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You Are In Integrity

“You are in integrity when the life you live is an authentic expression of who you are.” — Alan Cohen


Christmases Past and Christmas Present

For my entire life I have anticipated the holiday season with joy.  Never have I before felt anything close to a hint of dread when it comes to Christmas.  Every year, my mother would spend literally, weeks, deep cleaning every room of the house, decorating each and every room in the house, trimming the trees; one fettered out completely in Hallmark ornaments, one upstairs trimmed in her prized and ever so delicate hand-blown antique glass ornaments and of course, baking cookies.  My mother would bake countless varieties by the dozens. Especially, her beloved “bird turds” as we called them.

My mother’s children were basically enrolled in a basic training camp for holiday preparation and style just because we lived under the same roof with her.  Each of the four of siblings seemed to have inherited those special genes necessary to pull off a holiday with tradition, whimsy, and flair.  Surely, the world would have to be in its last stage of demise should my mother not carry on her decorating traditions.  That is, until the last Christmas or two that she spent in our world, when she just didn’t have the strength to do it all.  But even still one of her children or in-laws managed to pick up just enough of the slack to make it all seem so seamless.

My last holiday spent “Mom’s way” was in 1994.  That following Thanksgiving, 1995 found me in a Camaro driving to Phoenix, Arizona as that would become my home.  Christmases here in the desert are so much different from what I traditionally experienced in the Midwest.  Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself that it really is the holiday season; warm sunny weather, lazy lunches eaten outdoors, grilling out on the patio most any night, all trick the mind into an endless Summer.

Dutifully, I would call home on Christmas Day and talk with my Mom mostly, and any of my siblings that happened to be close to the phone.  I carried on my form of guerilla style holiday decorating adapted  to our warm Phoenix climate.  Because both my mother and her mother knew I valued cherished items kept in our family for years, and that I wouldn’t be the type to disrespect the handing down of “heirlooms,” I was given many wonderful decorations, which I still treasure today.  My own decorating style may be influenced by a little Southwest sizzle, but much of my European heritage remains.

The cookies however, never found their way into my traditions, though I must say, my sister put out some very fine efforts of her own!  To this day, those “bird turds” are baked each year by at least one former sister-in-law. What are bird turds?  They are a raspberry meringue with little mini chocolate chips inside.  The recipe is this:

Patricia Schubert’s Raspberry Meringue Kisses aka Bird Turds

3 Egg Whites ¾ Cup Sugar

1/8 tsp Salt 1 tsp Vinegar

3 ½ Tbl Raspberry Gelatin

1 Cup Miniature Chocolate Chips

Beat egg whites with salt until foamy.  Add raspberry gelatin and sugar gradually. Beat until stiff peaks form and sugar is dissolved.  Mix in vinegar; fold in chocolate chips.  Drop from teaspoon onto ungreased cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.  Bake at 250 degrees for 25 minutes.  Turn oven off and allow cookies to bake an additional 20 minutes longer.  Makes 9 dozen. (Originally adapted by Patty Schubert from “The Electric Company Cookbook”)

This cookie recipe has always seemed to be one of those constants in life, when everything around us was changing.  For me, the end of relationships and the beginning of new relationships created different though just as special traditions.  Retro, vintage 1950’s, 1960’s, mid-century design brought me back to my earliest memories of Christmas as a child.  eBay held the same adorable angel decorations my mother had, and today I coveted!  My grandmother had one of those spectacular, head-turning aluminum Christmas trees.  Of course the stand rotated, played Christmas carols, and the tree itself was lit by a rotating color wheel.  Within weeks I had new traditions and new treasures delivered to my door via UPS.

Christmas Eve dinners spent away from the family back home evolved from lasagna to chili and cornbread, to today’s tradition in our home; a variety of cheese and crackers, peel and eat shrimp with cocktail sauce, grilled tenderloin and gourmet style baked potatoes with a green salad.  The later menu is of course the priciest of the presentations made over the years, but one nonetheless carried out.  I am on a fixed income, and there have been several lean years when I thought it impossible to keep up tradition and that surely I would have to lower my expectations.

My past three partners found out early in the relationship that holidays and traditions were so very important to me.  I was delighted to know my most recent partner’s mother, Dorothy enjoyed tradition as well.  She enjoyed learning about and experiencing for herself, the traditions maintained by other families.  For our own traditions, if ever it I had to stretch too far to make the necessary purchases, Dorothy would either join me on shopping day to pick up the tab directly, or sometimes offer the cash needed to make up the shortfall.  She may have turned up her nose that first year to the thought of eating cold, cooked shrimp that weren’t even removed from the shell at the store. “Imagine that the store would think that all that work of cooking and cleaning should be left to the customer!” Dorothy complained.  Eventually, she grew to love and appreciate my traditions as much as I did, no matter how it tasted!

Christmas, 2007 was the last I enjoyed with Dorothy.  She transitioned into her next life on January 23, 2008.  Thinking back to that series of “holiday firsts without Dorothy” still brings about huge waves and channels of emotion for me.  First, the feeling of impossibility; that there was in no way I could sustain myself through a holiday without her.  There are sometimes oceans of tears and my throat can hurt from crying so hard.  Each decoration of hers I bring out to display, imagine was still maybe last touched by her, giving me a quick and close connection I crave.  As I march through my tears and maneuver my way through the days that approach Christmas, I find myself reminiscing in my mind and even laughing out loud over past holidays we shared. Finally, if even for a moment, I begin to feel my holiday space is once again shared with me by loved ones, even if departed.

Space is always opened for others to contribute to my traditions and I find enjoyment in sharing in my celebration if even from a distance.   Today, I had some thoughts in my mind and I found myself allowing me to “free-fall” into a cavern of depression, all the while fantasizing about taking every last holiday decoration I have put up, down. I would vow that, “Christmas will live here, in this house no more!”  But things change so quickly, and again appear brighter.  I decided today to rework this blog post from an earlier version, updating it and then will share it with my new friend, Dorothy’s sister, Betty.

After I finish this post and see that it looks nice on my weblog, I will play more holiday music, send a copy of this post directly to Betty with an email and then begin making dinner.  Perhaps a friend or two will stop by for a visit tonight, or maybe I will just turn off all the lights except for the color wheel beneath the tree and watch my beautiful 1961 aluminum tree dance and glow for hours.

I wish you and yours the safest and most joyous holiday season, and thank you all for the many gifts that have been given and received by me this year: gifts of love, feedback, patience, understanding, a safe space and openness making it OK for me to share my fear and confusions and any other thought in my head I have needed to get out, and our unified goals of bringing more peace and joy to all of our lives.


Mark Schmitz


A Birthday Blog


Tuesday, May 26, 2009 is my 48th birthday.  I don’t expect it to be any different than any other day; my friend Keith will pick me up in the morning as he does every Tuesday, and we will go to Joshua Tree.  Joshua Tree is a program here in Phoenix, Arizona which provides food to individuals with HIV/Aids.  Going to Joshua Tree seems today as a major ordeal.  I’ve been sick for the last three weeks with some form of bronchial infection. 

Since I began blogging three years ago, I’ve written something about aging, being a Gemini or birthday memories.  This year, I’m going to share an exercise I participated in with the hope that I’d have some fun with writing about my birthday. 

What was the hardest age for you to reach?

I’ve never had a negative association with a particular age.  I really do believe that age is just a number and that it doesn’t tell you anything more about a person. 

What was your best birthday?

My best birthday was my 35th.  My partner and a friend of ours put together a wonderful party at our home on Roosevelt Drive in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I still enjoy looking at the pictures I have from that day, seeing the joy and happiness that abounded that day. 

What was the most difficult birthday you’ve ever had? Why?

Last year was my most difficult birthday I’ve endured.  I was in the midst of a serious financial crisis which put me into a deep state of depression. 

What is your favorite thing to do (or not to do) on your birthday?

Dinner at Red Lobster.

What is your favorite thing about birthdays?

Before moving to Phoenix, I was surrounded by family and friends.  I enjoyed my family’s tradition of getting together for birthday cake each and every year. 

Do the approach and day of your birthday evoke particular memories? Smells? Tastes? Feelings?

I’ve always associated my birthday with the smell of lilacs.  This is always the time of year in Milwaukee when the blooms are most abundant.  I long for that smell of lilacs!  Now, living in Phoenix, I associate the appearance of the Jacaranda; bright blue flowers on stark, leafless branches. 

Birthdays: love ’em, hate ’em, ignore ’em? None of the above?

There are times when I feel each of the feelings listed above.  Typically, I feel disappointed because no matter how hard I try not to create expectations in my mind, they still seem to form. 

How do you feel about age and aging?

I feel fortunate because people often tell me that they are surprised to learn of my age, because I don’t look it.  That seems to be a genetic blessing in my family, because we all get that comment regularly. As I’ve said before, age is just a number, and doesn’t tell anyone anything substantial about the person you are. 

What did your family do about birthdays when you were growing up?

When my grandmother was still alive, she gave us the choice each year of our choice of her most loved birthday cakes: angel food or chocolate.  The family would all get together and enjoy coffee and cake.  It was a simple get-together, but one that I miss now that I am so far away from family. 

Do you have "mortality moments" on your birthday? Do you invariably feel grateful? Both? Neither?

I only began to have “mortality moments” this year since I had a very real near-death experience just a few months ago.  Each year, I seem to have an ever increasing list of health issues which are of concern.  I am grateful that I am 48 years old, but in my mind I think about how both of my grandfathers lived only to their early fifties. 

Do you tell people your age? Why or why not?

I find that I am more comfortable sharing my age after some period of getting to know each other.  I figure that way, I won’t be pre-judged.

Have you ever spent a birthday alone? Do you prefer spending your birthday alone?

I have spent birthdays alone, since moving to Phoenix in 1994.  I dream of being back in Milwaukee and participating in my family’s tradition of getting together each year. 

Do you broadcast your birthday or prefer not to mention it?

With the advent of social networking sights, I do find myself saying “yes” to birthday date requests. 

Do you have particular rituals on your birthday?

No rituals presently, but long for the day when some new traditions and rituals might be established with friends and family.

What do you think of birthday parties?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with birthday parties for me, but love having them or attending them for other people.  For myself, I prefer just enjoying the company of a few close friends and family.

What do you think of surprise parties?

No one has ever had a surprise party for me, and I have only attended a handful in my lifetime. 

At what time of year were you born? How has this affected your birthdays?

The Indy 500 and Memorial Day are two major seasonal events that I associate with my birthday.

Do you feel differently about other people’s birthdays and your own?

I love acknowledging other people’s birthday’s, and always experience some awkwardness or embarrassment when my birthday is remembered and acknowledged. 

Do you have trouble remembering your loved ones’ birthdays? Do you keep a birthday book?

I enjoy acknowledging the birthdays of my friends and family.  I have always had difficulty with remembering them and have always maintained a log of some sort.  Today, with technology, this has become a much easier task.