O Christmas tree (Oh, nuts)

The story so far:

Last May we had a fire on our property—a good-sized storage shed/workshop went up in flames. The cause was a fault in an electrical outlet. As I was driving home after I got the news, I prayed two things: that the fire would not spread to the house, and that no one would be injured. Both prayers were answered. Less important, but also in my hopes, were the Christmas decorations in the back of the shed. Arriving home and seeing that most of the damage had been in the front of the shed, I continued to have hope for a while longer.

But the fire traveled up from the outlet into the rafters and then was carried to the back of the shed, where the decorations were stored. Most of those boxes were scorched, and many of their contents were singed. These contents included many ceramic ornaments and decorations that were hand-made by my mother, who is no longer around to restore or replace such items. Others were special gifts from other years, or special purchases from past Christmases.

The insurance company was very helpful, paying one company to tear down and replace the shed, paying another company to clean items that could be cleaned, and paying us replacement costs for ruined items we did replace and partial value for items we chose not to replace. Most of the cleaned items were returned to us at the beginning of November. I found the autumn decorations and was pleased with their condition. Now, as Christmas approaches, I am gradually unpacking those decorations and placing them around the house.

Our seven-foot artificial Christmas tree had been on the floor of the shed, underneath the other decorations. The cleaners firmly said—before we even had a chance to ask—that they do not clean Christmas trees. I set the tree up in the driveway to air, then left it in the garage until the new shed was completed. This week I finally brought it into the house. My family and I have looked at new trees in the stores, but nothing available now appeals to us. Many of the new trees come with lights already permanently installed, and the Salvageable family does not work that way.

When I was a boy, my father trained me to decorate Christmas trees with a very high standard of perfection. Every light must be attached to a branch; none of the lights can float in midair between branches or merely lay on top of a branch. They must be installed several inches down the branch so there is room to hang ornaments. They must go deep into the tree to give it full dimensions instead of being a cone of lights. In all my years of decorating Christmas trees, I have always insisted on following my father’s method.

I bought eight new strings of lights, each with 150 bulbs. That’s 1,200 bulbs to be placed firmly on branches. As I put them on the tree, I noticed a faint odor of smoke still lingering in the tree. I also noticed dirt gathering under my fingernails. The tree is fifteen years old, so some of that dirt could be from other years rather than ash from the fire. We bought this tree one January after the previous tree had toppled as my son added trucks and dinosaurs to its decorations. It remains full and lifelike, although five of the branches are held to the trunk by twist-ties. When all the lights were attached, I continued with other duties, such as picking up a daughter from dance class and getting the garbage out to the curb. While finishing the latter task, I saw that all the lights on the tree had gone dark. Not wanting to spend more time on it that night, I unplugged it and left it alone.

The next day it was found that only the bottom string on the tree was malfunctioning. I removed it from the tree and checked carefully for breaks in the cord, thinking that a cat may have chewed on the tree and cut the cord. Second I checked for loose bulbs. When both inspections failed to reveal a problem, I decided to change the fuses in the plug of the cord. Suffice it to say that, in an effort to remove and replace those fuses, further damage occurred to the plug, making the string’s replacement inevitable.

Before going to the store, I looked again at the instructions for the cords and learned that the old method of stringing all the cords as one line no longer works with modern lights. No more than three strings can be plugged in together. This appeared to mean that I would have to strip all the lights from the tree and reattach them. At the store, however, an extension cord was found to solve just that problem—the cord has three sets of outlets along its length, so it can be wound through the tree and bring power to all the lights.

I brought home that cord and the new string of lights, only to discover that I had grabbed the wrong package of lights—the cord was white instead of green. So that meant another trip to the store to make the exchange.

Today the tree has lights, but not yet any ornaments. Six boxes in the shed contain Christmas tree ornaments. (I hope one of them also contains the missing pieces to the manger scene—it is short an angel and two sheep and one other figure, probably a shepherd). Maybe tonight and tomorrow, and possibly stretching through the week, those boxes will be brought into the house, each individual ornament unwrapped, inspected, and lovingly placed on the tree. Many memories will be renewed. And we will have our Christmas tree throughout the coming twelve days of Christmas. J.

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Stream of consciousness

…when your doctor changes all your medications—blood pressure, allergy, and mood control—at the end of November, so that the first week of December you cannot assess which things are shaping your approach to life: the change in medication; dark, gloomy skies; later sunrises and earlier sunsets; an allergy to oak leaves and their dust; pressure of the holiday season; the latest senseless obsession; traffic and bad drivers; tedious tasks at work….

Listen: When I was a teen-aged boy, my mother would bring me to the county fairgrounds on the day when all the 4-H members in the county would bring in their projects to be judged and displayed. In the morning I would help check in the wood-working exhibits—woodworking! (And all these years later, I still can’t complete a decent woodworking project. It’s taken me all fall to finish the task of rebuilding a wooden rail around the front steps. A decent carpenter could do the work in half a day, but I’m doing the same steps three or four times to get it right, and often walking away for days in disgust before I can return to the task.) Anyhow, when all the projects were checked in, I would go over to the Home Economics building, with its 4-H exhibits of cooking, baking, canning, sewing, knitting, crocheting, macramé, ceramics, flower arranging, table setting, and the like. Each category was being measured by a different judge, who would award blue, red, or white ribbons and then select champion projects from the blue ribbon winners, while a person such as my mother would record the judge’s remarks on each exhibit. My job that afternoon was to gather all the sheets of paper containing judges’ remarks and arrange them alphabetically by exhibitor name. Each 4-H exhibitor could then come to the fair and pick up the judges’ remarks for all of his or her exhibits. Little did I know at the time that this annual task would prepare me more for my present career than all the classes I took in college and in graduate school.

For some years ago Mr. X and his secretary arranged all his incoming mail and copies of outgoing mail in folders by the month. Now these papers are being saved for researchers to study Mr. X and his boss. But no one is going to care what letters Mr. X received and sent in February 1985. No, they will want to know if Mr. Y sent a letter to Mr. X or his boss in 1985 or 1986. So I am taking boxes of folders, removing all the letters, and arranging them alphabetically by year, just like those 4-H forms from long ago. My task is not to read and interpret the letters. All I’m here to do is arrange the letters and describe the arrangement in a database so other people can come here and read and interpret them.

Meanwhile, we have a sick cat at home. About three weeks ago he suddenly lost his balance so badly that he could barely walk. We asked ourselves what could afflict a cat so suddenly: a stroke? MS? ALS? Guillen-Barre? The veterinarian suspected an inner ear infection and started the cat on steroids and antibiotics. He (the cat) has gotten better, but we cannot be sure how much is due to clearing the infection and how much is due to his ability to adjust to continuous vertigo and (perhaps) double vision. He can walk and even run a little, but his jumping is limited to beds and couches—this of a cat who regularly patrolled the top of six-foot-tall bookcases, not to mention the china cabinet and the grandfather clock. He seems content with his lot rather than unhappy. But, when walking or sitting, he tilts his head to one side as if that helps him see things better. It’s cute and endearing, but also heartbreaking because he never did that before.

And why do WordPress and Createspace both demand that I review my work one more time before I can publish it? I always write in Microsoft Word and read through the text several times to make corrections before I copy and paste it. Why do these companies assume that I’m handing in a rough draft that needs another look before it can be shared?

And we are gradually unpacking the Christmas decorations which were sent out for cleaning after our fire last May. They are all in good shape, except for an occasional stain here or there, nothing intolerable. But they were not packed by the cleaners in any sort of discernable pattern. So at present we have a manger scene with ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, camels, and angels—but no baby in a manger yet, and no sheep. And other random items are similarly appearing in the house as we unpack one box at a time. Still, life goes on, and it’s hard to know how to feel….

J.

 

Up in flames

When I went to bed last night, I wondered if I would think in the morning that the day’s events had been just a bad dream. But the smell of smoke was too pervasive and the memories too vivid for me to think that I had dreamed about the fire.

The day began normally. I had been at work for two hours when the phone rang. I answered it and heard a voice saying, “The storage shed is on fire! I’ve called 911, but they aren’t here yet!”

People like me want to believe that we respond calmly to a crisis. Sometimes people like me say foolish things calmly in a crisis. “Do you think I should come home, then?” I asked. Of course I was out the door and on my way home as quickly as possible.

The drive home takes twenty minutes. I spent those minutes praying two things–that no one would be hurt, and that the house would be protected. I also reminded myself to breathe and to pay attention to traffic. The fire trucks were there when I arrived home, so I parked down the street. The fire was contained by then, and the firefighters were preparing to soak the contents of the shed to ensure that no hot spots would reignite.

A family member had used a power tool in the shed that morning. She did nothing wrong–she used the tool correctly and put it away when she was done. But some fault in the outlet began a small smoldering that was not immediately evident. Twenty minutes later, the same family member took some garbage to the curb and decided to bring back the recycling bin–the latter task is something I generally do when I come home Friday evenings. Her spontaneous decision to do so yesterday gave the opportunity for her to see flames and smoke far sooner than they would have been noticed otherwise.

When we bought the house, the shed was already part of the property. It is about ten feet wide and twenty-five feet deep. The front end had workspaces with shelves underneath and pegboard on the walls for hanging tools. The back end had shelves on the walls for storage. To the right of the entrance we kept lawn and gardening tools and an area for potting plants; to the left was workspace for carpentry and the like, with hand tools hung on the wall and power tools on the shelf below. Beyond that was a work table with boxes of clothing and an antique, homemade dollhouse that had been given to the children. Beyond that were boxes of outgrown toys and clothing, disassembled cribs, and the like. On the back shelves were boxes of holiday decorations.

I was already doing triage in my head while I drove home. The tools were all replaceable and probably covered by insurance. The children’s clothing and toys were things we were slowly removing, donating them to the church for its rummage sale. The Christmas decorations would be the saddest loss, but I was resigned to that loss already so long as no one was hurt and the house remained safe.

No one was hurt. The house remained safe. The fire fighters had been delayed because they were giving a program at a school. One of the children had asked them what would happen if there was a fire somewhere while they were at the school. They had said they would leave to fight the fire. A minute or two later they got the call about our fire.

The lieutenant told us there was a clear V-shape of damage from the outlet where the fire began. It traveled up and then crossed the length of the shed, following the air flow. The lawnmower was on the floor of the shed. Although charred boxes fell onto it, it was undamaged. A tank of gasoline, half-full, was on the floor of the shed about five feet from where the fire began. It survived unscathed. The power tools, on the shelf under the work area, were likewise unharmed. The hand tools that had been hanging on the wall were gone. Our grill for cooking with charcoal was, of course, unharmed, but the electric starter for the coals melted completely and will need to be replaced.

After the firefighters left, I called our insurance company. As they began the claim process, they advised me to take pictures of the building and its contents, then to begin removing contents that were not damaged. After taking pictures, we started at the front, taking out the lawnmower and power tools and other items that had survived. The antique dollhouse was, ironically, harmed much in the pattern of the shed that contained it–most of the damage to the roof and upper structure. As we worked our way to the back of the shed, moving aside charred and burned boxes, we could see that the boxes holding Christmas decorations were darkened and soaked but not burnt. One by one we carefully carried those boxes to the driveway and inspected their contents.

We did not have time to do an item-by-item inspection. Some of the ceramic and glass decorations had been damaged by the fire, but we set all that aside to handle later. Most of the clothing that had been on the work table was merely soaked and smoke-scented. We spread those items out on the grass to dry and to freshen in the breeze. The day was dry, sunny, and windy, which made it ideal for rescuing the clothing. It looked much as if we were preparing for a garage sale, and we wondered if we should post a sign saying that these things were not for sale.

Some items came to mind before we could enter the shed; others came to mind as we worked our way through the shed. Four wooden folding chairs–probably older than I am–survived, although they will be to be refinished. Handmade children’s clothing of sentimental value was found and proved to be unhurt. Even a box holding a stamp collection was retrieved from a lower shelf, essentially unharmed. The primary loss was the building itself, but the insurance adjuster has not yet looked at it to tell us so.

In spite of the trauma of enduring a fire on our property, my family and I feel that we have been blessed by the Lord. No one was injured by the fire. The house was spared. (The corner of the shed where the fire began is about ten feet from the nearest corner of the house. Two large oak trees next to the shed could have spread the fire, but we’ve had a wet spring and they remained unsinged.) Insurance will cover most of the loss. I expect to order a dumpster and clear the remaining contents out of the shed. I have been hoping for a while to receive a job offer in another city; this event may have helped to prepare for a move by forcing us to deal with extraneous possessions before the urgency of packing. Many people (including some of our neighbors) can see only loss in a fire like this. My family and I see instead how all things work for good. J.

Six geese a-laying

The season of Christmas will be half-over tonight, but the radio stations have already stopped playing Christmas music. The stores and malls that were decorating for Christmas in early November and even late October are now removing all their decorations and putting them into storage for the next ten months. Some families have even gotten rid of their Christmas decorations—I saw some Christmas trees lying on the curb last Saturday.
Americans tend to start things early and quit things early. We cannot be trusted to stick to the traditional pace of life through the year. It was once possible to hold off campaigning for President of the United States until after the first day of the election year; but campaigning and debates have filled the last several months of 2015, and already some candidates have dropped out of the race.
The next two days mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next year. People will bid farewell to 2015 and will ring in the new year with hope and excitement. May your Christmas joy linger through the holiday season, as we still have six days of Christmas to observe. J.

Assorted thoughts about Christmas

I have always enjoyed this time of year. The build-up to Christmas and the celebration of Christmas are both meaningful and fun. Being the curmudgeon that I am, though, I can still find reasons to complain even about the Christmas holidays.

When my favorite radio station started playing wall-to-wall Christmas music on the first of November, I was not ready for Christmas music. I switched stations, and even now, with barely a week left before Christmas, I have not bothered to switch back.

For me, Christmas is a celebration with the Church and with my family. In those two places we can be very specific about what we are celebrating. We still have plenty of secular items—the Christmas tree, stockings with gifts, and so on—but we are able to center our celebration on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. When I am at work, observing Christmas is more awkward. On the one hand, I’m glad that they give us paid time off to celebrate the Christmas holiday. On the other hand, when we are in the building, I would just as soon focus on my job. Holiday decorations and parties and sing-alongs do not appeal to me at work, in part because these events have to reach the lowest common denominator so that no one is offended. I don’t object to people decorating their own work space with reminders of Christmas, but if I were to set up a nativity scene, other people might object. So I don’t decorate at all. If I can slip out and miss a party or a sing-along, that’s fine with me. I will do enough celebrating at church and with my family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and through the twelve days of Christmas.

Part of my family celebration involves a new decoration appearing each day through the season of Advent. We have so many items to deck the halls and living room and dining room and outdoors that I can bring one decoration out of storage each day. Some decorations are big projects—the lights on the house, for example, or the tree. Others are just a small touch—a stained glass decoration hanging in a window, or Christmas towels in the bathrooms. When they were younger, the children tried to predict which decoration would appear each day. Sometimes they searched the house looking for that day’s decoration. My oldest even checked in from college, trying to keep up with the daily decorations.

I have stopped sending out Christmas cards. I have neither the time nor the money to spend on that custom. I still get fifteen or twenty Christmas cards a year. Like my parents and my grandparents before me, I like to tape the cards to ribbons and hang those ribbons on the wall of the living room. About twelve years ago, I set aside that year’s cards, meaning to check them later for notes, and they sat around all year. When December came again, I decided to post them with the new cards from that year. Each year the collection grew a little larger. Now I have nearly two hundred Christmas cards on the living room wall and down the hall. I toss duplicate cards or any that I don’t think are attractive. Even when the other Christmas decorations have been put back into storage, the cards will stay up until the start of February.

Like decorations, songs and movies and special food are all part of the Christmas experience. Many of them have no direct connection to the Incarnation of our Lord, but they have all become part of the scenery for this time of year. I understand why many people struggle with depression during this holiday season. I can be prone to depression at times like this as well. By taking it easy, by not having high expectations, and especially by keeping the focus where it belongs and not on what I’m doing, I am generally successful at escaping negative feelings about Christmas. May all those who struggle find ways to do the same. J.