One of my required readings for school this term was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Happily, I had already purchased and read this book some years ago. I reread it, and this time, Lamott’s emphasis on short assignments and the one-inch picture frame struck me.
When everything seems too overwhelming and you don’t know what to write about, you write about as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame (metaphorical or otherwise). At work, there’s a mysterious green bench that appeared on the porch of the big red farmhouse. It’s the green of kids’ green poster paint and my boss exclaimed to me, “It looks like a Christmas bench!”
“The Christmas Bench,” I mused. “It sounds like a kids’ story, where people sit on the bench and learn the true meaning of Christmas and all that stuff. One day, I’ll write it.”
And I kept trying to. I kept scribbling about Christmas and what it means to me, and how it’s changed, but I kept hitting walls and giving up.
Until I remembered the one-inch picture frames.
I’d like to write about Christmas now.
For three Saturdays in December, the pioneer village stays open until 9:30 pm. We do Victorian Christmas things. Oil lamps light the entire village with a soft warm glow (hence, Christmas by Lamplight). Food gets handed out, live music plays, I’m usually down in the brewery slinging beer.
But before all of that, there is dinner.
The table in the middle of our staff room serves as its focal point. Really, they are two long, narrow tables stuck together. They have shiny blue tops and shiny black legs, like the lunch tables you’d find in an elementary school. The chairs have the same shiny black legs and blue seats, but that’s some kind of easily-wiped padding, so they’re not too uncomfortable. Our lunches are split into five separate shifts; there are usually only three to four people around this table at any given time.
Lamplight is different. See, on Saturdays, we close at 4:30. We don’t need to be back out until 5:45. Some people go out. Most people seem to stay. And so, instead of only three or four people, it’s nearly everyone, all brown-bagging their dinner. Although it’s only 4:30, people grab their dinners right away, because there’s always a rush for the microwave. Tupperware and frozen dinners line the counter just in front of it, queuing while their owners claim seats around the table.
It’s always kind of anxiety-inducing when your turn at the microwave comes up, because you’re very conscious of the long line behind you, but at the same time there’s nothing worse than only partially warming your stew and biting into an icy chunk of potato. So you balance and ponder and eventually settle on a time that’s somewhere in the middle, and you probably pull it out halfway through to stir it up and check on it. Inevitably, someone hears the microwave door opening and leaps up. You feel kind of bad that it’s a false alarm, but hey, icy potatoes are gross. And by then, you can usually smell someone else’s dinner, something that smells way better than yours—leftover chicken or pizza or someone else’s stew—and your stomach pinches with hunger.
When your dinner is mostly warmed through, you take it back to the seat that you hopefully saved earlier. There are more people than spaces, so some people are sitting on chairs along the walls with their dinner on their knees, and some are standing by the sink. But maybe you left your reticule, or a water glass, or got someone to guard it for you, so you sink onto your chair. And God help you if your seat is near the back wall or the pop machine because it’s hard to maneuver around all those ballooning hoop skirts.
And then we have dinner together.
Sometimes there are baked goods in the middle for people to share: bread that didn’t sell or cookies that can’t be served to the public, but for the most part, everyone is eating their own meals. And yet, it’s still having dinner together. All of us, at the same time, in one place, talking and laughing and shouting greetings as those coming just for Lamplight sweep down the staircase in their street clothes. A half-dozen conversations fly around the room, and people keep getting up to get more water, or passing coins down the table for pop, or running off to fix their hair or change.
People you never see because they’re not on your shift are there. And people you always see are there. And people you love chatting to but never get to have lunch with are there. It’s near the end of the season, so we’re tired, but we know Lamplight. We’re wrapping things up, both at the village and with each other. Soon, we’ll be scattering for the winter, seeing each other less often, but for right now, we are together. Since it happens every year, I can breathe the sigh of relief that comes with knowing the end of the story.
It warms the cockles of my stony heart. Roughly twenty people who probably would never have met otherwise, melded into one of those strange non-biological family units that we craft from our friends. At Christmas, having everyone together becomes even more poignant because we know that soon we’ll be going our separate ways.
And that’s my one-inch picture frame on Christmas.
No matter what you celebrate, my best to you and those you care about. Stay warm and safe, and have a wonderful time with your friends and family.