Sunday, November 23, 2008

Unbounded Riches in the Electric City

I was born in 1954 to a typical Schenectady family - blue collar, Italian, Catholic, patriotic, somewhat neurotic, but thoroughly family-centric. Now that I have had ample time to reflect on my childhood as juxtaposed to the "great cultural enlightenment" of the last 40 years (aka the de-volution of society), I can truthfully say that growing up in Schenectady at the time I did, was "A Wonderful Life".

I always felt my hometown was kind of magical, and never more so than at the darkest time of the year, when the sun set early and the first downy flakes began to fly. Undaunted, and in spite of the dying of the year, the city "that lights the world" truly lived up to its rep, beginning with the parade down State Street in late November.

My father loved a parade. We would be bundled up to the point where we walked about like the unfortunate dead in zombie movies, put into place along the road, and then treated to the colorful stream of high school musicians, puffy politicians, marching veterans, and yes, oh yes Santa himself! The street lights boasted tinseley finery and storefronts be-decked themselves with frosted windows, merry elves, snowmen and all manner of glorious Christmas imagery. Carl Company department store had the best, and you knew there was a God in heaven after viewing their annual Christmas display.

Santa shopped lightly and carefully at Carl's and other downtown stores for our gifts. Always thrilled with the "bounty" underneath our skinny balsam tree, we secretly suspected that we were the richest people around. Sure, Dad was a construction worker who would be pink-slipped as soon as the ground froze. But that meant that he was there all winter to work on his "inventions" and repairs down in the cellar. I would be working too, right beside him, banging nails into blocks of wood mostly, but having a glorious tom-boy time of it!

He also had leisure to take us sledding at the golf course and skating at Central Park. We would take weekly walks to the Woodlawn library (as Dad loved detective stories and was always in need of a fresh supply), and sometimes we'd just trek through the frozen wilderness behind Bishop Gibbons school, looking for animal tracks. I also remember having a child-sized snow shovel, and while my big brother was out earning money by shoveling snow for the neighbors, I would be my father's right-hand girl, enduring with him the frustration of having the snow plow come and push all the snow off the street and back up onto our just-finished driveway. My father would say words I never heard him say in front of my mother, but were reserved for outside misfortunes and banged fingers down in the cellar workshop.

These memories and many more came rushing back to me the other day when my husband was doing some minor repair work in our Virginia Beach home. I went to see how things were going and there, with other tools he had left on the counter, was the little hammer that I used as a child down in the cellar of the white cottage on Albany Street. I guess my husband must have taken it when we were clearing out the old homestead after my mother died. At that time, still full of grief and loss, I remember not caring about any of the fancy, "for-show" stuff, but making sure I took her rolling pin, her measuring cup, and the big metal spoon, relics of a wonderful woman's hard work and devotion. My parents and my childhood were not unique, but rather like most others at that time and place. Would that, once again, regular folks had steady, good jobs and wore their modest, pay-as-you-go lives like a badge of honor. The taxes would go down, wouldn't they?

I am so thankful for the city and the people that formed me. We were a somewhat gruff exteriored people, but generous and loyal to a fault. There is something grand, and yes, magical about the place: its traditions, its beautiful buildings, the alleys, the magnificent park, those little bomb-like lanterns that used to mark out street work being done, the food (still unsurpassed in any place I have seen in the states or abroad), the fragrant mud of Spring, the green freshness of summer, the audacious color of autumn and yes, the long, sleepy winters - they all form a most wonderful, unique place. And after having traveled and lived in many different places, I can assure you that the people of Schenectady are themselves larger than life, characters all, a splash of vivacious color on an-otherwise gray canvas of the run-of-the-mill. If we could afford to live there, we'd be back. (I have some ideas about this, but alas, I am now an outsider).

You are a people and a place which vastly underestimate yourselves. Perhaps that is still what makes you so special - you are not self-conscious, there is no contrivance, no "marketing" of your life. Just the simple, unconscious piety, the family, the underlying good nature, the holiday parade. You truly are an electric city. Have you ever secretly suspected that you might be the richest people around?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A Foggy Morning, photo courtesy of Rae Lee Robinson

Oh my goodness! The day after Halloween I went to the department store to discover Christmas greens hanging from the ceiling. A forest of light-bejewelled evergreens had sprung up where the haunted gallery had stood a day before. Instead of the thrilling, chilling, pre-recorded screams of the tortured damned, they were playing Christmas carols. They say older people get disoriented and depressed when things get changed up on them. I went home and put up my Thanksgiving decorations and stayed inside for the rest of the day until I felt grounded once again.

The bible says "let all things be done decently and in order" (I Cor 14:40). Well, to me, that means take a breath and give the month of November its due. This particular point in the calendar used to be a time of quiet transition. But I think that these days we have trouble with interlude. Too subtle. We'd have to do some thinking, some introspection. "Can you turn up the TV even louder? That still, small voice I'm hearing is annoying the crap out of me!"

November is bleak, stark, dark and somber. It is a time when the Earth puts itself to bed. Somewhere down in the hard-drive you sense the dying of the year. So be it.

November, it turns out, makes a statement. A time when the sun sets early and an evening chill descends, we might hear it speaking to us about the inevitability of things. We hear an audible sigh from the once-colorful leaves as they die and fall to the gray ground below. This season points, with simplicity and elegance, to something that clownish, garish Halloween attempts to caricature: death and decay. The last things. What a bummer, who wants to ponder that?

I know, we can distract ourselves from the fate that awaits us all AND save the economy and therefore our superpower status in the world by starting the Christmas, oops, sorry, holiday shopping season on November 1st! Do your patriotic duty and save the hind-end of our nation by SHOPPING! Get out there now and buy gym memberships for everyone on your list. Some rogaine shampoo for his stocking, and some liquid face-lift renewal cream for hers. Nobody has to get old anymore! Schedule that plastic surgery for right after the holidays, grab some prescription whoopee-pills and go for the gusto with that tawdry, midlife affair! Get your sleigh bells jingling and TURN UP THE NOISE!!!!!!

Oh. Not so much money for all that this year. Reality.


How about we let Truth, albeit a homely beauty, gather us up in her wide lap that we may rest quietly with her for awhile. Bubbles break. What goes up must come down. Sometimes we lose what we love. And what was new is now old but will be new again. What? Will be new again, we are promised.

The bereft, bare bones of the trees raise suppliant arms to the sky, to ask "When?" but never, "Why?" "When will we bear the Spring-spun clothes of our redemptive new life?"

On the wind comes the soothing answer. "Soon enough, soon enough. In the womb of the Earth are all the seeds and promise of life itself, waiting for the return of the sun."

"But sleep for awhile, sleep, sleep, sleep", says the sky, sending her early snow children, the flurries, floating gently down to the Earth below. The land is comforted and settles in.

What comforts us in this, the darkest time of the year? Faith, hope and love. And the giving of thanks. These are the essence of what makes life worth living, and living bravely and well.

We have faith in Our Creator who breathes all creatures into being and faith that He is not only driving this silly bus called life, but knows what He is doing and has a great sense of direction.

We have hope that all that is good, bright and beautiful is right around the corner, if not in sight just now. We are mugged by joy just thinking about it!

And love! Like jello, there's always room for more. If you don't feel it, ask to be infused with it. A prayer that is always answered, I assure you. Share it, spread it, smile it, wave it at that car to let it get in your lane ahead of you, toss a few quarters of it into that bell ringer's red cauldron, and be thankful for it each and every time it is sent your way.

Oh yes, Thanksgiving! November's consolation prize to us! Originally set at this time of year because, after the heavy lifting of summer and harvest, Thanksgiving allowed a bit of time off from the pressures of the early settlers' relentless to-do list. This list contained one word: Survive. Since they had thus far accomplished their goal, they proceeded, with full and grateful hearts, to party and say thanks. Lovely. Sounds Catholic.

So, you see, there is something to smile about and allow November to do. Along with facing earthly life's inevitable conclusion, meditating with Holy Mother Church on the four last things, praying for souls, and praying for a happy, prepared death for ourselves and others, we should also proudly display our pilgrim candles, our turkey salt and pepper shakers, our school children's hand-colored, cut-out cornucopiae (even if said children are now 25 year's old), cut out those coupons for that Butterball, and revel in the richness and beauty of the season at hand.

Array ourselves with the garments faith, hope, love and the giving of thanks. These are the balm of life, the giggling of the bubbling stew, the warmth of the cheery hearth, the smell of coffee brewing, and the candles set in the windows, guiding the weary traveler home.