…Timber! A Christmas Tale.

christmas blog

When I was a teenager, I was a member of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. As with all churches, the highlight of the year was the Christmas celebration. For us, this included the annual decorating of the tree.

The congregation planned for months. The format was always the same. Our priest read the Christmas story – from Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, to arriving at the stable filled with animals, to the birth of Jesus, to the arrival of the Three Wise Men. As the story progressed, we listened for our cues and, when it was our turn, we proceeded to the massive tree by the altar to hang homemade ornaments. Once the story was over and the tree was bedecked in all its glory, we sang hymns and rejoiced in our shared fellowship.

In 1976, the year Lori attended this beloved service with my mother and me, we were asked to make two angels and the crown jewel, the baby Jesus. My mother took this honor seriously. To the craft store we went, up and down the aisles, hunting and searching. Mom was on a mission, and she’d be damned if anything would stop her from displaying her strong religious faith and her artistic talents. We arrived home; our arms were laden with heavy cardstock, colored pencils, markers of varying thickness, new scissors, feathers, glitter, and a sheet of gold leaf.

Mom looked through old books and children’s Christmas stories, hunting for models for her designs. No, she wouldn’t copy or trace or rip off anyone else’s creations. She was too much of a purist for that. This was the woman who handmade every Halloween costume I’d ever worn. This was the woman who had baked and decorated every one of my birthday cakes. She doodled while on the telephone; she crafted stained glass treasures for gifts; and, she created magnificent bouquets of flowers, each petal made of twisted wire dipped in liquid plastic, dried, then assembled into lilies, roses, and orchids. My baton twirling outfits were of crushed velvet and bedazzled with rhinestones and pearls. Hell, no. This year’s Christmas ornaments were going to be showstoppers, she determined.

The patterns were drawn, nearly a foot high, and laid carefully to the cardstock. The new, razor-sharp scissors precisely hugged every turn and sharply snipped each corner. With a pencil, Mom sketched in the details of the angels’ faces, with wide eyes and rosebud lips, then colored brilliantly with markers. The plump, baby Jesus was in a manger, a crown angled impossibly on his head.

The finished products were magnificent. Scraps of shimmery white gossamer, leftover from an old project, had become angelic robes. Feathers crafted wings. Long, acrylic hair, cut from discarded dolls – one blond, one dark – had been attached to their cardboard heads, parted in the middle in front and flowing nearly to their feet in back.

And, little Jesus – what a triumph! Real hay had been glued inside the manger and, on his head, the crown shimmered with gold leaf. He was pink-cheeked and cherubic, a nod to the Gerber baby. Crafted in loving detail, you could almost hear him gurgle with joy as the angels sang.

Lori and I could barely contain ourselves as we waited for the big day. We filed into church, proudly holding Mom’s masterpieces, but we couldn’t help noticing what the others had made. Skimpy hand-drawn images on paper – colored only on one side, some curling at the bottom – were so pathetic that we found it difficult to hide our ridicule. But, we were in church, after all, so we smiled graciously to the others, reveling in their naked envy.

Entering the nave, we gasped when we saw this year’s tree. It rose higher and higher, reaching toward Heaven in the rafters of the cathedral ceiling. We took our seats, jittery with anticipation for the service to begin. As the priest read the Christmas story, families and friends rose to walk down the center aisle toward the towering tree to hang their ornaments. We followed along in the program, waiting for our turn. At last, it came.

Mom, Lori, and I rose as one, paused as we entered the aisle to allow everyone the chance to see our extraordinary ornaments. A sprinkle of glitter from my dark-haired angel fell like fairy dust as I held her high for those in the back to admire. Lori, with the blond angel, did a similar sweep. But, Mom took the lead as she was carrying the most precious of all. Like a bride approaching her awaiting groom, Mom proceeded reverently toward the front of the church. There were whispers and smiles of appreciation for the gold-crowned baby she held delicately in her hands. Lori and I followed at a respectful distance, our angels reaping equal admiration.

When we reached the front of the church, we turned to face the congregation and, once more, raised our ornaments high for all to see. Then, Lori went to one side of the tree to hang hers while I went to the other. Mom, holding the heart of the entire event, moved to place hers front and center. I struggled to secure my angel to the branch I’d chosen and began searching for a new one. As I reached to loop my angel’s hanger over the pine needles, it moved away from me and, simultaneously, I heard someone from the back of the room yell, “Timber!”

I watched in mixed horror and fascination as that colossal tree tipped, almost in slow motion, toward the congregation. Suddenly, Lori was staring at me, wide-eyed and mouth gaping, over the branches of the fallen tree. I think my face must have mirrored her shock, but then she began laughing. Lori has an infectious laugh that makes it impossible not to join in. Plus, we were fourteen. We found everything funny at that age. We were nearly doubled-over in hysterics.

The priest rushed forward to help Mom out from underneath. She crawled from where she’d been trapped, pine needles sticking at all angles from her hair, a sprinkling of glitter across her fiery red face. Lori and I looked at each in momentary panic as Mom was helped to her feet. But, when she yelled, “Goddammit, Lori! You pushed the tree over!” we pressed our hands to our mouths to hold the laughter back.

The entire church was silent except for the echo of Mom’s words. As we slunk back toward our pew, I glanced left and right from beneath my lowered lashes to see that no one was admiring us now. In fact, they deliberately avoided looking in our direction. As some helpful people at the front of the church worked furiously to right the tree, we kept right on going past our seat and headed out the back door. That was the last time we participated in the yearly Christmas story tradition at our church.

…One Night in New York.

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I was one of the cool kids back in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m quite convinced of this. I emulated Lynn, the girl who lived around the corner from me, and began wearing straight-legged jeans while everyone else was still wearing bell-bottoms. In middle school, my best friend Adrianne gave subtle instruction in the art of flirtation. Seventeen magazine showed me how to apply frosted blue eyeshadow and sparkly lip gloss to achieve that “winter glow.” I could butcher the lyrics to any popular song with confidence, like “I’m not talkin’ ’bout the livin’/And I don’t want to change your mind” from England Dan and John Ford Coley. The Surgeon General’s warning was still vague enough to give me license to light up a Virginia Slims Menthol Light and impress all my friends with perfect smoke rings.

My delusion continued into adult life, marriage, and even through raising children. Somewhere along the way, something happened. Actually, I know exactly what happened. My daughter became a teenager. I’ve come to believe we are granted little blessings in life to bring us humility. Or, as my too-cool-for-anything-especially-her-parents fifteen-year-old would say, she was my “reality check.” I was in my forties when I began to question if my life-long self-image had been built on a lie.

A few weeks ago, I was offered redemption. I’ve always been a theater nerd, a lover of plays and musicals—maybe this should have been my first clue about my cool factor?—and enjoyed all levels of performances from Jack and the Beanstalk at the local community college to A Christmas Carol in the regional theater and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. I swooned over the music from Jesus Christ Superstar during a 1980s performance in London’s West End. I’ve supported local troupes and attended numerous school plays. So, when pondering a Christmas gift for my husband this year, I logged onto my computer to see if I could get tickets for Hamilton. Discouraged by the $600 price tag, I asked my daughter, now twenty and going to college in New York, if she had any recommendations for a show.

“Well…” She gave me the once over. (At least there was no eye-rolling or impatient sighing.) “There is a show that is hugely popular. It’s all the rage. It’s really not advertised so you only know about it if you’re…connected.”

“What is it? Tell me what it is!” My chance! This was my chance to reclaim my youthful image even more than I’d thought date night with my hubby would accomplish.

“Hmmm…I don’t know if you’d like it. It’s promenade theater. You don’t sit in a seat. You walk at your own pace through the building. It’s all these different rooms that are theatrically designed. The actors move around from room to room and floor to floor, and you can follow them.”

“Ah, I get it,” I said, eager to impress her with my vast knowledge. “It’s interactive theater.”

“No. It’s immersion theater. The audience can interact with the props and walk around, but they have no influence on the story line.” She gave a self-satisfied smirk as she eyed me up and down once more. “It’s really kind of a hipster thing.”

“I can do it! I can be a hipster!” I bought tickets that day.

Sleep No More is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and film noir. It was created by a British theater company called Punchdrunk and set in the McKittrick Hotel in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. The hotel is really a block of five story tall warehouses that were converted to give the feel of a 1930s establishment. Having studied Shakespeare’s plays in-depth while in college over thirty years ago, I was intimately familiar with his work. I was set.

I’d decided to forego dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, The Heath, thinking we would meet up with our daughter instead. She was busy that night so that didn’t happen, and instead, I sprung for the upgraded Maximillian’s Guest ticket because this was a gift for my husband Guy, after all. When we announced ourselves, the usher at the front door checked his guest list and, discovering our VIP status, whisked us past the line stretched for half a city block and escorted us directly into the lobby.

As several other couples of our elevated position joined us, it began to dawn on me that Guy and I were the oldest guests in attendance by at least twenty years. I felt my new hipster certainty slip a little.

We were herded into a freight elevator with walls draped in black cloth to give the illusion of a hoity-toity hotel and as we exited on the second floor, we stepped back in time to the 1930s. We were handed white masks before entering the Manderlay Bar, a speakeasy where each employee was in character and period dress. A musical trio accompanied a dusky-voiced singer in a floor-length sequined gown as she sang “Embraceable You.” We were escorted to a table for two where we ordered drinks from a perky young woman. In response to my husband’s request for a Coke, she answered brightly, “Yes, dear, a Coca-Cola it is!”

When our group was called, we boarded the elevator once more. Our guide instructed us to put on our masks, and from that point on we were neither to remove them nor speak. The rest of the evening was to be spent in silent, anonymous observation. As the doors to the elevator opened, the guide informed us that such observation was best accomplished alone, and I was booted out. The doors shut behind me and a momentary panic gripped me as I heard the elevator take my husband away. What if I couldn’t find Guy? My sense of direction is as faulty as my aging memory, and I feared becoming hopelessly lost in the massive five-story warehouse. I was in near total darkness with only faint lights strategically placed and could barely see. All about me milled silent, faceless people behind white masks.

I didn’t want to wander far. I was sure Guy’s first objective would be to find me. At the same time, I couldn’t resist venturing into the first doorway off the endless hallway where I stood. In the partial light, I was drawn to a stark baby’s crib in the center of the room. I don’t even remember if there was anything in it because I was more interested in figuring out exactly what that giant mobile was overhead. The ten or so other white-masked guests were also frozen, heads turned upward. As each identical object on a branch of the mobile floated on the air currents, I finally realized what they were. Headless soft-bodied dolls, each about a foot and a half tall. To make it even more ghoulish, the bizarre structure cast a shadow against the ceiling, doubling its freakishness.

Suddenly feeling as if I was in a drugged state, I drifted back into the hallway, aware of faint dramatic music coming from somewhere. There was a light fog and white-masked people appeared from one room, then vanished into another. An anomaly—a bare-faced man—scurried into a room to my left. I realized he must be one of the actors so as if pulled by a magnet, I followed. As did another twenty white masks. This room was an ancient office with a bulky wooden desk as the centerpiece and a gooseneck lamp providing just enough light. The actor had a purpose as he sat in the chair behind the desk. He opened a drawer and peered into it for a few seconds, then closed it. He studied a letter on the desk blotter, then opened the drawer again. White masks against the darkened room watched every motion.

A tap on my shoulder turned my attention to my own white-masked husband behind me. I nodded at Guy, then in the direction of the actor, and we continued to hang on his every move. The man rose, shut the drawer, and headed toward the door, white masks parting to let him pass. Then, like lemmings jumping en masse off a cliff, a swarm of white masks followed him. Not Guy. He was more interested in what the actor had found so fascinating in the desk drawer. When we opened it, we found a dead crow.

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Together, Guy and I spent the next three hours trying to make sense of what we were seeing. It was impossible to know what we should be looking at or where we should go, so we finally let go of the “shoulds.” I was tempted to follow scurrying groups of white masks, knowing they were in pursuit of an actor, but Guy shook his head at me. Breaking the no-talking rule, he whispered, “No, they look silly. It’s not cool.” By this time, I was over the whole “cool” thing and just wanted to know what the hell was going on. So, we explored room after room on every floor. We walked through the maze of a forest; a disorienting fog hovering over a graveyard; and a sanatorium, complete with a waiting room, beds, and a room with bathtubs. It was in the last that we saw our first real action.

An actress in a nightgown, who I soon realized was Lady Macbeth, was scrubbing furiously at the blood all over the sides of the water-filled bathtub. The mime continued as a nurse came in, proceeded to undress her, then helped the nude Lady Macbeth into the tub. The scene continued to play out as white masks peered. (Later, Guy would tell me that was his favorite scene. I’m not sure why.)

After bathing, Lady Macbeth replaced her nightgown, then raced from the room with a mass of white-masked lemmings in pursuit while the nurse went in another direction with an equal number of followers behind her. This would be the theme of the night. Bits and pieces of this 1930s version of Macbeth were taking place throughout the entire building, and it was up to us to decide which way to go. Actors would perform their piece in one room, then off to another room or even floor, often engaging with other actors they met along the way. They would then either move along together or in opposite directions. And always with the audience in pursuit.

About two-thirds of the way through the evening, I was frustrated by my inability to follow the story. It felt disjointed and chaotic; not a comfortable place for my linear mindset. We took a break at the Manderlay Bar so I could clear my head with a few of glasses of wine. The remainder of the night didn’t make any more sense than the beginning.

At the end of the show, many of the actors ended up in the ballroom at a long table with Banquo’s ghost for the finale. It was then I realized how hopelessly lost I’d been through the entire evening because there were several actors I had never seen. I was exhausted from chasing actors and running up and down endless flights of stairs. I was disoriented from hours in dimly lit sets, examining props without context, and atmospheric mist and music. I needed a nap. No wonder the median age of the audience was roughly twenty-five, having been skewed upwards by my comparatively ancient age of fifty-five. Much older and it might have been impossible to navigate the madness.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about it by the end. Guy and I walked back to our car in near silence, which is quite a contrast to our usual chatter after a “normal” show. All the way home, I scoured the internet for more information about Sleep No More. Had I been wise, I would have prepared better before going. I would have reread Macbeth. I would have familiarized myself with the structure of this version and the layout of the building. I discovered that each actor performs on a one-hour loop, repeating it three times throughout the course of the complete event. Guy was sad to find out that even though he’d managed to see the Lady Macbeth in the bathtub scene twice, he missed out on the scene with the three witches dancing topless. Evidently there was a nude scene with one of the male characters, and this bit of news made me think I might need to immerse myself again.

By the time we got home, my physical and psychological discomfort had given way to internal processing. I replayed the scenes again, thought deeper about the effectiveness of the design of each room, and found myself reading more about the production.

When my daughter asked us how we liked the show, my husband’s answer was immediate and decisive. “It was interesting. We’re glad we did it once, but give us a normal Broadway show any time.”

“So, you didn’t like it that much?” She directed the question to me.

“Actually,” I said as I rubbed Icy Hot into my lower back and repositioned the cold pack on my swollen knee, “I think I really liked it. While I was in the midst of it, I wasn’t sure. But, I can’t stop thinking about it now.”

I told her everything from the very beginning when we were whisked past the guests waiting in line because of our VIP status. How we were separated, but then how Guy found me. About the eeriness of the rooms and hallways, and the fog, and the music, and the clutter of props, and the white masks lurking in the darkness, and the actors performing here then racing there, and the speakeasy feel of the Manderlay Bar, and the silence, and the on and on and on. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I realized I needed to do it again. To go back much better prepared and gain an even fuller experience. I realized that even though I’d stepped out of my comfort zone of traditional theater performance, I had fully enjoyed myself. And, I realized something else. I wasn’t as old and stuck in a rut as I had believed.

“That’s really cool,” my daughter said.

“I’m sorry, did you say that I’m cool?” I asked.

She smiled, knowing full-well what I wanted to hear. “I wouldn’t go that far.”