Thursday, December 24, 2015

In the meadow, we can build a mudman...

Christmas on the Amazon was challenging.  Part of the difficulty is the distance from family.  Some of it is the oppressive heat and humidity (hard to sing carols about sleigh bells when it is 96 degrees and 100% humidity).  Some of it was that there was no playing of carols in every store, car, and mall - mostly because there was no car.  Or mall.  Or shops. 

And some of it was the lack of trappings - no evergreens, no decorations, no fake snow, no smell of pumpkin spiced latte wafting from the cups of yoga moms...

A few of the problems we anticipated.  We knew there was no way to buy presents (7 hours from the nearest city makes it a daunting prospect to leave for a shopping jaunt) and that we would have to make do as best we could.  I once caught my mom buying something at the store a month before Christmas on one of our once-every-six-month trips into the city.

But what probably surprised us most was the fact that as kids, we simply didn’t know what we wanted.  With no TV or newspapers, and radio only once a day, the idea of the “must-have” toy simply did not exist. 

Another thing we did not expect was that making the Christmas tree thing happen would be so difficult.

The Amazon rainforest is a deciduous forest.  It is ever-green, but only because the trees all drop their leaves at different times during the year.  There are no conifers anywhere.  But we have to decorate a Christmas tree!  We didn’t buy a plastic one – it seemed wrong, somehow, and there was no other option. 

Plastic Christmas trees on the Amazon were a big deal.  The gaudier, the better, of course, but the price was prohibitive for most families.  Essentially, a fake tree cost more than 2 months’ salary, and only the really wealthy could afford to survive that long without literally putting the money where their mouths are.  A family that owned a fake Christmas tree would display it very prominently.  And not just at Christmas – this type of decoration should be displayed all of the time.

But we didn't have one, and were left with the dilemma of not having a tree, and not having ornaments, and having a hard time conjuring up a Christmas Spirit.  So we improvised.  The açaí tree (yes, that açaí) was a palm tree that had many uses.  The berries were harvested, then the skins of the berries pressed through several layers of mesh basketry to produce a drink that the Brasilians loved.  We thought it tasted remarkably like rotted sawdust in water.  Foul stuff, açaí– and it has inexplicably hit the American market.  People are crazy over it.  No accounting for taste…
The tree also has an area near the top that provides a variety of the “palmito” – palm hearts  - that we love.  I chopped down one tree, and ate the stringiest, toughest heart of palm I had ever tried.

That first Christmas we were in Brasil, we introduced a new use for the açaí – the açaí as Christmas tree.  Palm leaves branching out gracefully from the trunk, perfect place to hang ornaments… Ornaments!  Gotta make ornaments! 

Mom came up with a recipe for some dough ornaments, some that we could bake hard and shellac and hang on the tree.  So I went out to the edge of the jungle to find a small açaí (they grow to be about 30 feet tall) and came back with one that was perfect.  Mom was finishing up the ornaments – dough cut out to make trees, candy canes, sleighs, and Christmas balls.  They had been baked rock-hard and shellacked, and were glistening, just waiting to be put on the tree.  We hung them with care, and sang some carols. And felt homesick.

The next morning, when we woke up, the tree was completely brown and drooped.  The ornaments had melted in the 100% humidity and were lying in small shellac-encrusted piles on the floor.  The morning was spent cleaning up, scraping up the goo, and carrying out the residues of the previous day. 

And then we re-created the scene.  We baked the dough harder, longer, got a better açaí tree and put it in water again.  Sang some carols.  Went to bed. 
For a synopsis of the next day, re-read the previous paragraph.

After four days of not learning from our mistakes, we even immortalized the moment in song: 

Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us
            They were so green for one day
            But now they’re brown, and brown to stay
Oh, açaí , oh, açaí
Your branches brown delight us

Not exactly tannenbaum, but it had to do.

So this Christmas, when the temperatures in New Orleans are expected to push against the 80-degree mark, I am finding myself thinking fondly back to a time when we made our own carols, made our own ornaments, and even cut down our own tree.... over and over again.   
And humming a few bars of another tune:
Fog horns blow, are ya listnin'?
In the rain, mud is glistnin'
a beautiful sight, we're havin' tonight
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland
...In the meadow we can build a mudman
and pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say 'Are you married,' we'll say, 'No, Man...'
'But you can do the job while you're in town'
Later on, we'll get together
as we huddle under the umbrella
to face unafraid, the plans that we've made
Sloshin' in a muddy wonderland.

In the memory of that long ago Christmas, I wish you and yours a safe and joyful, if muddy, Christmas season, filled with the love of family and friends, and all of the joy of the season.. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Stairs and Snow

The year was 1974.  I was in kindergarten, and my teacher had her hands full with me.  I was reading books.  I was counting by 1s, 2s, 5s, 10, 20s, 25s, and was working on my 3s.  I was able to do simple math, and my vocabulary was out of sight. 
And then we’d get to coloring time.
Coloring and drawing were things that I HAD to do.  Mrs. Periwinkle made that clear.  But there was no way that they could get me to LIKE doing it. She did her best, but I was the most unenthusiastic artist she had run across.  I would do anything that would get me out of doing another art project.
I was reminded of this recently, when I went to get a gift for my wife.  So apparently, there has been a recent surfeit of adult coloring books on the market.  Mandalas, I think they call them, and they are made of beautiful, intricate designs with incredible potential for hours spent in frustration and self loathing. 
Lots of chances to make mistakes.  For people without Adult Hyperactivity Attention-to-Detail Deficit Something-or-another, I am told that these coloring books provide a wonderful tool for relaxing.
<Rolls eyes.>
My sister even sent me an article that talks about how important it is to re-visit some of the things that you did as a kid – things that made you happy, and that at some point, you realized that you weren’t good enough at them to do them for a job, so you left them behind.  Drawing and coloring were the two things that the article pointed to.  Do them for yourself, the article said.  Not for anyone else.  And reconnect to that joy.
I picked up one of those books for my wife.  And when I opened it up, I reconnected all right. Reconnected directly to the horror  - the abject terror - of having so many mistakes just waiting to be made.  Opportunities to do something I hate, and to be made to feel guilty for not loving it.
Yep. THAT reconnected me to kindergarten, all right.
My trick in 1974 was to draw snow.  You know, snow.
Here.  Let me demonstrate.
And just like that, I was done with my time 'drawing', and could get back to what I loved.  Reading. 
After a couple of weeks of that, the teacher called me out.  "Crorey, you can’t just draw snow, making it exactly the same as what you did yesterday."
I thought about it for a bit.  And came to my solution.  I changed from black snow to blue.  It was different, at least.
Weeks of this went on, with me outsmarting my teacher at every turn. Black became blue became red became yellow.  After the pink snow phase, she finally she sat me down, and said, "Crorey, dear, you HAVE to do something else."
“But I don’t LIKE drawing.  I don’t want to spend any more time doing it than I have to.”
So she taught me a new skill.  She showed me how to draw stairs (maybe it was Mom who showed me.  Not sure).  Five minutes later, I had made a quantum leap in my drawing skills.
A month later, however, I had exhausted all of the colors that I could draw stairs. 
My exasperated teacher finally gave up after one more shot at getting me to engage the natural artist in my soul.  Because the request came that I not limit myself to snow, or stairs, my teacher was faced with a month of this:

I think Mrs. Periwinkle eventually got past that awful drinking problem that began that year.
Don't get me wrong.  I am all for reconnecting to the things that gave you joy when you were a kid.  I think we do far too much of the adult things, and far too little of the throw-the-cape-over-the-shoulders-and-play-superman-in-the-front-yard activities in our adult lives.  I think that belting out a song as you come into work in the morning is good for everyone's morale.  I think that splashing in the creek - even in your Sunday clothes - it probably a good thing.
And if coloring was your thing?  Go for it.
But you should know, that when you do, I'll be over here on the stairs.  In the snow.