Life is a Circus … A Life Inspired and Lessons Learned from the Magician, Johnny Fox

I was a kid when I first saw his act  – A wry, smart-mouthed magician with a knack for sleight of hand and sword swallowing (amongst other freakish sideshow skills) and the uncanny ability to do it with such ease he’d tell the audience “anyone can learn to do it”. He’d explain exactly what he was doing … and yet still manage to surprise his onlookers. The little red ball would turn to an orange and the orange to a glass of wine. He’d swallow a bigger sword than you thought was humanly possible and stuff a balloon down his throat and then pop it with a smaller blade – leaving the audience in stitches as his throat echoed the squeaking balloon’s deflation inside his body. He was handsome and funny and infectious and he called himself “Johnny Fox”. “Johnny Fox”, he’d say “is my stage name. My real name is John Fox.” And it was.

It worked out that I married a man who loved the faire as much as I did. And so as we built our life together and our family, the Maryland Renaissance Festival became an autumn-time staple for our family, a continuation from my childhood. And Johnny Fox stood at the heart of it. For years my son wanted “to grow up to be Johnny Fox” and he was constantly asking for new magic kits and wands … and forever disappointing himself that he wasn’t as good as Johnny. And even though we could practically recite half his jokes by heart and the outcomes of many of his tricks became predictable as the years passed… we couldn’t not see him. Because his jokes just never got old, his skill never got sloppy and his act never stopped amazing and entertaining us. Every year, when we’d walk through the gates of the festival with our entertainment schedule in hand and I’d say “Ok guys, who do you want to see?” Someone would always say, “Well you know we HAVE to see Johnny Fox!”

And so when the year came that I checked the entertainment schedule in advance and I saw that Johnny wasn’t on it, I panicked. He had been performing there forever! Nearly, forty years in fact. He was the longest running performer at the festival and we weren’t the only family who had come to love his entertainment for generations. Quickly scanning the site, I discovered that Johnny had been having some health problems and his performances were uncertain. We attended the festival regardless and were thrilled when we discovered that he’d still be performing. It wasn’t his usual three or four shows a day, there was only one that day; but it was the “must-do” for the day.

So when the time approached, we purchased “sweet nuts” from his signature booth and arrived early to get good seats. With beer and nuts in hand, my husband and I sat on the blue wooden benches like we had every fall. And the kids ran down the hill to the front, to sit at the Royal Stage’s edge (now the Royal Fox Stage) – just as they always had; because they already knew that when Johnny’s act started, the first thing he’d do was invite the kids down. They didn’t seem to realize that they were getting too big to use that accommodation anymore, but I didn’t stop them. For years, my son would gaze up at the magician like a god. And my daughter would soak in every second … until he grabbed the sword. Then she’d divert her eyes and squirm like the little girl that she was … only not so little now. As for my husband and I, every year we’d think this would be the year we would catch him in his sleight of hand. We never did.

As we sat on the benches, waiting for the show to start, I wondered and worried about what would have kept Johnny from posting certain performances.

And then Johnny appeared.

And the nurse inside of me knew exactly why his performances were uncertain. One look at him and I knew that he was dying. The look of end stage cancer is a look any seasoned medical professional can spot. The crowd cheered and welcomed him with a standing ovation and tears welled in my eyes. Oh, the difference a year can make. Standing on the same stage that I’d seen him perform for decades, his strong, fit body suddenly looked so frail. His clothes hung off of him and his cheek bones jutted under his thin, pale skin. I knew in that second that the great magician’s body was betraying him in the greatest of ways. And yet, stretched across his face was the biggest smile one could produce and his eyes were on fire.

Without missing a beat, he jumped right into his same jokes, the same ridiculously good sleight of hand and the same good-humored freak acts. With the same smooth confidence he held in his shoulders and the same mischievous sparkle in his eyes, he carried his audience from laughter to jaw drop, in a comfortable and entertaining act that was always second to none. And despite his obvious health concerns, he still ended the show with a sword swallow. I was astounded that he had the strength and energy to do what he did. He was a performer that we’d come to expect year after year and this time, while I watched, along with my laughter and smiles, my heart felt heavy because I knew that this was Johnny’s last show for us. And I soaked in every delicious second of it. He ended the show as he always did, by saying, “It is a privilege to make people laugh for a living…”

After the show, he confirmed to the audience that this past spring he had been given a grim diagnosis and had been undergoing alternative treatment. “They told me I only had a few weeks to live,” he said, “And I told them, you don’t know who you’re talking to.” He didn’t call his journey with cancer a “battle” though, he called it a “dance”. He spoke about his love for life and people and his drive to “keep getting better”. If death was on his mind, you never would’ve known it by his words or his performance. He called the Maryland Renn Fest his “home” and thanked everyone for making it that. He informed us of a Facebook page that he had opened for people to follow him on, “Friends of Johnny Fox”. And while he needed to clear the stage for the next act, he’d be in the back to take photos and sign autographs.

The kids and I were at the front of the line. He sat on a stool while a line formed behind us. I could see how tired he was and yet he was still so full of life. Before even acknowledging the adult that was trying to talk to him, he spotted my son and held out an autograph for him and shot him a sweet, inviting smile. And after we snapped our picture with the legend, I bent down and planted a kiss on his cheek, which he welcomed with a “muah”. “I just wanted to tell you that we love you,” I said.” You have brought us back to the festival year after year and have brought us so much joy. You taught my children to believe in magic. Thank you!” “I’m just dancing”, he said with a smile and I walked away just as the tears started to roll.

When I left the festival, I sent my request to “Friends of Johnny Fox” and from that day on I followed his page. With every updated picture and post that was made of him, it became clearer to me that he was getting sicker, and yet, he was always doing something fabulous! He was attending concerts (we share a favorite artist-Bob Dylan), putting his feet in the ocean, soaking in a hot tub with friends. As a health care professional, I know first hand what end-of-life looks like. Some people deny it and some people accept it. Many people submit to it and some people fight it. Johnny rocked it! He really did dance, right up until the very end.

And when the inevitable post came through that Johnny had drawn his last breath, I hung my head. “He died with a smile on his face and was surrounded by friends”- who gave him his final standing ovation-the post explained. When I turned to tell my family, my voice shook and I cried. I’m a nurse – I know death. This man wasn’t my family or even a friend. He was a festival performer. “I’m crying over a sword swallower”, I told my husband as I laughed through the tears. “Yeah but it was Johnny Fox”, he said. ” And he was just such a cool guy.” My children cried too.

His whole presence and journey had such a profound effect on myself and my family that we continued to follow his page and it wasn’t until after his death that we realized just what a legend Johnny was. We aren’t carnies or performers ourselves, we only knew the Maryland Renn Fest. And we thought Johnny Fox only belonged to us ( silly, I know!). It wasn’t until the various newspaper articles and NPR coverage surfaced that we began to learn the depth of his extraordinary ability and larger than life persona, whose influence spanned the nation. A true “sideshow virtuoso,” one article explained. All those years, we thought he was just our favorite festival act … when in actuality, he was a nation-wide legend.

We also learned more about the journey that he had been on and his drive to keep living and performing, right up until the end. His friends shared that one of the goals he had set for himself when he was diagnosed was to perform for the MD Renn fest for one more season. Friends drove him to doctors and even across the country to receive alternative treatment. He fought from Spring to Fall and there were weeks that he spent the weekdays in the hospital, but would be determined to get out in time to perform for the weekend. He was from Connecticut and performed in festivals all over the country. But somehow, Maryland Renn Fest won his heart, and we were all the luckier for it.

It was a family decision to attend his Celebration of Life ceremony. And we were so glad that we did! The man we knew only from the stage came even more to life when his friends told stories about him and his years of antics and performing. People traveled from all over the country to be there and to honor him. The stage was perfectly anointed with his props and posters and regalia. And the program his friends designed with quirky acts, comedy, eclectic people and musical minstrels was so suited to him that it was life-alteringly inspiring. They even performed a “Twenty-one sword swallow” as a salute to the great entertainer. I don’t know whether I felt more like an unworthy intruder or a privileged guest, to witness the tremendous love for a man I only knew as an audience member.

At the end of the ceremony, the host, a friend of Johnny’s and a fellow performer and magician, explained a tradition that started with the death of Houdini. The tradition was to break the magic wand of the late magician; “because a magic wand without the magician is just a stick”. And they followed the tradition with Johnny’s.

 

We don’t always know where our inspiration is going to come from. Nor do we know how the people (or performers) in our lives are going to change us. During the Celebration of Life ceremony, Johnny’s friend and fellow performer, Mark Sieve said “Johnny’s leaving us has affected all of us in ways we have yet to know.” And it already has.

I never would have dreamed that I would gain the inspiration or the lessons that I have as an audience member of a sideshow artist … I never thought I’d find myself in a room full of circus performers and be moved to tears with their tribute. I am changed because I stopped to watch and paused to learn.

Johnny’s example taught me that no amount of “bad news” or challenges can keep you from living, unless you let it. “Life is a choice to sit it out or dance.” Dancing he did, and magic he made. It’s up to me to make magic with the talents that I have.

And like a magician’s wand, things are just things and days are just days, until you use them to create something magical.

His diagnosis taught me not to let the inevitable, rush me to the ending. There’s a journey, a dance to be had. What he accomplished in those months of “dancing” was earth-moving. He taught this nurse, this skeptic, that it’s not over until it’s over.

And yet, he was a return act who reminded me that nothing lasts forever. Life is fragile and even the longest running act must come to an end. Take nothing for granted.

His quirkiness and love for the oddities in life confirmed my love for individual uniqueness. Johnny was a beloved person and character that embodied everything that was weird and unusual. He not only embraced that strangeness, he made it cool and he made it his. He was a perfect example of being yourself and utilizing your unique talents to make the world a more beautiful place.

Johnny reminded me to honor our past. His act, though it always felt fresh and new, always included tidbits of info that credited the forefathers of his art. He educated while he entertained and he honored the performers and talent that came before him. He fought to keep that dying art alive.

Johnny’s story taught me that “family” is whoever stands by your side and “home” is where your heart is. It was obvious from the speeches made, that Johnny was a well-traveled and well-loved man. He seemed to have many homes. I’m honored that Maryland was his favorite. And the turnout at his life celebration made it clear that his family was a wide and diverse one.

And that family reminded me that it’s those relationships that matter most. The people who carried Johnny to the end it seems, would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. And relationships like that, unlike magic, don’t generate from thin air. Johnny invested in people and they too invested in him. We mustn’t ever be too busy to invest in the people we love.

Despite his life threatening illness, Johnny showed up for one last season. Regardless of his fragility, he still performed and made people both laugh and squirm in enjoyment. He didn’t quit or give up. He didn’t lose himself or become bitter. He lived for every second that he was given and turned a death sentence into a beautiful dance. Might we all find the tenacity within us to do the same.

So here’s to the sword swallower who taught this nurse, this mother, this beer-holding, giggling fan … to believe in magic. Life is a Circus …bring your friends, buy the peanuts, sit in the front row, stay for the last act … it’s too damn short not to!

Thanks for sharing yours with us Johnny! Hats off to a life well performed!

 

 

An Unexpected Snow Day

10391981_1197247926460_3656363_n

Productive non-productivity – it’s something that those of us who have a hard time sitting still need to learn. If you are the coach potato or the gamer, this isn’t for you. If you are the person who can get lost in a book for a whole day, take long walks just to clear your head and do well relaxing and getting lost in deep thought, you don’t need this. This is for the high energy, constant doers, who run themselves ragged and don’t know when to quit. It’s for people like me.

I don’t need someone to teach me how to be more productive. (I have 3 jobs for Christ’s sake). I make photo books, plan parties, decorate cakes, type itineraries for vacations, DYI my home improvement projects and create annual family Halloween costumes. And yet, I can’t sit still through a movie if there’s clutter on the floor, I never watch TV, I don’t sleep enough, I get a haircut once a year, quality time with friends is hard for me to maintain and even my playtime with my family feels like it’s scheduled. I need to learn how to be productively un-productive. I need to be reminded to sit back and take in the natural moments of life, beyond those that I find on a beach vacation.

And an unexpected snow day gave me the inspiration to do just that …

It was 4 am and I was working my usual night shift at the hospital. Due to low patient census, I was given the opportunity to go home early. On any other day, with only three hours left in the shift, I’d probably decline the offer, as eliminating three hours in an effort to gain time/sleep seems futile at that hour. But on this night, we had an unexpected snow storm blow in. This short but fierce storm would likely delay school openings in the morning – and two-hour delays are a nightmare for working parents. Every time it happens, it’s a juggling act to make it work with my sleep needs and my husband’s obligations to an early morning job. I hated the idea of driving home in the height of the storm. But, when I did the “sleep math” I figured-out that if I left the hospital right then, I could get just enough sleep to get the kids to school and save my husband the shenanigans of trying to get himself to work at a decent hour.

Driving home in the pitch black of the wee morning hours, I began to dread my decision. The roads were freshly iced and the only traffic on them, Mack trucks and snow plows, zoomed past me and pelted me with salt. It was a cautious drive home to say the least … but my husband was flooded by relief when he saw my face in the bed and I told him “I’ll take the kids this morning.”

An hour into my sleep I was gifted with a text from the school. The two-hour delay had been converted to a school closing. I’d be a fool to take a cancel from work and then not take advantage. So instead of my usual 4-5 hours, I greedily slept 8.

When I awoke, the magic of the day began to dawn on me – a cancel from work (even if it was only three hours) AND a surprise snow day?! This day couldn’t go to waste! Youthful energy came bubbling up inside of me and the first thing I decided was that it was the perfect day for a big, hot, afternoon breakfast- eggs and sausage and the whole gamut! While family dinner is a nightly occurrence at our house, we don’t often get the opportunity to enjoy breakfast together. I love breakfast! And so do the kids. So when I called them to the table, they came eagerly. And their enthusiasm for a big breakfast combined with a surprise snow day prompted me not to grab my phone with my plate and coffee and I instead left it in the kitchen. While I sipped my coffee, I  listened to the newest drama my teenager wanted to share and the silly stories that my younger one had to contribute, unplugged. They were quite the chatterboxes and it seemed the magic of the day hadn’t been lost to them either.

After we ate, I watched my daughter slink off to the basement (to turn on the TV for sure) and my son ran to put his snow suit on. The sink was full of dirty dishes. The Christmas decorations needed to be packed up and the newly purchased bins to pack them in were sitting in the middle of the living room. There was laundry to be washed and vacuuming to be had. You see, I’m not the kind of person that needs to be motivated. I’m the kind of person who has a running list of “To-do’s”. And logically, I knew that this time, with the kids occupied, after breakfast and before dinner, with an impending 7pm return to work, could be well spent doing those household chores. But the magic of this unplanned day inspired me and instead, for once, I decided to be un-productive … productively un-productive.

So with the dirty dishes piled even higher now, I called down to my daughter, “Hey, lets paint our nails!” I sensed an unexpected happiness in her voice. It’s not easy to excite or motivate a teenager and I think my enthusiastic suggestion instead of a half-hearted inquiry, excited her. Without complaint she turned off the TV and ran to get her new nail painting kit. While my son played outside, she and I experimented with new paint colors and stencils. While we painted, I realized that I no longer had to paint her nails for her or instruct her to keep still to avoid smudging them. She was old enough to do it on her own now and yet young enough to enjoy doing it with me. Side by side, we played and we enjoyed ourselves. She even let me put the stamp of my choice on her big toe nail. And while my nails looked slightly like an elementary school child with snowflakes on every nail, the fact that I used her kit and kept it on when I went to work that night, made her feel like I valued our time, I think.

We finished up our nails just as my little snow monster came barreling through the back door. And instead of hollering for him to take his wet clothes down to the dryer and fussing about the wet floors, I simply told him “Get some warm clothes on and then we can play your Play Station”. “Huh?” he said. I repeated myself, ” I don’t know how to play. So you’re gonna have to teach me.” I hadn’t played video games since I was a teenager and certainly not since I became a mother. Never have I seen that little boy move so fast to change his clothes! By the time I got downstairs, he had the system on and the game ready to go, with two controllers. The three of us took turns with the two controllers and the kids were in absolute stitches – watching me try to hunt storm troopers with my light saber. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard my teenager laugh so hard at anything other than her friends and my little guy rarely gets the opportunity to teach anyone older than him anything. He’d only had the game system for a week, but I know he felt like a “pro” teaching his inadequate mom how to “jump”, “strike” and “run”.

And despite the fact that I had just started my New Years diet, I knew that I’d somehow be able to accommodate the calories in a cup of hot chocolate and a handful of marshmallows that day. So while we played Star Wars, we all indulged in a beverage that I rarely make for myself and it was delicious! The whole afternoon was delicious!

When my husband got home, the dishes were still piled up, Christmas still standing and the laundry was still dirty. But everyone was so happy that I don’t think he minded at all!

 

It was only a three-hour cancel. But that three hours made all the difference … because I decided to use that time to play with the people I love. I met them where they were at and played the things that they like to play. Rare are the days that they come to me with a request to play anymore. And the days that they will even be willing to comply with my requests are quickly coming to an end. I’m glad that I took this day to cash-in on that. I enjoyed their presence so much more than I would have had I decided to just be “productive”. For once, I was able to ignore the mess, to put down the phone, to stop adulting, and I just enjoyed my children for who they are, with no itinerary or checklist.

An early leave from work is a gift. A snow day is a gift. Time is a gift. Don’t waste it! If you’re like me and you have a hard time ignoring the “To do” list, if you tend to be a relentlessly productive person, I encourage you to try being un-productive for once. But not in the isolated sense of getting sucked into a TV show or playing on your phone. Try being unproductive in a productive way – the way that nurtures relationships and creates lasting memories. The way that shows that people and relationships and life is more important than a list of never-ending chores. The way that uses time the way it should be used, as fleeting and limited and precious.

When I’m old and gray, I assure you, I won’t remember the day I left the dishes in the sink or the Christmas decorations up an extra few, but maybe, if I’m lucky … I’ll remember my children’s laughter as I tried to navigate their newest technology, their marshmallow mustaches from hot chocolate on a snowy day, and their quiet diligence while they focused hard to paint their little nails. But more importantly I hope they remember that some days, despite her list of things to do, their mother took time to play. And she never took time or life for granted … especially on snow days.

 

The Curse of Motherhood

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI have always said that… Being a mother is the greatest gift and …. the biggest curse.

Despite the fact that my first pregnancy was not planned, as far as timing goes, I knew then, and all along, that there was nothing on my list of life goals that I wanted more, than to be a mother. So despite the fact that I was 21 and in nursing school, I knew that I would find a way to “make it work”. Continuing my pregnancy was the only option. Becoming a nurse was certainly high on the list too and I didn’t give up on that one either, but motherhood held the top spot.

I know that I’m not alone when I say “My children are my greatest accomplishment and my biggest source of pride.” I know that I’m not alone when I speak of the joy that they bring to my life, every day. On my hardest days, they are the reason I get out of bed. When I’m afraid to take a chance or try something new, it’s because of their innocent good faith in me and the good example I want to set for them, that I take that leap of faith. When it feels like nothing else in the world is right, it’s their faces that give me hope. They inspire me to create memories, to craft, to explore and to have fun. They have taught me humility, patience, endurance and hope. They’ve made me believe in self-control, forgiveness and second chances.

Studying my every move, they learn how to be human from me. And so I am prompted to watch my mouth, control my anger, be polite, honest and show empathy towards others, even on days when I might otherwise forgo such acts of character. I do it so that they will learn how to be good humans, and they in turn teach me. I am without a doubt, a stronger and better person because I am a mother.

My heart and soul never knew the highest intensity of love until I held my child. They are my everything. And because they are my everything … the blessing that they are, is equally enrobed in their curse. The curse that is to love another being more than ones own self. Never again will my mind or my soul rest at perfect ease. Never again will a day go by that I am not plagued by some worry for them. Never a night shall pass that I am not delayed or awoken from sleep because their well-being is on my mind. Along with the honor of motherhood, comes the greatest of responsibility. Along with the ultimate love, comes the ultimate fear of loss.

Bodies of water that were once only visions of pleasure and relaxation are now viable sources of harm, drowning risks. Cars are no longer just modes of transportation but the leading cause of death. Medications, even Tylenol are an over-dose potential and stairs, sharp objects, high places, plastic bags, household cleaners, all hold the same threat. My children’s eyes have shown me the wonders of the world and their presence has made be forever aware of its dangers.

Objects, animals, weather, life circumstances, all hold frightening possibilities in the eyes and minds of mothers everywhere. But it’s people and biology that scare me the most. People who were “Ok” before, no longer meet the standards I hold to entrust them with my children. The bar for responsibility and goodness has risen to the highest degree. Small nuances in behavior that I would have previously dismissed, are now “red flags”. Sleep-overs are terrifying. Human trafficking is real. Predators lie in every neighborhood. And smart phones and the internet are the scariest technology to date, because people are the biggest monsters of all. Any harm/threat to my children is the ultimate betrayal and hell hath no fury than that of a mother whose babe has been hurt. And so any person whom I allow into my children’s lives must earn my trust.

Although I have reasonable control over the persons in my children’s lives, it’s biology that holds the potential for the most frightening degree of influence. While people can be denied or removed, our DNA is established at conception. The same helix of chromosomes that gave my son his striking blue eyes and infectious laughter and my daughter her beautiful caramel skin and spunky spirit, also holds spirals of daunting risks. Attached to us from the inside, influencing and infecting us from our core, we can’t deny or remove them. Drawing us into behavioral tendencies and illnesses that betray our every wish and desire, it’s biology that robs us of the control that we think we have.

But knowing our history and observing changes in behavior is how we regain that control. A family history of cancer, disease, mental illness or addiction isn’t a “Get out of jail free card” and it isn’t a death sentence. It’s not an excuse nor a condemnation. It is knowledge. It’s a heads up. It’s a reason to watch close and act fast. We don’t have to be crippled by it, instead, we can choose to be empowered.

In a life filled with challenges, motherhood is by far-the biggest challenge I’ve ever encountered. Every day I am both proud and disappointed, encouraged and afraid, hopeful and weary. I have cried tears of both joy and pain. I have been saved by good souls who have helped me learn how to mother and have given me a place to vent and a place of respite. And yet I have been hurt by others and betrayed by my own genetics. But neither of these will be a reason for me to lay down in surrender. I will fight to the death for the two hearts I hold dearest and I will relish in their every presence. I will give them every ounce of my self and my energy and my potential. And then, my hope for myself, is that regardless of the outcome of the journey we call “Motherhood”, I will allow myself to be freed from burden and guilt. I hope that I will meet my end knowing that I gave motherhood everything that I had and that victory was still mine.

The curse of motherhood might be a curse that I carry to my last days, but it’s a curse that is wrapped in blessings. There is no antidote but there are moments of ease. Raising children is the greatest adventure in the world. It is filled with new experiences, reasons to laugh and smile, hope on difficult days and lessons that only children can teach you. Every adventure has its rewards and its challenges. To behold the spectacular views of the summit, one must invest hard work, blood, sweat and tears. To rest, one must first persevere through the climb. To hold the blessings that a mother is given, one must also accept the curse. I am honored to be called one of the blessed … and I am sobered to be one of the cursed.

The Bitterness of the Holidays

For many people, the holidays hold a bittersweetness about them. The glitter and the lights, the delicious food and brightly wrapped packages, the gathering of friends and family, are all part of what makes the holidays a sweet and wonderful occasion that we look forward to celebrating. But along with that wonder and excitement, for many, the holidays also hold the bitterness of broken promises, missed opportunity, loss and regret. If we’re lucky, we’re able to balance the two. We’re able to see the faces of those that have gone before us in the traditions and the crafts and the baking and we give them a respectful nod or a toast. But for others, the loss they’ve experienced is on such a grand scale and the dulled edges of expected loss are sharpened so painfully with the tragic loss of a loved one gone too soon, that a balance of bitterness and sweetness is a much harder feat.

The last time that I saw my oldest brother’s face was the Christmas of 1996. He was quite ill at the time, with mental illness and substance abuse, but my 14-year-old self didn’t quite grasp the gravity of it. I knew that there wasn’t much he would use or want so I put my creative skills to use and made my first decorated cake. He loved penguins. So I created an arctic scene on a sheet cake with icing, rock candy and gummy penguins. Instead of handing him a brightly wrapped package, I handed him my heart-felt craft and I elicited from him a rare, ear-to-ear grin. That night when he left, my cool teenage self chose not to hug him or say “I love you.” My family wasn’t big on that and my adolescent immaturity made it worse. I can still see him getting out of the car and I can still remember the inner conflict I felt as he walked away and all I said was “Bye Sean”.

My memories from that Christmas couldn’t be a more fitting example of that bittersweetness that I speak of. A few weeks later, at his viewing, I later learned from his friends that he paraded that cake around town. He thought that it was just “the coolest thing” and I got “props” from my big brother’s cool friends. Still, because I chose not to display my love and affection in other ways, I’ve had to learn to live with my own regret, my own missed opportunity, my own loss.

This season, be mindful of those people who find it “hard to get into the Christmas spirit”. Take note of the people who spend their holidays alone and include them. Be patient and understanding if they’re just not jolly. Remember that even the “Grinch” had a reason for his hardened and bitter heart. We’re all on our own journey, but we’re in it together. And we almost never hit the ‘hard parts’ at the same time. Instead of wondering why someone can’t “get it together,” lend them a hand … or an ear, instead of a judgment. Stop for just a second and take a look around … to see the people who may be silently suffering, they are often the ones hurting the most. Look beyond your own circle of festivities and see how you can add a little sweetness to their situation. And instead of saying I’ll do it next year … instead of being too busy to travel, too self-righteous to make a phone call or too cool to say “I love you”, use this season as an opportunity to make memories and to make amends. Life is too fragile to be filled with regrets.

And after you’ve delivered your cookies to the shut-ins and made your phone calls and filled your homes with lonely hearts and empty bellies … find a delicious holiday drink to fill your cups … cook up something delicious and affordable to share … and start telling stories and playing games … continue old traditions and build new memories … and then, let the sweetness of the holidays slowly saturate the bitterness away. It can, if you give it time and you let it in.

 

Here’s a cocktail that I think does just that. Cranberries, alone, are a sour and bitter fruit. And whiskey is a libation known to burn as it goes down and numb what is tender. But sugar and cinnamon and citrus have been the sweeteners and the fruits of the holidays since they first began. This cocktail uses these traditional sweets to balance the bitterness of the whiskey and the cranberry to give a beautiful holiday balance. I hope you enjoy it and the remainder of your holiday season. Blessings to all and wishes for a sweetened holiday this year and the years to come – from Life, Liberty and a little bit of Libations!

 

Whiskey-Cranberry cocktail

 

  • 1 cup whiskey
  • 1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 4 TBs spiced-cranberry simple syrup (see below)

Combine and stir or shake. Serve over ice. Makes about 4 servings.

Spiced cranberry simple syrup

  • 1 cup pure, unsweetened cranberry juice
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks

Heat in a small saucpan until sugar dissolves and liquid reduces by about 1/5. Let cool.

 

 

To Santa … or not … my perspective on the Man in Red

santa hat.jpg

Many have the conversations been, from Christians and non-believing parents a-like…. To Santa or not? Is promoting Santa, promoting the over-the-top consumerism that seems to plague every holiday in the US? Are we disrespecting the Christian reason for the holiday? Are we dumbing our kids down or creating a culture of distrust by perpetuating such a ridiculous idea of a man who lives in the North pole and flies around the world in a sleigh?

Before you hang-up your hat on Santa … consider these few points…

First off … our holiday traditions surrounding Christmas came from several sources, only one of them being the Christian celebration of the Savior's birth (which actually took place in Spring). Google the Pagan Festival of Lights and the Winter Solstice for an informative read. There are several "reasons for the season."

But that's not what this post is about. This post is about Santa. And why I believe teaching our children about the Man in Red isn't all bad.

The consumerism associated with Santa is a self-perpetuating problem and it's not one that belongs to Santa. No one said Santa had to buy out the store. No one said Santa needed to keep up with the Joneses. Santa is a story about a mythical person whose entire existence revolves around gifting the people of the world. One could argue that Santa is in actuality a perfect symbol of generosity and has nothing to do with greed and consumerism-we did that to ourselves!

There's also no reason why both Santa and baby Jesus can't happily co-exist, either. Most people associate Santa with St.Nicholas- a saint! My parents did a great job balancing the two traditions. We attended our Christmas church service every Christmas Eve, After church we sang "Happy Birthday" and placed baby Jesus in the manger. We thanked God for sending Jesus to save us. The following morning, the presents were a sort of birthday celebration you could say … delivered by Santa 🙂

But for me, Santa is less about what he delivers and what belief system he might challenge. For me, Santa represents fantasy. And fantasy I believe is an essential component to long-term happiness in life. Fantasy is what gives us hope. Fantasy is what allows us to think of the "What ifs". It allows us to dream. Fantasy is the antidote for cynicism. Very few great feats were gained through cynicism. And while science and math made our technological advances come to life, it was fantasy that allowed us to consider them a possibility.

I believe that while a solid dose of cynicism comes tied to the package of adulthood, the seeds for fantasy can only be planted in childhood. If a child is not allowed/encouraged to fantasize … if everything in their life is taken at face value and is scientifically and factually based, I think they are deprived of their inherit ability to consider all the possibilities and to dream. And I don't believe that later, as adults, they can gain that skill in the same fashion. However, if we are exposed to fantasy as a child, while we shed much of it as we become adults, we still have the capability to go back to our child-like thoughts and consider the possibility of the impossible. So just like we all pretended that the floor was lava and the picnic table out back was a pirate ship, allowing ourselves to indulge in the story of Santa, allows us to escape reality for a short time and it teaches us how to pretend. Pretending not only encourages us to think outside the box but it can also be a source of happiness and comfort when our minds need a break from the rigors of life's stressors.  Sometimes, I think we adults could use a little more of that … in the right ways of course.

So what happens when the kids figure us out? That's frequently the argument used to dissuade the Santa practice … That our children will distrust us. That we will either become perpetual liars or story telling fools in our children's eyes.

Well I can tell you what happened in our house when my oldest came to me to tell that the gig was up. I didn't do anything to promote this discovery but I also didn't argue with her. It felt foolish to keep pretending something that she had obviously figured out. I let her talk and then I simply responded "But isn't it fun to pretend- You know Disney World isn't real and most of the time when you're playing with your friends you're role-playing. But it's fun to pretend! It's fun to walk through the gates of the Magic Kingdom and pretend that it's a real town. It's fun to imagine yourself in another role, in another place. Sometimes it allows you to consider something that you've never considered before."

I instructed her not to spoil the fun for her little brother and I answered all of her questions on "But how did you…?" in regards to the heist we had so cleverly pulled off for her first eleven years. And she actually voiced her appreciation for our efforts and all of the gifts that we let "Santa" get the credit for. I think it was a lesson in the selflessness of parenting for her.

And when she came back to me later and said "Christmas just isn't the same this year. It just isn't as exciting." I told her again, "You can still pretend. I know it's not the same … getting older is like that. But instead of sitting there and telling yourself just how ridiculous the whole story is … put the science and the math in your pocket for just one night … and imagine once again – the North pole, the elves, the cookies and milk, a town that is always happy and full of good intentions and …. just pretend. Life is only as magical as you let it be."

I hope your holidays are magical no matter how old you are or how you chose to celebrate them! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Life, Liberty and a little bit of Libations!

Keepin it Festive … the historic and brilliant cranberry … in a cocktail!

Few fruits are as iconic of the winter holidays as the brightly colored, small, firm, ridiculously tart, cranberry. Strung along a thread and paired with popcorn, they've decorated trees for generations. They've served as eyes for snowmen, instant home décor inside otherwise empty vases and accents for wreaths and evergreen floral arrangements. We use them to make relish and sauce, a holiday meal staple in many homes. Its juice is the core of many a holiday punch recipe and mixed with ginger ale, children are amused to sip it like a grown-up cocktail. Even a few berries to garnish a cake or dropped into a cocktail or glass of champagne provides an instant holiday "pop". They are the little balls of color amongst the drab winter backdrop and when you see them, you instantly think of the holidays.

Not only do these little pops of bright-red carry a welcome visual appeal amongst the bare winter scenery, beneath that colorful skin, they carry a powerful punch of vitamins and antioxidants. Whilst almost unbearably tart when eaten alone, when cooked, mashed or even dried, and then sweetened, they are not only nutritionally beneficial but quite delicious!

You could almost say that the cranberry's presence is an American tradition. One of only three fruits native to North America, they are most commonly grown in the north-east of North America; (but they can also be found in the midwestern state of Wisconsin, the Pacific Northwest, as well as Chile – heeeeyyy!) Native Americans used these tiny fruits for their medicinal value as well as for dye. Colonists ate them for their high vitamin C content as it helped prevent Scurvy. Their high antioxidant content combats free radicals. And they've long been used for urinary tract health as they protect against certain bacteria, namely E.coli.

Although their nutritional benefits have long been known, it wasn't until the 1800s that cranberries were first farmed on a large-scale. Perhaps that's because the berries, which grow on long-running, low-lying vines, are cumbersome to harvest. That is, until the farming technique of "flooding" was discovered. Cranberries, which grow naturally in sandy bogs and marshes, are naturally buoyant. By flooding the plant area, the berries float to the top of the water and are much easier to harvest. Ocean Spray is one such company who saw the value in this and became the trade-mark cranberry company in North America. You can learn more about them here: http://www.oceanspray.com/Who-We-Are/Heritage/Cranberry-History.aspx

While I have some bangin' recipes for cranberry relish and sauce, this is a libation post. So below I have two cranberry cocktail recipes for your next holiday gathering. Both use unsweetened cranberry juice to cut down on sugar and preserve nutritional value. It can be hard to find but if you don't find it in your local grocery store, check an organic market. Or, just use the sweet stuff and know that you may need to compensate for it somewhere else. The first recipe is a martini, my favorite in the world of cocktails. The second is a mule, a very trendy option with a spicy kick.

 

Cranberry-Amaretto Martini

  • 2 cups unsweetened cranberry juice
  • 1 cup vodka
  • 1/3 cup amaretto
  • 3 TBS triple sec
  • 1 fresh clementine (wedges used as garnish)

Combine juice and alcohols in a shaker with ice. Strain into a glass and garnish with an orange slice. Makes 4 martinis.

 

Spicy Cranberry Mule

  • 2 oz unsweetened cranberry juice
  • 3 oz ginger beer
  • 1 1/2 oz spiced rum
  • 1 oz simple syrup (you could also follow my recipe for spiced simple syrup found here:

https://lifelibertyandlibations.com/2017/10/08/the-pear-martini/

Serve over ice and garnish with sugared cranberries. Makes one mule.

 

Happy Holiday season … like the cranberry … may your days be merry and bright and might your tartness be sweetened so that your infectious spirit can be drank by those around you.

 

The Accident

accident picIf you or someone you love has been hurt in an accident….

No it’s not a Saiontz And Kirk commercial … it’s a perspective you might not have considered. Or maybe you have … and you just need to hear it again. Here’s the story of My Accident…

I was sixteen years old with a learners’ permit. I was working a relatively new job at a restaurant and I was scheduled to close that night. During that time, the first year of my first “real” job, I was getting “hazed” (for lack of a better word) as the new girl. And the girl, or should I say, the completely grown and educated senior staff person who was closing with me that shift, was particularly cruel that night. She was doing absolutely everything she could to make my life and my job miserable as she and I tended to our closing duties. She was rude, made me do things twice and criticized my every move. And I was bound to follow her command because she was the well-respected senior staff and I didn’t know any better.

I had already confided in my parents about the ‘mean girl’ behavior that had been going on for quite some time now and had on several occasions, talked about quitting. But my father wouldn’t have such a thing.

“Don’t you dare let them win!” he said. “You keep going back and you do your best. You’re not going to let them drive you out. That’s what they want. You quitting means that they have won.”

So, by this night I had already made up my mind to push through and not be defeated. But it made me angry … really angry! I was done crying about it and now I was just pissed.

And by the time I clocked out and walked to the car where my mother waited in the passenger seat to allow me to drive home … I was furious.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “Why are you so angry?” Angry words spewed out of my mouth and in response to them came “You’re not going to talk to me that way”, “Knock it off”. In an effort to curb my anger, she made me more angry.

A back and forth banter between a teenage girl who had just been torn to shreds and a mother who couldn’t understand her ensued.

Eventually, it became, “Pull over the car, you’re not driving.”

But it was too late … I was too angry … I didn’t pull over.

It was raining and we were headed down a portion of road that had only one lane in each direction with a speed limit of 50 mph. Going the full 50, in the rain, fighting … before I knew it, I had lost control of my vehicle. I jerked the wheel, fish tailed and sailed into oncoming traffic, hitting a truck head-on. The combined impact of both vehicles led to a 100 mph impact. No one had a chance to brake.

I have no visual memory of the impact or the seconds leading up to it. I woke-up to by-standers prying my door open and my vehicle filled with smoke. It was hardly recognizable. Both air bags deployed and the dash was pushed into the car. My mother was beside me, incoherently moaning, and I could see fluids pouring onto the street. As the two men pulled me out onto my feet, my feet gave out. I didn’t realize at that time that I had jammed my feet into my legs from the high impact. I heard one of the men say, “Hurry…this car is going to blow.” And inside that car laid my mother, too hurt to be moved.

I cried out to the men, “This is my fault!” And a sweet, broken english, well-meaning voice said to me in my ear “Shhh … don’t incriminate yourself.” The men carried me to the guard rails where I sat in pain and watched the only view of the accident that I had caused. My mother was in too much pain for the men to carry her out and the truck doors were too mangled to open. Alone, I sat there and sobbed. I caused this accident. It was all my fault and tonight, I thought, someone might die because I let my anger get the best of me.

When the first responders came, I remember my mother wailing as they pulled her out of the vehicle and I asked a paramedic who was evaluating me if my Mom was going to die? She looked right into my eyes and very sincerely said, “I don’t know honey. But we’re going to get her help as fast as we can.” She then asked me what happened to my clothes. For the first time I looked down at myself and saw that my red work polo and khaki shorts had been shredded – from the seat belt? from the shearing force of a car slamming to a halt under 100mph impact? … who knows? Right then, all that I wanted to know was that everyone was going to be ok. I was the only one sitting outside of the vehicles and that wasn’t fair. I alone should be paying the price for my mistake … not these people … not my Mom.

The entire stretch of the road was shut-down. The ‘jaws of life’ were brought to the scene to open the truck from the top and to get its passengers out. My Mom was pushed on a stretcher all the way down the street to a helicopter waiting in a near-by parking lot and then flown via medevac to Shock Trauma. I was later told that the street was lined with parked cars and people on their knees in prayer. They transported me via ambulance to a different trauma center to avoid the trauma teams receiving two critical patients at once. Because of the high impact of the accident, it was protocol to assume our injuries were life threatening.

Inside the ambulance with me, was a passenger from the truck that I had struck. When they closed the doors and the sound level dropped inside the ambulance, I said to the man, “I am so sorry sir.” “Yeah, well my leg is all cut up because of you” was his response. He didn’t need to accept my apology. I hurt him and the people he was with and that was on me. No one was there to tell me it would “be okay” or that it was “just a mistake”. I fucked up royally and I knew it.

Eventually my Dad and sister got the call and made it up to the hospital to see me. I was stable, miraculously, no major injuries other than my feet, a badly strained neck and back and some bumps and bruises. They soon left to go see my Mom who was expectedly in worse shape.

And then no one else came. The news apparently didn’t make it to the rest of my family that night. I sat in my hospital room until the following afternoon, alone. And I wondered if my Mom pulled through. I wondered if the other people survived too. I wondered if because of my moment of anger, I was responsible for killing someone. The burden was so heavy, I just wanted to die.

You see, I’m convinced, if you’re a normal human being … nothing is worse than unintentionally hurting someone else. Knowing that I was responsible for hurting people was the worst punishment I could have ever gotten. So when I was later found “not guilty” on all counts due to the fact that the police officer in court had not witnessed the accident and the other party did not show … I hadn’t “gotten off”. Fines and a delayed ability to get my license wouldn’t have mattered at that point. I had already paid the price. Hearing my mother wail as they pulled her out of the vehicle, being told that she might not survive, sitting in that hospital room wondering what had happened to everyone … praying and crying in the dark, alone … that was my price! That was living hell!

I later found out that everyone in the other car survived with minor injuries and were released from the hospital the next day. My Mom too survived – with a shattered wrist, cracked ribs and bruised lungs, but our relationship took way longer to heal than our wounds did. Because she, like so many who are hurt, wanted me to pay a price. What she couldn’t understand that day is what so many people can’t understand. Sometimes the natural consequences of an action are the most impactful. And life-long cycles of anger in a home can have devastating consequences.

What I did get from that day (aside from chronic back pain and weak ankles) … was a very serious respect for driving. It was my father who made me get back behind the wheel before fear paralyzed me from ever driving again. But never again would you find a reckless driver in my seat. Nor would you find me in the passenger seat with a reckless driver next to me. – Later in my teens I was known to tell any one of my friends to pull over if I thought someone’s driving was unsafe and I’d start walking. No racing or “donuts” in my youth. I had already used my “how to cheat death card”. There were no more second chances. Life was precious and I needed to feel safe again.

I learned the importance of controlling my anger and the gravity that not controlling it could cause. And I learned that no amount of bad examples set for me would excuse me for the consequences of my own actions. Just because I grew up in a home where anger was often uncontrolled, it didn’t excuse me from the harm that I myself had caused.

I learned that people don’t have to accept your apology and they don’t have to see your perspective … but you still owe them that apology and you still owe yourself a lesson.

I learned that although my father may have been right about not letting people “win” by pushing me out … I still let them get the best of me by allowing myself to get so angry. And in doing so, I almost paid the price with a person’s life. So I did lose.

I could have left the scene of the accident forever changed with anger and blame and a lack of personal responsibility. I also could have left the scene with paralyzing guilt and fear. Instead, with time and serious soul-searching … I gained respect, experience, and perspective. And I learned how to admit when I was wrong and to take responsibility.

As I started out saying … this isn’t a law firm commercial. If you’ve been hurt by someone’s negligence … by all means get your bills paid for and your life compensated …but while you heal your body and your home … heal your heart too. And consider for a moment that the negligent perpetrator may not be a monster after all … but a hurt little girl who with a split second jerk of the wheel will hold a lifetime of regret.

And if it was you who’s at fault … own it, pick it clean for lessons, put those lessons in your backpack and continue on your journey called “life”. Your pack may be little heavier now … but it’s filled with tools that may one day come in handy.

(follow-up note: Those “mean girls” at one point in my life or another all came back and apologized to me. I admire each of them for their maturity and they’ve grown to be lovely adults. And I’m really glad I didn’t quit that job … because I ended up meeting the love of my life there a few years later. Ain’t life funny that way!)