Sunday, December 31, 2006

Light the Way

When I was unemployed from September 2005 through February 2006, I did the usual things to try and change the situation. I sent e-mails. Made phone calls. Answered want ads. Networked.

Toward the end of that dark period, I also did one unusual thing--unusual for me, anyway: I lit candles.

In whatever apartment I've lived, I've lit candles, usually of the scented variety and usually appropriate to the season at hand. (Pumpkin Spice for Halloween; Evergreen for Christmas.) Sometimes, I light only one or two. Occasionally, I light enough that I don't need to turn the lights on. Once, on my 40th birthday, I lit 40 candles atop the kitchen table that once belonged to my great-grandmother--and, in the process, singed most of the hair off of my right forearm. (I would have made a lousy pyromaniac.)

My point? Lighting candles is, for me, part of daily routine anyway. What was unusual was that I was lighting the candles not for fragrance, illumination or celebration, but for the sake of sending word out to the world (and beyond) that I needed, at the very least, guidance.

I'm not particularly religious. I didn't grow up in a worshipful household, and the few church services I went to as a child bored me stiff. I do, however, believe that something watches over what we do and how we do it, though I'm not entirely sure what role, if any, whoever (or whatever) is watching over us plays in our daily lives. Maybe he/she/it/they guide every step we take, every decision we make. (I sure hope that's not the case, because that means that the Great Whatever has a pretty sick sense of humor.) Maybe there's no guidance at all, but merely observation--the ultimate reality show. Or maybe there is participation, even intervention, but on a more selective basis. Who's doing the selecting? And how? Or why? Beats me.

At first, I just lit the votives I already had hanging around La Casa del Terror, putting the flame of the short, slender, metallic green Zippo to the wicks in the kitchen and saying to myself (and whoever/whatever might be listening), "Please, help me." I later switched to actual devotional candles--the long, tall glass jobs one can find in many grocery and drug stores (in Chicago, anyway). The first ones I bought had guardian angels on them, more because I like angels than because I believe they watch over me. I even found a little Hispanic grocery store in my neighborhood that sells vanilla-scented guardian angel candles, so I could say a prayer and hide the smell of the cat litter at the same time.

Later, though, I switched to candles devoted to St. Jude, the so-called "patron saint of lost causes." (Not that I ever really believed that finding a new job was a "lost cause"; it just sometimes looked that way through the veil of despair.) I'd light the candle, watch the light flicker behind the sticker with St. Jude's face on it, and ask for whatever help I could get.

And help did eventually arrive--first in the form of a part-time, short-term warehouse gig, and then, a month later, in the form of a full-time job downtown.

Now, do I believe that my prayers (if you can even call them that, given my lack of formal religious faith) alone made things happen? No. There were many friends praying for me as well, and that wealth of positive energy may have had an effect on the fabric of the universe. Or maybe lighting the candles altered my frame of mind, made me more hopeful, and maybe that changed the way things were. Or maybe it was just one big honkin' coincidence.

Whatever the case, I got a job and have stayed employed throughout the remainder of the year. But that doesn't mean that I stopped lighting candles. I still flick the Zippo at least once a night, no matter what time I get in, for a variety of reasons:

Sometimes I light candles for friends or family who are in ill health, like VB and Dee, both of whom have spent time in the hospital this year, and also Embee, who had a stroke in July and is still on the mend. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on television. There isn't jack I can do for them medically, and that's a pretty helpless feeling. I can, though, light the candles and hope for the fastest, most complete recovery possible.

Sometimes I light candles for friends who have gone through a romantic breakup. Sometimes I hope that they get back together. Sometimes I hope that they don't. (Some breakups are for the best, for both parties.) Either way, I'm usually friend to both the splitter and the splitee. Breaking up with someone you loved (or may, in fact, still love) is never easy, and it's worse during the holidays. I know four couples that have recently split or are in the process of splitting. I feel for them all. At the very least, I can wish them peace of mind and heart; when I light the candle for them, I do just that.

Sometimes I light candles people no longer in my life, like Red Secretary, whom I haven't heard from in more than two years and never expect to hear from again. Why, you might reasonably ask, would I bother lighting a candle for her, especially given that her life is pretty fabulous right now, what with the memoir she got published earlier this year selling well enough to merit a paperback reprinting that hit bookstores this week (I saw it in Borders Thursday night) and the screenplay she wrote due to start filming early next year under the direction of that guy who did Thank You for Smoking (which was probably the best movie I saw this year, so this new movie stands an excellent chance of being not just good, but damn good)? Because I hope her life stays fabulous. Just like it always should have been.

RS and I aren't friends anymore. Maybe we will be again; maybe we won't. I can still wish the best for her, though, now and always.

Sometimes, I even light candles for people I've never met and likely never will.

One of my favorite blogs to visit is written by actress Pauley Perrette, one of the stars of NCIS. It's not about her job, but about her life and the lives of those around her (friends, pets, significant others, etc.), and even though she writes everything with line breaks (like a poem), it's still all pretty entertaining.

Recently, she wrote a post about her friend Katherine, who had unfortunately been on the pedestrian end of an automobile-hits-pedestrian accident, and was not doing well at all. "She has been in ICU for days," Paulie wrote. "It does not look good right now."

"Sorry to impose," she continued, "but I know there are so many readers from around the world here who pray. We need a miracle. We need prayers." So I wrote an e-mail to Pauley, told her about my candle-lighting ritual and promised to light a candle each night for Katherine, her husband and their families. (I did not get an e-mail back, nor did I expect one.) So I added a candle for Katherine to the group I was already lighting and hoped for the best.

Les than a week later, Pauley posted the following: "I got a message today saying that Katherine's improvement was "nothing short of miraculous" in the last few days. Yup, that's right...I KNOW EXACTLY what it was...All of you beautiful people praying around the world. Thank you so, so much." A couple of weeks later, Pauley reported that Katherine had gone home from the hospital.

I'm not going to break my arm patting myself on the back (or, as JB's Dad would have said, "pinning a bouquet on my ass") over Katherine's recovery. After all, I was just one of many people in many places all over this big, sometimes beautiful globe of ours who was sending best wishes her way.

But I can light a candle. Or two. Or five. I can send positive vibes out into the ether and hope that's enough. Maybe I'm wasting my time. Maybe nobody's actually listening. But do I really believe that? Do I believe that sending all this positive energy out into the Great Whatever is just a colossal waste of time?

No. I do not.

Tonight, it's New Year's Eve. As has been my custom for the past few years, I'm staying in, ordering a pizza from Marie's and drinking a few cans of Red Dog. I'll pet the cats (at least until the gunfire starts at midnight, when they'll both disappear, likely for the remainder of the evening), watch vintage movies (usually something with Fred and Ginger or Groucho, Harpo and Chico) and wait for 2007 to arrive.

And I'll light candles. For friends. For family. For people I don't even know. For myself. And their light will keep me warm.

Happy New Year, everybody.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Christmas Scarf

I admit it, freely and without coercion or threat of violence: I have, marbled through my core, a streak of sentimentality so lengthy and stout that, were it to be extracted from me and laid at length, it would put the Great Wall of China to shame.

At any given time of the year, this sentimentality can manifest in myriad ways, such as taking the form of rampant bouts of anthropomorphism. I feel sorry for inanimate objects, such as action figures or stuffed animals lost by the children who played with them and, without thinking or knowing, drop them in the street; more than one have made its way to my home or place of employment by my hand. (There's a small, vinyl sea turtle atop my workplace computer monitor that could attest to this. If it could, in fact, speak. Which it can't.) I once hopped down into the hollowed-out foundation of a building being razed to rescue a large teddy bear lying in the mud; I washed it down, dried it off and found that, aside from a rip here or a split there, it was a perfectly fine large teddy bear; it now rests comfortably in my kitchen.

I feel remorse when I accidentally break an object, like the evergreen votive holder I knocked over with an errant forearm and shattered on the cracked tile of the bathroom floor of the old La Casa del Terror. It was a bother to find every fragment, chunk and sliver of glass, to be sure, but more than anything, I felt regret for having ended the existence of something that had cast such bright, warming light and contained and shared with the air surrounding such varied, soothing fragrances over the many years it graced my Christmas displays.

This sentimentality can be especially pronounced at this most emotional and sentimental time of the year, when memories of all that has gone before, joyous and less so; of those loved ones absent either from my life or from life altogether; of all that's gone right or wrong in the year preceding crowd in with sharper, more determined elbows than the most aggressive holiday shopper ever could.

So when I haul out the figures of elves that Grandma kept confined to the decorative tin behind the space heater in her kitchen, the aluminum tree still in its original box, or the small artificial tree that I used to stand on my shelf at work, I feel remorse and even guilt if even one of these festive decorations isn't put on display, which has meant much self-imposed remorse indeed these past few Christmases, when I did not have the warmth of season to spur me to display more than one or two small ornaments. (And even with the new apartment, not everything can be put up; a whole storage container of ornaments remains, lamentably, in storage.)

So when, last Christmas Eve, I was walking to the local Pallid Poultry against a rain that came down frigid and sideways and turned what remnants that remained of the last snowfall into irregular patches of frozen gray, it should come as no surprise that, while stepping off the curb to cross the busy street that would lead me to my shopping destination, I paused. I paused because when I looked down at the torrent of gray water rushing along the curb, I saw, in the middle of that torrent, an obstruction: a relatively small, misshapen lump around which the stream struggled to flow to its ultimate destination, the sewer adjacent to the parking lot of the conjoined small neighborhood grocery store and chicken shack.

As I say, I paused. I leaned down to examine this obstructive lump more closely. And I found, as I suspected upon first glance, that this wasn't merely a bit of debris carried sewerward by the gray torrent, nor a leftover snow bank, formerly elegant, now reduced to a slushy bump in a slushy road, but a piece of fabric of undeterminable length, texture or even color (other than the gray that seemed to color everything under the light of that late December sky).

It was, I believed, a scarf.

This should have come to no surprise to me. I'd found scarves before. I've found them since. People drop scarves, mittens, hats, etc. all the time. I think it was the pitiful state of this particular winter accessory, combined with the aforementioned seasonally augmented sentimentality, that gave me pause more pause than usual.

It made no sense whatsoever for me to even touch the scarf at that moment; I was, after all, on my way to buy groceries, and dragging a sopping-wet scarf along for the ride seemed, at the least, impractical. So, with regret, I left the scarf where it lay and went on my less-than-merry way. When I returned the same way with my supplies, the scarf was still there. Of course it was. Why would it have moved? If its proper owner were coming for it, he/she would have collected it ages ago, and the impromptu river of dirty water wasn't flowing swiftly enough to dislodge it; and even if the current were strong enough to move the scarf from its resting place, it would never make its way through the sewer grate without someone actually shoving it through.

I shifted my groceries to my left hand and scooped up the scarf with my right. It was heavy with water, as I expected, but it was also covered with grit and debris; it was like holding a cold compress infused with pumice. I held the scarf at arm's length away from my body (to keep the nasty, nasty water from dripping on me or my groceries) and walked the block from the busy street to my (now-former) apartment building. By the time I got there, though, the fingers on my right hand were bright red and nearly numb from holding the cold, not-quite-thawed scarf, which I slung into the bathtub as soon as I'd made my way inside.

Once feeling had returned to my digits and my groceries had been properly put away, I turned my attentions back to the damp gray mass in the middle of my bathtub. There was now what appeared to be a tether of filthy water connecting the scarf to the drain of the tub, the slender stream staining the white porcelain as it flowed east to the tarnished brass fitting.

I propped my elbows on the edge of the tub for a moment and regarded my new find. What, exactly, was I going to do with this thing? Ring it out? No, that might squeeze whatever color remained out of it and refreeze my hands in the process. Throw it in the washing machine? Again, no. Since I didn't know what the fabric was (Wool? Acrylic? Some type of blend?), that method could just as likely hasten its disintegration as provide its salvation. Soak it in a bucket? Not a bad idea, really, but it would have to be cold water at first. The idea of plunging my hands into an ice-cold bucket on an ice-cold day had little appeal for me, but there was no way around it: it was either that or give up. And I'm not one for giving up.

I emptied the pale blue bucket I used for cleaning the kitchen and bathroom floors, ran water through it to clear away any remaining dirt from the last mopping, plopped the scarf into it and ran it full of cold water. I didn't even want to chance adding a drop of detergent. Not yet. For now, I slipped my hands into the frigid water, worked the fabric up and down for a few painful moments, and withdrew to the sink, where I rinsed with warm water. The scarf was no longer visible in the bucket; the grime already loosened had obscured my view. I dumped the bucket; the water that now filled the tub was almost black, and the scarf didn't look any cleaner. I filled the bucket two more times and dumped it two more times, each time finding the water filthy, but less so with each pass.

Finally, I wasn't seeing a dirty lump; it now looked like an actual garment. It even had a pattern to it: a gray (how appropriate!) checkered scheme with what appeared to be a streak of peach straight down its middle. Most importantly, I could finally read the label: the scarf was made in Italy, was acrylic and could be hand-washed in warm water. So I filled the bucket one last time, added a bit of detergent and gave the gray checkered scarf a proper washing, after which I draped it over the showerhead to dry.

As I said, this wasn't the first scarf I'd found, nor was it the last. It probably isn't even the nicest or most elegant. But because of the day I found it, I always think of it as my Christmas scarf and wear it to all holiday occasions.

And yes, I'm well aware that there are greater concerns in the world in general and in my own life in particular than a scarf found on a street. I don't pretend otherwise.

As I also said, I'm sentimental. And, I believe, all the better for it.