Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Pageant Touchdown (Revised)

For the past three years, The Arts Center of the Capitol Region in Troy, NY has supported a program called BookMarks as part of its ongoing Memoir Project.  Once a month, from November through April, writers are invited to submit a piece on an assigned topic (often within a specific word limit) to be curated by a professional writer and (hopefully) presented to the commnity at an Arts Center reading. I recently submitted a piece on "Family at the Holidays," curated by memoirist and teacher Marion Roach Smith. Tonight, I was privledged to share my work alongside several incredibly talented local writers at the community reading. 

The piece I submitted was a substantially revised humorous personal essay titled "Christmas Pageant Touchdown."   I appreciated, among other things, that Marion restricted the word count  to 750 - a challenge for me, since I am naturally wordy to a fault. And because my original piece totalled 1,650 words. And  because I struggle to eliminate words once I have obsessively edited them into place.  Word cutting feels a bit like extracting the teeth of my work before finding the perfect prosthetic bridge to conceal the vacancies - and who wants to practice dentistry when there is already so little time for writing?

Since I didn't believe I could actually accomplish this piece in 750 words, I accepted the challenge.  I opened my original 1,650 word piece and began eliminating small, unnecessary tag lines and redundancies. Then I moved on to bigger concepts that could be pared down, stated more succincltly, and, in some cases, cut altogether without damaging the integrity of the piece. (Though I can't say the same for my writer's ego - that part of me that still believes that every single letter I write is necessary and deep and absolutely critical to the meaning of my work.  And Life itself.  You can pretend this doesn't sound familiar - I won't judge.)   Ultimately, I found that I could, indeed, splice and dice my work from 1,650 down to a tight 750 with a little effort, a lot of ego stroking, and a moderate amount of self-doubt.  As always, I kept my longer version, where it continues to live in one of my word files, but I actually prefer this shorter piece now, and am grateful for the lesson in word economy -- it is a lesson I intend to keep forcing myself to learn.  And practice.

If you're interested, the 750-word version of "Christmas Pageant Touchdown" is below. I hope you enjoy it.  And I hope that if you find yourself in "elimination mode" during this holiday season, that smiles, music, joy, and laughter remain at the center of your story where they belong.
~~ Hasky

Christmas Pageant Touchdown

Through the pine scented church air, a familiar melody cascaded over the choir loft before crawling down the altar’s green stairs. As the glorious tones travelled toward lemon scented pews bowing under the weight of mothers and fathers, children and grandparents, neighbors and friends, a deep, collective breath drew and held itself in momentary pause. Then all at once, voices and organ landed together on the downbeat of the entrance hymn’s opening verse.
Absorbed in their song of peace and good will, the congregation barely noticed the projectile object suddenly soaring high above.
But I noticed. 
At that point, all I could do was stand inside my coveted Virgin Mary costume, paralyzed by fearshamepanic, while gently, almost gracefully, a thin white swaddle cloth floated to the floor before landing in a pile of gauze and safety pins.  And then, as the final cacophonous verse of Silent Night fell around me, Jesus Christ’s naked Betsy Wetsy stunt double, draped in nothing but Christmas vigil candlelight, crashed to Earth.
Trapped in a moment I could neither escape nor rewind, I absorbed the appalling reality: I, the mother of Jesus Christ, had just heaved the infant Savior up the center aisle of St. Mary’s of the Lake church. As the music faded, I watched Betsy Wetsy Jesus roll toward the rows of hand-painted, cardboard cattle cutouts and asymmetrical cotton-ball sheep.
My glare of condemnation immediately landed on Tommy Lovell, who stood with the other alter boys in giggling, white-robed oblivion, whipping one another with ragged red rope belts. While he half-listened for his cue, Tommy amused himself with his weapon of destruction: the incense-filled ball he had converted into an irreverent yo-yo.  Not until my eyes struck him did he realize what he had done.  Reluctantly, he followed my gaze to his own hand, where the source of my Hell smoldered:  Incense!  The thick cloud of evidence billowed like a holy barbeque.
Tommy had earned the sacred responsibility of holding the censor this year.  Father Berg had explained that Tommy was to keep the ball completely still, so the vapor could rise gently toward God and purify our spirits. But the moment Father Berg walked away, Tommy’s arm began to windmill. He moved slowly at first, gradually speeding up until his shoulder swiveled all the way around its socket and the fog machine pumped its scent into my notoriously sensitive sinuses. The smell invaded my lungs, my nostrils, my eyes.
When I realized what was happening, I prayed:
God, please don’t let me ….
Start sneezing!
Amen …
I braced my final eruption with a squeeze that launched Jesus into orbit.
And just like that, I ruined the 1984 Christmas pageant.
I shattered the illusion.
I revealed, to hundreds of people, that the baby Jesus lying face down in a pile of cotton was conceived in a factory and purchased at the local Kmart.
Hundreds of huddled heads turned toward me; human window blinds unfolding slat by slat, revealing horror and disbelief. And the faces of my disappointed, only slightly surprised parents.
When time and my heart restarted, I proceeded toward the plywood Bethlehem just as Mrs. Douglass, the pageant director, had instructed. 
Step right, together. Left, together. Right, together. Left, together.
The fourth time my left foot stepped forward, I spotted the crumpled swaddle cloth and remembered Mrs. Douglas’ warnings about breaking character:
“No matter what happens, once the organ starts, you mustn’t stop.”
Yet in an uncharacteristic moment of instinctive spontaneity, I stopped to scoop the swaddle cloth before continuing toward the glue-covered clump of paper-mâché camels.  A few steps later, I came upon the naked mound of Betsy Wetsy Jesus.  This time, I stopped to retrieve and re-swaddled the baby.
With the Savior in my arms once again, I continued toward the aluminum-foil North Star, careful not to demolish the lopsided tower of GoldFrankincenseMyrrh the three not-so-Wise People had stacked in front of the stable’s entrance.
At last, I placed the resilient baby into the wicker crib.
Triumph. This was what joy felt like.
I glanced at Betsy Wetsy Jesus one last time before pivoting to face the people.
To my surprise, they were smiling. All of them.  Even my parents.
The smiles of Christmas.
Together, we drew a deep breath before landing on the downbeat of the closing hymn: 
“Joy to the World, the Lord is come!”
And in spite of myself, I had managed to deliver him.


  1. Heather, this was great. I felt like I was sitting in that church observing all that you described so beautifully. You are a genius. Did this really happen to you by any chance?

  2. Turtle - Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Sadly, it really did happen to me. I had a wonderful time writing it, and it's funny how I remember feeling so devastated at the time, as if nothing worse than this had ever happened ever. In the history of the world. EVER! I was a big fan of the hyperbole (Still am). Now, the whole thing is a funny memory, a trip down Sensory Lane. But it's also a reminder to look at today's crises and tragedies with a little more clarity, refusing to let them dominate and define me. Sure, adult crisis is usually much worse than the awkward moments of childhood, but in the moment, it all feels the same - intense and insurmountable. So I am using this as an example to myself to lighten up, once again - after all, even in the darkest moments, it's all writing material. My life is my antidote to writer's block!

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday and that your new year is blessed with happiness, health, and peace. :)


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