Chasing Snowflakes

On the campus of High Point University, near the 12-foot Nutcracker, I spotted her.

She was chasing snowflakes made of soap bubbles across the grassy promenade, a ballet dancer in a toboggan, leaping at each snowflake and trying to reach them as they floated kite-like into the trees.

I stopped; I watched. Wherever I was going, I knew, had to wait.

That’s how I met Giavanna Silverhardt, a sixth-grader from Greensboro. Two weeks ago, she came to HPU to see the campus turn into a shaken snow globe.

HPU calls it Community Christmas, and as the university’s senior writer, I return to my journalistic roots and put together every year for the website a cozy, feel-good scene-setter on the event.

You’ll find it here. And you’ll find Giavanna there as well. But days later, as many of us press pause on our lives and revisit friends and family between Christmas and the New Year, what Giavanna said keeps pinging in my brain.

I asked her why she was chasing snowflakes. She had an answer ready.

“I want to savor the memories,” she told me. “I want to remember this when I get older.”

Don’t we all.

Especially now.

In a year of political scandals, terrorist attacks and a narcissistic bully of a president who craves chaos and disinformation, I find myself grappling daily with the state of our nation.

So, when Giavanna gave me her answer, it made me pause and reflect rather than raise my fist and holler.

I know there will be a time for a clenched fist. And judging from what unfolds around us with every early-morning tweet, that’ll probably happen sooner than later. But in the tail end of December, I find myself in a Vince Guaraldi state of mind.

See, when I was a kid with a Navy base haircut growing up in Charleston, I made a point to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” every December.

I’d be flat on my stomach in the den, a few feet from the TV, watching Snoopy kissing Lucy and Linus reciting the Christmas story from the Book of Luke.

And man, how I loved Guaraldi’s music her wrote for the special, especially the tune, “Linus and Lucy.”

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If we could all dance like that, huh?

Sixteen years ago, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the holiday special took on a deeper meaning because of something written by David Menconi, a journo friend and longtime music critic at the News & Observer.

In those dark days after the Twin Towers fell, Menconi wrote about how he went back to listening to Guaraldi’s music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” to keep in check his growing fear for our country’s future.

Anyway, I thought about all that the other day while walking across HPU’s promenade and hearing spill from the speakers above the tune I always love hearing anytime, especially at Christmas.

Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy.”

And like I did when I saw Giavanna, I stopped. Whatever I had to do, I knew, could wait.

For me, “Linus and Lucy” triggers the memory of Charleston, a den decorated in earth tones and a class full of third-graders from Erwin Open School in Greensboro.

It was back in ’96 when I was working as the arts and entertainment columnist for the News & Record, and I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with a room full of third-graders for a feature piece.

The funny comments came in waves.

“All that funny dancing,” says one. “The guy’s head goes like this ( He bobs his head), and the girl dances like that ( He throws up his arms), and the guy with the blanket around his head, he was funny.”

“And Snoopy, when he licked that girl and she said, ‘Ooooooo, I don’t want to get dog fleas’ or something like that,” says another. “That was funny.”

“But dogs can’t dance,” says another. “They don’t even stand up.”

Really? Dang.

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Dogs can dance. Believe it.

But the real kicker to that piece was the interview with Bill Melendez, a grandfather from L.A.

He was the animator for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” a 1965 classic that won all kinds of awards. And he hated it.

In a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles, he told me how he hated the drawings, how CBS didn’t give him enough money, how he rushed it onto the air and how he winced when people would gush and tell him how much they liked it.

And he told me about Guaraldi, a guy who couldn’t read music.

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Vince Guaraldi

“His instrument was the piano, but he had smaller hands than mine, he couldn’t even reach an octave,” Melendez told me, laughing. “God only knows how he made music, but it was great.”

Back then, Melendez was an 80-year-old grandfather who would watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with his grandchildren and tell them about the poor drawings, the rush job, the whole bit.

Every time, his grandchildren had a message for him: Keep quiet.

“They always tell me, ‘You’re crazy, Grandpa,’ ” Melendez told me back then. ” ‘This is a good show.’ ”

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Bill Melendez

Melendez has left us – he died in September 2008 at the age of 91 – but I remember his infectious laugh over the phone and how he used Guaraldi’s rolling notes past middle C to imprint holiday happiness in the minds of many.

So, a few days back, when I heard “Linus and Lucy” on HPU’s promenade, I thought about Melendez, Menconi and that class full of rowdy third-graders.

It made me remember why I see December as a month of memory and imagination, a time to laugh, reminiscence and gab about nothing — and everything.

I feel that when I gather with friends in the waning light of a Friday afternoon at Little Brothers Brewery in downtown Greensboro and talk plans to raise a glass together on New Year’s Eve.

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Our Happy Hour crew. Photo courtesy of Jo Strack.

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I still have NO idea what Mike Courts is doing with his hand.  Photo courtesy of Jo Strack.

 

I feel that when my family and I eat gingerbread cake with an old neighbor wrestling with the death that day of her brother and hearing the relief in her voice when we walk through the door.

I feel that when Kath and I walk hand-in-hand to a neighborhood Christmas party, and I get stuck in a familiar spot from long ago – clutching a folder of Christmas hymns, singing a cappella around an upright piano and hoping I can stay on key.

And I feel that when I stand sleepy-eyed at midnight on Christmas Eve.

I’m at church wearing the red vest given to me as a gift from a favorite neighbor. It was a vest worn by her husband, a retired Presbyterian minister, and he was my favorite sidewalk preacher.

Or really my only one.

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Carlene Dix helps me show off my new red vest. Photo courtesy of Carlene Dix.

Like Melendez, my sidewalk preacher is gone. He died last year. But during his long life, he’d spoken truth to power and gotten arrested for civil disobedience for protesting labor inequality. Afterward, he’d get calls from his grown children. They always asked him the same question.

“Dad, did you get arrested again?”

That red vest. He wore it everywhere.

A few days ago, while bagging leaves in the backyard, I listened to Krista Tippett’s podcast interview with Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Catholic Benedictine monk.

Something he said caught my attention. It boiled down to this:

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Brother David Steindl-Rast

“Can you be grateful for everything?” — no, not for everything, but in every moment.”

Grateful for every moment.

It brings to mind something I discovered this month, in all places, inside a Sunday morning church bulletin. It’s from David Martin, a North Carolina composer who wrote, “An Appalachian Winter.”

He wrote:

“At the coming of winter there is a blessed quietness that seems to settle upon the heart. The chill of frosty air and the season’s lengthening shadows invite us to reflection and simplicity. As we retreat to the hearth and away from the cold, there is a subtle turning that seems to happen.

“Weary from the struggle and frozen by distress, we find warmth and assurance inside our sanctuaries of contemplation. Peace falls like a gentle snow and we remember, with great hope, the promise of our faith.

“The candles of hope, peace, love and joy are once again kindled in our spirits. We gaze with longing into the silent night, seeking a star and listening for a song that will fill the deep silence and set our hearts to celebration.”

Reflection and simplicity. Charlie Brown and snowflakes. And what Giavanna says.

Savor the memories. Make new ones. Repeat.

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