the holidays—vintage homes with deer heads on walls and hand-hewn tables; homes where a happy young mother plates cookies in the kitchen. A table is set with warm plaid blankets as tablecloth; there are tartan plates nestled on white chargers and tangerines snugged into a pine-bough runner. The old white chandelier shines above an evergreen garland that drapes a broad hutch, and I feel that hushed moment when the house is cleaned and decked and shining—the moment before the guests arrive, crowding in with faces rosy from the cold, shedding coats one-sidedly, juggling their dishes to pass as their host tries helpfully to grab the shrugged-off outerwear.

I look at the vignette and picture the peaceful preparedness shattering into the warmth and bustle of welcome.

The guests will soon arrive, the wassail begin.

I flip through the rest of the glossy magazine, contemplate the recipes, and I think this publication takes our cultural expectations and puts them onto paper precisely. The family homestead. The groaning board. The shining faces gathered joyfully around the table.

That’s the holiday.

That’s the tradition.

**************************

“I looked up tradition,” Mina says, “and it is supposed to be something that is handed down or done over generations. But my mother calls and says, ‘You HAVE to be here. It’s tradition.’” Mina exhales and looks at her dear confidantes, Corey and Blake. They are all 34; they are old school friends, moms of children five years old or younger. Mina is an assistant principal. Corey is a nurse practitioner. Blake is a CPA. They are smart, savvy young professionals.

“My parents,” Mina continues, “have only been having Christmas at their house since Grandma and Grandpa bought the condo when I was 14. Twenty years! I told my mother that’s hardly long enough to be considered tradition.”

“So, what are you going to do?” asks Blake.

“I caved.” Mina sighs. “My sister called and whined about how it just wouldn’t be the same, and my dad came over to let me know he had the train set up and he reminded me how much Little Barry loved the trains and the tree lights last year…and I just said, Fine. We’ll be there.”

“Well,” says Corey. “we’re not. Laura is old enough to want to wake up in her own bed this year, and run downstairs to open her gifts. We’re having Christmas in our own home, and I’m cooking a roast, and anyone who wants to come can join us.”

“You rebel,” says Mina. “How many people are coming so far?”

“I don’t know,” says Corey. “No one’s talking to me. Although my brother did call to thank me for ruining Christmas before he informed me we weren’t on speaking terms and hung up. Jeff’s parents will be there, though.” Corey crumbles her roll onto its little plate and turns to Blake. “What about you guys? What are you doing?”

Blake looks a little abashed. “Well, I’m incredibly lucky, I guess,” she says. “This summer, the whole family was at the beach, and my mother got us all together and suggested we figure out a way to celebrate together that didn’t make everyone crazy. So we decided we’d have the Burke family Christmas on Epiphany this year. The 6th is on a weekend, and it will ease up on that after-holiday letdown for the kids.” She looks at her friends almost apologetically. “We’ll go to Matt’s parents on Christmas Eve and then be at home on Christmas Day. My sister and her kids will probably come over that night.”

There is a little silence, and Mina and Corey look at her with a little unbelief and a little jealousy.

Finally, “That’s so cool,” says Mina. “I wish my mother could see that the tradition is about the being together and not so much about a command appearance on a certain day.”

**********************

Curious, I look up ‘tradition.’ Mina is right: the definition tells me it is a custom or belief handed down through generations. So it has to be pretty darned old, generations old, that custom, to properly wear the mantle of tradition.

So the claim that ‘You HAVE to be home! It’s our tradition!” is, really, a false one.

Because once those grandparents were young parents too, dragging their cranky children to one set of in-laws or the other, eating Edna’s dried out turkey when they’d rather be home with a tasty pan of lasagna and the promise of a family board game after dinner. But they did it—they sucked it up until the grandparents couldn’t host any more—until they moved into assisted living, or moved, tragically, into the green fields of a memorial park.

And then, “Our turn,” those parents sighed contentedly, and gloried in the kids around their own table, the food their own family favorites; they welcomed the grandparents well enough to join them, the kids’ friends with no special place to be. They welcomed the significant others as the kids grew into young adults.

They grew solid in their expectation that Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless every kid was home. Twenty years passed, and it began to seem like they’d celebrated this way forever. Like this celebration was tradition.

But it isn’t really—it’s just the way they’ve done things for a couple of decades, and a year dawns when a different kind of celebration is in order.

Expectation: not tradition.

And unrealistic expectations can overload and sink a holiday.

************************

Jim is typing furiously. When he pauses to take a breath, fingers suspended above his keyboard, I ask him what he’s working on.

“A reading list,” he says. “Want to see? First, I want to finish It.” Stephen King’s thick tome sits next to Jim’s computer; the bookmark reveals he has only about an eighth of the book to go. Jim wants to read it through before seeing the movie, which people have told him is not bad, although, of necessity, it leaves out some parts of the dense and intricate book.

Then he wants to read The Wheel of Time series in its entirety; he has read the first four books, but now he wants to start, again, at the beginning, and follow Robert Jordan’s long saga until the very end of the very last book. Then, on to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and more.

It’s an ambitious list, and it does my aging English instructor’s heart good. It validates what we plan to do for the holiday this year, too, adopting an Icelandic custom on Christmas Eve. We’re going to grill steaks, and then snuggle into new flannels and light the fire in the fireplace, and we are going to crack open our new books. We’ll read, cozy in the fireplace glow, the tree lights twinkling, too, and we’ll dip into chocolates,—chocolates from our favorite local chocolatier.

My inner bossy teacher surfaced this November, and I gave each of the boyos a ‘Christmas Wish List’ form to fill out. It asked what books they wanted, and what kind of chocolates. It asked if they wanted any special gift cards, and then there was a category for ‘other.’ The boyos took the lists to separate corners, and thoughtfully filled them out. Their book lists were fairly long; on the ‘other’ list, both Mark and Jim listed only one simple, inexpensive thing.

Isn’t that funny? I thought to myself, and I wondered if we finally have circled around and settled on the kind of Christmas the three of us truly enjoy—with home and family and the permission to slip down into a chocolate-fueled reading binge part of a bona fide tradition from another culture. And with the creaky, crabby old dog safe in her own home, gnawing placidly on her rawhide candy cane, and not anxiously pacing a roomy kennel cage while her people are away.

Which is not to say that we don’t value the gathering with family and friends—gatherings we will try to do at different times and in other venues, preceding the holiday, stretching the holiday, maybe meeting at a restaurant with a broad hearth and blazing fire, and where no tired mama has to put together a meal and then, exhausted, clean up after it, too.

It seems to me that tradition guides the belief and the value: and we believe that the holidays give us a chance to connect with those we cherish. We would not honor the tradition if we didn’t make the connections, but we don’t have to do it the same way each and every year.

Instead we need to search inside and discern: what are our values? What do we want?

And we need to deal too, with the reality each of us brings to the table—that the autistic personality, for instance, does not do well with intense anticipation, or uncertain travel plans (“Where did you say we are staying???”) or the bustle of gatherings that flow and build with jokes and undercurrents and the puzzle and the mystery of family dynamics. Or that the dog is 14 years old, at least—her birth year uncertain—and that we might well be leaving the white-muzzled beast in a cold, lonely kennel for her very last holiday. Dogs do not care about Christmas, we remind ourselves, but there are dissenting voices arguing in both our heads.

And we love to read, to indulge ourselves with really good chocolate, and to enjoy the comfort and the glow of a warm, clean, cozy home. This Christmas plan, this year, and this place—well, it all seems very right.

But it’s not a tradition—it’s a practice: it showcases how much we value reading, and how much we value home and hearth. (And—all right—how much we value chocolate.) Next year, we may do something completely different—the Yule Book Flood just a practice that fit this year’s needs and circumstances like a warm and cozy hand-knit mitten.

(Whatever next year brings, though, I’m pretty sure there will be books and chocolate involved.)

************

So maybe—maybe—tradition is about the transmission, from generation to generation, of deeply held values, important beliefs? And maybe each of us has to measure that against our awareness of who we are and how we operate within our unique worlds.

So, say, giving is a tradition—a value passed down—caring for others who are in need. Maybe, for many years in our family of birth, people got together and assembled shoe boxes full of goodies to send overseas to children who, compared to our kids, had ridiculously little. And maybe, for whatever reason, we’ve decided that’s not the most effective way to give.

We could change the practice. We could knit warm hats for preemies, or order books for children who have none. We could ring a bell outside a supermarket or serve up a hot, sustaining meal at a soup kitchen. We could write a check to support a cause that touches our hearts. We could visit a lonely elder in assisted living whose family and friends are long, long gone.

There are many ways of giving, and some will bring us joy while others lard our bellies with dread. But if everyone found their own special way, wouldn’t the season be bright?

It’s not the practice that’s tradition—it’s the belief that undergirds it. And Christmas, I’ve been taught, is a time to give. I need to take that concept, and I need to make it mine.

**************

My feet, I realize: I can’t feel my feet. They are poking out of the silky duvet. Encased in silly canvas ballet slippers, they are numbed by the frigid air.

“What time IS it?” I ask the boyos, and at that moment, away in the distance, the light show stops and the no-longer-illuminated spire of the courthouse disappears into black night. We sigh and shift and scrunch up the puffy blankets. We lift up the spare room window, the window we’ve left open just a crack—so the house stays warm, and so we can climb back into it.  We shove the blankets through and crawl in after them. Mark draws the window down and latches it securely.

The dog is dancing nervously at the foot of the stairs, her “Where were you?” and “I have to pee!” combination dance. We hurry down to tend to her concerns.

And Jim takes the old fiddle and tucks it away into the worn black leather case. He shoves it back onto the top shelf of the hall closet, and we bustle about to ready the house for the end of the day—coffee set up, dishes away, the table cleared and ready for morning.

There is much to do tomorrow—cleaning and shopping and packages to mail, a birthday surprise for a December sweetheart, trips to libraries, deadlines to meet, and the prep for a long-overdue repainting of the dining room. Tomorrow brings plastering and road trips, the roaring hum of the vacuum, meal-making decisions, and intense computer time.

But all of that is lit by the little spark of joy—a holiday approaches, a special time of celebration. We will meet it with tradition, with the beliefs we have examined to agree: these are things we value.

And we’ll shape our practice to those beliefs, and we’ll gather in the people we love so well.

Someone may coax sweet notes from a fiddle; someone may even make it sing, and toes may tap and arms reach out and the dancing may commence. Feet may pound and music thrum, but the floor, on its strong foundation, will hold firm. Not shaky. Not shaky at all.

We move into the holiday season, illuminated by our authentic knowledge; we move ahead, to celebrate tradition.

*************

Here, by the way, is one post about Iceland’s bookish holiday tradition: http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/

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Four Visits

I hear her high heels tapping down the polished hallway.  She had an intermediary call me to ask if I knew of any people in need; I mentioned a longtime colleague, retired and alone now, with some serious health problems.  There was, the intermediary said, someone who wanted to help a person just like that this Christmas.  That someone would stop by with an envelope, and she would be grateful if I would just address and mail it.

It was an easy task to agree to do.

I am thinking this must be a seasoned benefactor…someone comfortably settled, perhaps with children established and in no need of mama’s money.  But the heels belong to a young person who is far from rich. She is, though, smart, clever, and thoroughly professional; she and her husband came unexpectedly into a tidy sum, and they decided to split it. Half goes to someone he found who is in need, the other half to someone she identifies: that’s their Christmas gift to each other.

She hands me a thick envelope with a name etched on it; her joy at perpetrating this unacknowledged act of giving is boundless.  She swears me to secrecy, wishes me a merry Christmas, and taps away.

I address and stamp the envelope and slide it into the mailbox across the street.

********

Ducking her head, eyes hidden beneath a long bang, she hands out hand-folded boxes to each of the board members.  Open them! she urges. We do, and are amazed at the painted ornaments–with snow-covered pine trees, fat red cardinals perched on snow-dusted branches, beaming Santas and frolicking snowmen, rigid nutcrackers and graceful ballerinas, gracing their tender, curved glass sides.

We gasp; they are exquisite.  She laughs delightedly.  She grasps her hands and bobs a bow.  She is so proud.

She is a recovering addict become an artist, someone who wanted to say thank you to the board that okays the funds that support the program she first went through and now works for.  She teaches others, now, to paint; she donates paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds for the program.  She has worked through a long, bad tunnel, and she has emerged into the light.

Beet-red, triumphant, she slides out of the conference room, waving a merry Christmas to all.

**********

We gather around the table–eight old friends missing two more who are at a different gathering that day,–two who are mourning a loved one lost too soon.  The candles glow, Keith invokes a warm and personal grace, and we tuck into herbed rolled pork, potato pancakes and applesauce, crusty homemade bread, a savory slaw, and Larry-made pies.  It is a meal as delicious and unique as the home in which we gather.

The long table sits on polished concrete floors; whitewashed beams gleam high above us.  This was once a gas station; it now is Kay and Brian’s home, with a sleeping space defined by walls cleverly constructed of three-deep packing pallets strung with twinkle lights. The kitchen is a tiny marvel of high-tech efficiency, the bathroom small and snug and wonderful.

Kay has her studio; her paintings enliven the walls of the whole space–new paintings, larger, growing evermore strong and bold, like her amazing and constantly maturing talent. Brian has his work-space.  Together, they have stories to tell of mishaps and triumphs, but it has been worth the trek: their vision of this extraordinary home-space is realized.

Kay and Brain live at a midpoint; after that wonderful meal and a chance to really visit, we reluctantly move outside.  No parking problems in a former service station: we linger by the cars. We listen to the gentle burble of the fountain Brian constructed, and which is, in this oddly warm winter, unhindered by ice.  Finally, with hugs and plans to meet again in 2016, with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” we climb in our cars and pull out, headed north, south, and west, into the darkness, strengthened by the rekindling of that friendly warmth.

**********

Jeff is the counselor who organized and oversaw a wonderful program Jim took part in several years ago.  Jeff keeps everyone connected with email updates and invitations to reunions and notices about who’s graduated, who’s gotten a job, and who might need a little support.  This week he emails that a young man from the program is alone this Christmas.  He wonders if anyone would like to spend an hour or two helping the boy celebrate.

I mention it to Mark and Jim, and both of them, without hesitation, say, “Of course.”  Tight-throated and misty, I email Jeff to confirm.

We pack up cookies, write out a card, grab a game, and bundle into Mark’s car for the ride to the city at 11:30 or so on Christmas day.  We arrive at the boy’s house just a shade early; he is standing out front, tall, bearded, and gangly limbed–sort of Abe-Lincoln-y–yelling into a cell phone.  We park and approach and he looks at us, a little frightened, and yells into the phone that he has to go, there are PEOPLE here!

Jeff pulls up at that moment and we usher into a small, tidy apartment, with sparse furniture, white walls, and hardwood floors.  There is a little fabric tree; there is one present underneath it.  Jeff, Mark, and Jim lug in folding chairs.  Our host pulls chicken nuggets and french fries from the freezer; we locate one baking sheet and make chicken and potatoes share.  Jeff produces a veggie lasagna; he figures out the intricacies of the oven.

People start to pile in, three more families with kids from the program.  The table groans with drinks and cookies and fudge and a frosted cake–turns out, it’s not just Christmas: our young host has a birthday today, too. A pile of presents grows beneath the tree. The kids talk about Star Wars and superheroes and debate DC versus Marvel; a young artist passes around her cell phone to share her truly incredible artwork.  A young guitarist shows us his band’s professional calling card.  The food is hot; people grab plates,and our host sits in the place of honor, munching and beaming.

This was a group of strangers for mere moments.  Now we pass presents to the birthday guy; we take pictures; we cheer and exclaim.  Excited, he runs upstairs to change into a brand new shirt and, when he emerges, he gets a round of applause.  We eat cake and those frozen ice cream cones with the tops dipped in chocolate and nuts.  Jeff tries to get some singing going, but the attempt crashes and burns amid laughter and groans.

In the kitchen, gathering up, Mark and I talk with a young man (call him Matt) who’s a staff member, someone who works shifts in this little apartment so the birthday guy can successfully live on his own.  Matt tells us he’s actually off-shift, but he couldn’t stand the thought that our guy would be alone on the holiday–on his BIRTHDAY.  Jeff, Matt says, is amazing; this was probably one of the best Christmas-birthdays his young charge has ever had.

Jim shakes a lot of hands; the young people trade info; they promise to write and email and keep in touch.  We all take information about a zoo-lights expedition coming up the day after New Year’s. We part with hugs and laughter and hopes to see each other soon.  The ride home takes less than an hour; in 90 minutes, the oven is heated and the rib roast is scenting the house. The roads were great, the trip was no big deal–but the gathering was pretty major for a young guy who expected only to be alone.

***********
Such gifts this holiday season: of generosity, of artistry, of creation, of gathering and goodness.  Dark falls shortly after we arrive home, but it’s no threat. There is light.  In this season of darkness, I know there is light, there is warmth, and there is great, great hope.

No Place Like Home for the Owlidays

 Owls 1

The Greathorne twins, Olivia and Owena, hatched on a beautiful May morning and looked right into the luminous eyes of their loving mother.  A hop or two back on the branch was their proud Papa.

The loving parents gave their owlets some time to adjust to bright moonlight and spreading out space.  When the girls had stretched and blinked and settled into calm curiosity about their new surroundings, their parents hopped softly toward them.

“We call thee Olivia,” said Mama, tapping gently on Olivia’s still damp head. Papa dropped a shred of fresh meat into Olivia’s beak.

“We call thee Owena,” said Mama, tapping her other daughter’s pate.  Owena had her maw open for the food before Papa even had a chance to hop her way.

That was the last time Owena was ever second behind Olivia.  From the very first, the girls’ personalities shone through.

Owena was the explorer.  Even on that first hatching day, she was angling to fly, watching Papa as he soared away in search of food. She would plant her little talons on the rough bark of the branch, and she’d imitate his arking and swaying.  When Papa returned with his catch, she would first eat ravenously, then watch as Mama flew off.  Owena would strain forward as Mama did, twisting her head this way and that, her sharp eyes searching for things that skitter in the tall waving grass.

Olivia was quite different.  She was content to stay closer to the nest.  She listened.  She imitated what she heard, and soon her raw croaks became melodious croons.  Olivia, it was clear, was musically gifted.

The twins, different as they were, loved each other dearly.  At dawn they would huddle together and talk just before they slept.  Olivia dreamed of conducting an owl orchestral chorus. She would teach Owena little tunes and they would harmonize together.  Although Olivia had the much stronger, truer voice, when they sang together, the harmony was very, very pleasing.

Owena dreamed of faraway places.  She would make up stories of wonders she would see and share them with her sister.  Olivia’s eyes would shine with excitement–until they suddenly dropped into sleep.

Mama and Papa were deeply pleased with both their girls, and they encouraged their different interests.  Before long, both Owena and Olivia had learned to fly.  Owena, of course, flew first, after several careless tumbles and premature attempts.  The urge to go just pushed her, and one morning, from her imitating Papa stance, she suddenly lifted up and soared. Mama and Olivia shouted in amazement.

Papa heard the joyous cries of his family, and he circled back. Sweeping around his adventurous daughter, he led her out on her first flight.  He’d intended to be cautious and stay close to home, but Owena’s urge to explore gave her great strength.  They left Mama and Olivia cheering them on far behind.  It was the first of many exploratory flights Olivia took with her father.  She quickly picked up hunting skills and was soon bringing delectable tidbits back for the family’s dinner.

Olivia faithfully followed Owena’s lead, and with her sister’s hearty encouragement, became a sturdy flier.  But she never had Owena’s panache; her flying was strictly for the purpose of getting from here to there, and her hunting to make a meal.  Owena’s flight was beautiful–and sometimes nerve-wracking–to watch.  Her hunting dive was deadly and swift.

“Now that you’re flying,” said Mama one morning, “it’s time for the next level of learning.  Girls, you’re going to school today!”

Olivia and Owena preened in excitement and, after breakfast, Papa flew them over to Mrs. Knowle’s Tree of Knowledge.  There were eight or nine other little owls just about their age assembled there.  And there was Mrs. Knowle, puffed up and frightening, sternly waiting for them.

“She was MY teacher when I was an owlet,” Papa whispered.  “Scared the scat out of me, but I learned a lot.”

The girls shared a glance, and they made sure they had spaces close together on the branch campus.

Owena soon realized she hated school.  Olivia didn’t mind sitting still and learning, and Mrs. Knowle often pointed that out.  Owena, on the other talon, always intended to listen.  But, as Mrs. Knowle droned on, she would find her eyes flickering from side to side, and soon she’d be staring at a spot far away where she could see the little rippling trail of something moving through the meadow.  Without her awareness, her wings would spread, and the next thing she knew, she’d be airborne.

Olivia would trill to her quietly, but Mrs. Knowle always caught her.  The teacher would whip her head around and glare until Owena came sheepishly back, lighting softly on the branch and cooing apologies.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Old Lady Knowle would demand, and Owena would hang her head.

“It’s true,” she would think.  “Olivia is so good.  I’m a bad owlet, and I can’t seem to change.”

Owena grew to dread going to school.  She talked her mother into letting her stay home sick one day. but that was almost worse.  Mama was so concerned, she made Owena stay tucked under her wing until Olivia finally came home.  All Owena wanted was to soar.  She didn’t want to be bored at school.  She didn’t want to be stuck under her mother’s wing.

She wanted to fly.

Things finally came to a head at school.  Owena had just returned from another involuntary flight and Old Knowle, all puffed up with indignation, was waiting for her. She’d dismissed the rest of the school, although Owena saw Olivia waiting for her, hidden on a branch of a nearby tree.

“Well, Missy,” sneered the teacher, “enough is enough. It’s time you learned to stay still.  After dinner, I am going to your parents and I am going to demand that you be grounded.

“Grounded!” gasped Owena. “Errr…what exactly does that mean?”

“It means,” snapped the teacher, “that you will not be allowed to fly until you have learned to perch!”

“Not allowed—” breathed Owena.  “For how long?”

“For as long as I decide!  But at least two weeks.”

Owena tried to imagine that.  She remembered the awful frozen feeling of staying home sick that one day, stuck under Mama’s wing.  She thought of all the times she flew without even realizing she had lifted into the air.

She knew, without trying to be defiant or ornery, that she could not be flightless for a day, much less two weeks.

“I’m very sorry,” said Owena to Mrs. Knowle politely. “But I cannot be grounded.”

The teacher begin to warble angrily, eyes bulging, head twisting, but Owena did not stay to listen.  She lifted gracefully off the branch and flew to where Olivia hid.  Olivia had heard the whole exchange, and her golden eyes were wet.

“I know,” she whispered to Owena, “that you have to go.”

“Tell Mama and Papa that I love them!” said Owena.  “I love you, too.”  And she was flying, soaring away on an updraft, leaving Olivia sadly watching and the teacher  wildly ranting.

Owena flew until she left her anger behind, and then she opened her eyes and watched the world unfold. She flew out of the homely woods to the end of the familiar meadow.  She flew over rivers that shone silver gray in the moonglow.  She flew over lakes in which she saw fish swimming away from her moonlit shadow.  The first day, she slept in a strange pine tree, startling at noises she wasn’t used to, but in the evening, the urge to go further erased the daytime fears.

Owena flew and and she flew and she flew.

She met all kinds of owls–who knew there were so many? She ate exotic foods.  She explored bare rockfaces of rugged mountains, and she enjoyed little respites in cozy, protected valleys.  She saw settlements of people, those odd beings who build huge dwellings for themselves and for their animal friends.  She met new owl friends who lived in the animal dwellings, structures they called barns.

She learned to fly against the wind; she learned to navigate in the rain.  She was propelled by the overwhelming need to explore further and to know more about the wide world she lived in.  On and on she went.

The weather changed.  She noticed the leaves changing color.  She noticed how they fell to the ground after a time; then, Owena only felt protected in the still-green pines when she stopped to sleep for the day.  She felt the wind grow colder; she noticed the extra layer of fluffy feathers she sprouted to ward off the chill.

And Owena began, for the first time since she left the branch campus, to slow down. She slowed down, and she began to think of her Mama and Papa, and especially she thought of Olivia.  She wondered what kind of music Olivia was making these days.  She wondered if Mama and Papa were very, very angry and disappointed with their fly-away daughter.

For the next few days, she pushed herself to move ahead, but it grew harder and harder, and finally, one evening, she arced a new course toward home.

She noticed changes as she flew, unswerving as an arrow, to the place of her birth…a hard skin on the surface of the lake, fewer little critters dancing about to be eaten.  Things, it seemed, were burrowing into those cozy drifts of fallen leaves.

Owena experienced, for the first time, snow. It was beautiful, and she learned it could be deadly, changing the look and smell of the once-familiar world.  She thanked her stars for the homing instinct that seemed to be built in, a sense right behind her eyes, and she let that instinct lead her.

It led her home, on a clear and moonlit night, home to the tree where her life began.  And before she could even see that tree, she heard a beautiful song.

It was Olivia, and she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a flight Christmas…”

Owena let the song float her down to the branch, where there was tremendous excitement.  Oh, they were all so happy to see her, Mama and Papa and her sister.  They demanded to know where she had been and what she had seen. They plied her with questions and delicious shredded meat, and they listened, bright-eyed and joyful, to her tales of discovery and adventure. Olivia beamed at her with the utmost admiration.

Finally Owena wound down, and she leaned back and looked at her parents, and she sighed with contentment and relief.  “I was so afraid,” she said, “that you’d be so angry you would never forgive me for flying away.”

Her parents looked at her lovingly.

“Come see this,” said her mother, and they hopped around the trunk of the tree to a glittering scene.  Papa had bent down one branch of the evergreen so that it was vertical. From it hung strands of silver–silver strands captured and shredded from the careless litter of humans–that caught the moonlight and glittered.  There were dried seed pods hanging from the branch, and, “See this?” asked Mama, proudly.

Owena gasped.  It was a big pine cone, decorated with leaves and nuts so cleverly that it looked just like a young owl–just, in fact, like Owena.  And there was another, very similar, but clearly Olivia, a little farther on.

“How….” started Owena, not even knowing what to ask.

“Ah,” said her mother softly.  “You never knew your father was an artist.”

Her father ducked and turned his head shyly, and then swiveled it back to say, “Nor did you know this about your Mama: she is a poet.  Say your lovely words for her, darling.”

Mama hopped to a spot near Owena, cleared her throat, and spoke.

“One of my girls must sing her songs.
The other one must roam.
Owena has to spread her wings.
Olivia sings her home.
You  are destined to follow your yearning:
To be whom you’re meant to be.
But at Christmastime, you’ll always know
Your heart is in this tree, my dear.
Your heart is in this tree.”

“What is this ‘Christmas’?” Owena asked in wonder.

“Oh,” said Papa, “it’s a wonder-filled, magical time, when we celebrate the Son of Man, who broke through all the veils that separate us.”

The moon shone in a velvety sky; stars twinkled, and the world, for just a moment, was as still as eternity.

Owena whispered, “Wherever I am, I will always know to turn around and come back to the tree when the Christmas season beckons.”

Mama said, “Your sister knew.  She never had any doubt; she told us you’d come back. In fact she wrote a song for your return.”

Her parents opened their wings and she hopped into their embrace.  Below and behind them rose Olivia’s clear true voice:

“Owl, be home for Christmas…”

******************
Owena flew, in her lifetime, thousands of miles.  She saw the most wonderful sights and met the most amazing creatures.  But when the wind blew cold and the warm underlayer started lining her feathers, she always turned around and kept her vow.  This owl, she had promised, WILL be home for Christmas.

And she always, always was.

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Merry Christmas to the grandest of kids:  Alyssa and Kaelyn, Alex, Brennen, Gabrielle, Kirsten, Maddie, Mia, Patrick, Quincie, Ronan, and Ryan.