Bad Hands, Good Heart

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As performed by Rachel Pokay at “The Women’s Christmas Celebration” in Oak Brook, IL in 2019

We’re less than a week away from Christmas. Let’s sit here together in silence to think about that.

Five days, seven hours, forty-three minutes and 52 seconds. I’m sweating. I’m sweating so much.

But if you think about it, here are only two actual days on the calendar that are explicitly designated for Christmas – December 24, Christmas Eve, and December 25, Christmas Day. So, in theory, you still have a few days before you’re required to do anything. Technically and legally, you could just wake up on December 25 and just be like, it’s Christmas. Here I am! 

But it’s not that easy. That’s like saying to your friends, “Sure, I can meet you guys for brunch but at some point I just need pop out for a colonoscopy.” You don’t just show up for a colonoscopy, just like you don’t just show up for Christmas. There’s this whole long, unavoidable process leading up to it. Like with a colonoscopy, you’ve got to drink like, ten gallons of water and this disgusting Pedialyte concoction, then you have to fast, then you stay up until 2AM Googling how many people have died from routine colonoscopies, and so then you show up for it tired and malnourished and cranky.

But no, I’m not saying the holidays are like a colonoscopy at all.

That’s not to disregard the beautiful season of Advent happening right now. I love Advent. It’s a time of pensive reflection and spiritual preparation. One of my favorite Advent traditions is when one special family gets picked to go up and read the Bible verse and light the candles in the wreath, and then one of the little kids says something cute and everyone laughs. I love it! I always wondered why my family and I never got picked to do that. But then again, I just opened with a colonoscopy-based holiday metaphor so…mystery solved.

But today’s Christmas seasons starts even earlier than Advent. It all starts with a slight nip in the air. Somewhere some dude is burning leaves and the temperature drops below 60 and you and your girlfriends are like “I LOVE THIS TIME OF YEEEEAAAAAR.” You know you do. You run home and light every candle in your house, you’ve got a different decorative fleece blanket for every chair, and you start slathering your body head to toe in sugar plum lotion. By the way, has anyone ever even seen a sugar plum? I think it was just invented by Bath and Body Works to sell body spray.

I love sweater weather. We live in the upper Midwest, so the best sweaters are the ones that are as thick as a sleeping bag but are slightly nipped at the waist so as to show off your girlish figure. Sometimes I like to just wrap myself in an actual queen-sized duvet cover and just cinch it with a cute little belt. You know what they say – just because it’s negative 40 degrees and your internal organs are freezing over, doesn’t mean you need to let yourself go, ladies.

***

Now there’s a lot of debate out there about the right time to start embracing all the bells and whistles of the Christmas season. You have the Thanksgiving purists who say not a drop of yuletide until after Thanksgiving. 

How many of you out there fall in this camp? No Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving. No acknowledgement of the baby Jesus until that last piece of pumpkin pie has been scarfed down over the kitchen sink at 3AM on Black Friday.

That moment is sacred, right? Just shoveling cold mashed potatoes down your gullet with a set of salad tongs because all of your silverware is dirty and you’re too tired to clean them.

I’m with you. It’s important to get through one season of emotional eating before moving onto the next one.

Fun fact: there’s this German word, Kummerspeck. It refers to the extra weight you put on after a round of emotional eating. In English, Kummerspeck literally translates as “grief bacon.” Grief bacon. If that doesn’t effectively capture the mood of pre-holiday prep, I don’t know what does.

***

Your first impressions of what Christmas is supposed to be, of course, starts with your childhood.

At an early age, I learned from my mother what the beauty of Christmas can be. She is what I always refer to as extremely tactile. Not tactile in the sense that she touches people. No, we as a family are not tactile in a human relations sense. In fact, when my mom and I try to hug, we explode into a giant dust cloud. Every. Time. It’s super annoying.

I mean tactile in the way that she is very good with her hands and when you pair that with her inherent sense of style, beautiful things are created.

I remember one year, my mom handmade poinsettias made of white crepe paper to adorn our Christmas tree. It created this beautiful, white swan-like motif that was so uniquely different from everything else in the early 90s, when Coca-Cola ornaments were in vogue and everyone’s trees were draped in that shiny silver tinsel that looks like slime and shows up in your cat’s hairballs well into Epiphany. 

My mother created a festive environment that was chic, minimalistic, and impeccably coordinated with our home furnishings and all the carefully curated trinkets.

My mom taught me about the virtues of open-faced sandwiches. They are the only acceptable sandwich option for a high-end holiday soiree. Everyone knows that. If you put a slice of bread on top of the sandwich, you might as well have been raised in a barn.

Because what are you hiding under all that bread? Your mediocrity, that’s what.

So yeah, my mom has she has style, yes, she has taste. But a person can be tasteful and stylish while also destroying delicate materials with their giant sausage fingers. That person, by the way, is me.

My mom has good eyes and good hands. I have good eyes but very, very bad hands. 

I blame it all on being left handed. The world is cruel and hostile to the left-handed person. If you’re right-handed, you might think I’m being hyperbolic. But try being a six-year-old leftie at school trying to construct a culturally insensitive Thanksgiving headpiece before the invention of left-handed scissors. It’s traumatizing.

And so here I am, daughter of Julie, mentally and spiritually destined to excel at do-it-yourself craftsmanship, but just so genetically flawed.

You can imagine the pressure I feel in this modern world deliver a stylish, do-it-yourself Christmas atmosphere in my home. In today’s social media environment, you basically have to make your house look like a bed and breakfast in a Hallmark holiday movie or you get your suburban mom card revoked. And take it from me – it’s really hard to get that card back after you’ve had it taken away. I’ve spent the last two years volunteering at my town’s children’s theater just trying to rebound from one lousy fist fight at a PTA meeting.

And before there was Joanna Gaines or Lauren Conrad or Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop empire… before Pinterest and Instagram and HGTV… before this multi-billion lifestyle industry blew up, there was Martha Stewart.

This is a woman who has good eyes, good hands, and a good bookkeeper. And a good lawyer. And a good dietitian and a good dermatologist. Honestly, any woman who comes out of the slammer with even better skin than when she went in has the best team in the business. She’s unreal. Martha Stewart’s vegetable garden is worth more than my entire 401k. 

And before Martha Stewart, there was another Martha. Martha of Bethany. She’s from a Bible story about an overextended, type-A woman and her lazy sister.

The Bible says in Luke 10: “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

I’m going to pause here and just say that this sounds like a woman who was in the “cleaning the baseboards” phase of house cleaning. I don’t know about you all, but in my experience, the baseboards are usually the breaking point. That’s when the strongest of domestic goddesses buckle under the pressure.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, gently prying the Swiffer Wet Jet from her clenched fists. “Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only 42 or fewer things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Leave it to Jesus to get right down to the heart of things. Mary has chosen what is better. And in this season of unrelenting multitasking, it’s so important that we stay focused on what’s important. That’s why I love this story, I really do. I want to share it with every stressed out woman that I know.

But you know who I don’t want to share it with? My husband. Because what I don’t need is to ask him to pick his fifty million shoes up from the front hallway and have him remind me that Jesus said that I need to chill out. 

Also, did Jesus say that there are 42 things on her to-do list? Such a specific number. And also, I think he may have rounded down but okay.

***

But it’s hard to stay focused on what’s important when there’s so much peripheral noise and pressure. Amazing how easy it is to forget what Christmas actually is. Thankfully the small children in our lives are always quick to remind us.

It’s Baby Jesus’ birthday!

Can you imagine planning a birthday party for the savior of the world?

But Mary, mother of Jesus – she got it just right. First off, they had it in a barn. How many weddings, retirement parties, or craft bourbon social mixers have you had in a barn-inspired space? Oh, I’m sorry, RUSTIC CHIC. Admit it ladies, your Pinterest boards are full of Edison bulb lanterns and wood paneling and Mary had it all, plus oxen and sheep. She was ahead of her time.

Plus, she didn’t fret over evites and RSVPs. She was like, if you guys want to come to see my baby and be part of my rustic chic party, you’re just going to have to chart the heavens and follow the star and FIGURE IT OUT. And they did.

Three wise men came from the east, following the star. And they got there eventually. And once again, the Bible is telling us to just like, learn to let it go. Amazing what people figure out when you stop trying to control everything.

Three wise men showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Which kind of sound like gifts that they would have wanted for themselves. Do you know those kinds of gift givers? “Oh, honey, I saw this Chicago Cubs back scratcher and I just knew you’d love it.”

Mary’s like, “Ummm, thanks for these gold bricks that I now have to carry home in my donkey satchel.” Joseph was like, patting his robes, all “I don’t have anywhere to put it, babe.”  And into the purse it goes, just like everything else. And honestly, she probably would have liked some breastfeeding salve, or like, some dry shampoo, or they could have just picked up dinner on the way in.

What a journey that must have been for Mary, the whole thing. And done with such grace.

I remember my oldest child’s first birthday. It was polka dot themed. Seems harmless, right? Except I used my useless, mangled left handedness to cut cellophane polka dots to hang from fish wire from the ceiling. Except of course they looked like half-melted gum drops. And then I tried to cook homemade macaroni and cheese, which was so incredibly stupid because I don’t even know how to scramble an egg.

Can you imagine that being the Christmas story? “And she wrapped the baby up in swaddling clothes, and placed him in the manager, and then she cried into a pot of inedible half-burnt bechamel sauce.”

I’m telling you guys, bad hands. But that little baby, born in a manager, became the man who told Martha, and all the rest of us, to chill out. And choose what is better.

***

And I don’t share all this to insinuate for one moment that it’s wrong or a waste of time to create beautiful things. In fact, I believe there is inherent goodness in it, because it produces a ripple effect of happiness out into the world.

Like people who invest time and money into their homes’ exterior lights. I don’t think my husband knows how to operate a nail gun and we don’t even own a ladder, so it’s easy for me to resent other people’s homes. But there are people who put so much effort into making their homes sparkle and shine and some nights when I’m driving home after a horrible day at work, it’s those twinkling displays that ease me off the edge and restore my spirit.

In fact, just the other night, my sister, who just had a baby two months ago, piled her family into the minivan draped some string lights along the interior, and picked up milkshakes, and drove around to ooh and ahh over their neighbors’ displays.

Those people’s efforts gave my sister the opportunity create memories with her family.

My mom made those paper poinsettias 30 years ago and I still remember them clear as day. That’s not a small thing. And I’m betting my mom never thought I’d remember all the work she put into those flowers.

But I did, Mom. I remembered. And I know how much work it took you to bring all that beauty into the world.  And I know how much work you put into that immaculate holiday spread every Christmas Eve. Weeks of meticulous preparation – handmade lefsa, stacks of cookies, jars of preserves you started back over the summer –and then in a matter of hours, it’s over. The quietness of the house after the family leaves is deafening, and you’re just surrounded by stacks of dirty platters and strips of wrapping paper.

Mom, I know. And I know all the work, as thankless as it feels, is worth it to you. And it’s worth it to all of us too.

And it’s taken me years and years of frustration at my inability to live up to the standard you set. I wish I had your good hands. But I don’t. But what I do have is the gift of storytelling, and that’s why I feel blessed to have this platform, to do some small part in bringing joy to other people this time of year.

We all have something to bring to the proverbial potluck. What’s your thing?

Consider the story of the little drummer boy. The lyrics are so poignant:

Little baby, I am a poor boy too.

I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king.

Shall I play for you on my drum?

Mary nodded.

The ox and lamb kept time.

I played my drum for him.

I played my best for him.

Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

The commonality of our own stories and that of the drummer boy is the goodness of heart and the pure intent. You can have good eyes and bad hands, bad hands and good eyes, bad breath, bad skin, or a bad back. But none of that matters when you have a good heart. And a good heart can’t be bought, baked, or draped. It comes from God, and no matter how it chooses to manifest itself, from the right hand, or the left hand, it’s the source of the beauty we feel every Christmas, no matter the packaging.

So this Christmas, I challenge all of us to put down the grief bacon, and focus on serving up our best selves. And maybe that’s microwavable bacon. They have it over by the dairy section. Just 30 seconds on a microwave safe plate – cover the strips with a couple paper towels and voila! The easiest way to show some effort at 6AM on Christmas morning.

And besides, I think that’s the kind of bacon Baby Jesus would have preferred anyway.