Mixed · Photography

Art Yourself

Digital painting from original picture

First there was painting.

Before Photography, painters and their brushes made use of light, composition and color theory to create art.

Then came the controversy about whether Photography could be considered an art form or not. Nowadays, with dedicated museums and the evolution of Photography, there is not so much questioning about Photography being an established visual art.

Nostalgia or traditionalism tend to dismiss new approaches. New ways of seeing the world. “Photography is for those who can’t paint.” Or, “it’s just mastering a machine, not being a master. Nothing but a description of reality.” Wonder what they would say about the digital oil painting filter…

Hey, anyone can paint a blob on canvas too… And unless it is one of my son’s beautiful-to-me kindergarten works, I will probably dislike it.

I define Art as a creative activity and result of expression. Just because something is artistic, it doesn’t mean that I have to like it. The term art does not absolve the piece from being good or bad according to each viewer.

I love going to museums and frankly have been behind in that practice. I need to schedule some visits in the near future. Here in Tampa Bay we have the MoPA, the Dalí, the Tampa Museum of Art and other good options.

But the world has a collection of wonders to offer…

For instance, take “Starry Night”. Years ago, my middle sister and I took my son to New York; it was fun to start seeing art through his eyes. I love doing that, seeing the world through his fresh lenses, one of the joys of motherhood. I particularly enjoy the MoMA and we were glad we stayed in a hotel walking distance from it.

“Starry, starry night…” Don McLean’s soft voice makes the soundtrack for this. Loving this painting may be considered a bit of a cliche, like saying the “Mona Lisa” looks smaller “in person”. After all I have a magnet on my fridge with the image of the masterpiece…

But if I let the snobbism towards cliches deter me from loving something, I’d be succumbing to the world of self-importance. Cliches are born for a reason: they are good things gone “viral”. But that doesn’t diminish the work itself. It may tire you, but it will probably still be essentially good.

But there is always this expectation that you are only erudite enough if you are able to mention the lesser known works, whether they be in music, books, movies or paintings.

Well, for Van Gogh, nothing was a viral cliche back then. “The Red Vineyard”, the only officially recorded painting sold in his lifetime? It’s still mind boggling to me… and it breaks my heart when I think how tormented he must have been. So much beauty and despair in one mind…

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh – MoMA, New York. Picture taken in 2013.

“Starry” makes me feel the winds of a warm evening, reminds me of the joy of seeing a bright moon in the sky when I’m driving. And my silent talks to Venus, the diamond in the sky. In my humble opinion, this painting can go both ways: sad and desperate, swirling in thoughts and emotions that are darker at night. Or vivid happiness through the shades of blue contrasting with bright yellow, breathtaking movements of a night covered in astral jewelry.

I played with watercolors and even took a class on Sumi-e, the Japanese watercolor ink painting technique. As my teacher always said, “it’s all about the flow”, with her distinctive Japanese accent. But it’s all just therapeutic to me – just adding images of my paintings in the same post as “Starry” feels sinful.

Sumi-e and Haiku
Sumi-e Bamboo

Art is smart. Chameleonic. It can be transformed from one medium to another without losing its essence: creative expression.

Whatever art form tickles your fancy, don’t forget to include it in your planner. It nourishes the soul, provokes thinking and beautifies the day. Visit a museum, paint or draw something, go to a concert, pick a play, read, write or buy a movie ticket. Just art yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Mindfulness · Photography

Birds Of Many Feathers

black swan
Angry bird?

I am not a birdwatcher, unless you count my childhood days of watching Big Bird, Tweety, Woody Woodpecker or Chilly Willy on TV. However, photography makes us look at the world around us in a more detailed way and that is why I consider it a powerful too for mindfulness. You become aware of many things that could have gone unnoticed if you were not purposefully looking for subjects.

I don’t specialize in bird Photography, but it is certainly a growing part of my portfolio. It all started with pelicans at the beach, and after I sold my first one, they started selling consistently, which made me pursue it more. Then came the seagulls, many Florida birds and even tropical species from Brazil – all made their way into my lenses.

bird images for sale
Clearwater Beach, Florida

I enjoy observing them before trying to get my shots. I feel weird even saying “shooting birds”, or any animal for that matter, so I’ll go with the standard term, photographing. Hypocritical, I know, as I am not a vegetarian, more like a quasi-vegetarian? The stubborn carnivore inside is finally content with a couple of servings of chicken or fish a week. Red meat once or twice a month… That’s the best I can do for now, and my mind’s defense mechanism (defending me from my guilt) dissociates animals as photography subjects from animals in meals. Not the case with macarons, as I mercilessly and shamelessly eat such subjects after shooting them.

Less about eating and back to photography. I use a bit faster shutter speed – 1/500 and above – for “still” birds in general, to make sure focus is sharp. But for birds in flight, go faster. 1/1000 at least. Like with any animal, including the human kind, sharp focus in the eyes are essential. If they are still, very still, you can go to slower speeds, but birds move a lot, even when they seem quiet. They turn their heads quickly and often, always aware of noises. They clean feathers, practice preening and are always looking for prey. Oh, and they sing.

You never know when they will take off. It is important though to allow yourself to observe them first, before worrying about the camera. Study their habits and understand their moves. That is a tip for pretty much any kind of action photography. Because yes, birds are always in action.

Most importantly, respect them and make sure to not disturb their environment. A good telephoto zoom lens like my 70-200 mm is always helpful in getting close without being too close. It’s general consensus that feeding wildlife can be harmful and even alter the ecosystem. I choose to not do it, even fish and birds. I prefer to be merely an observer, not a participant.

I keep my aperture small for decent depth of field, around f/8, and the bigger the bird… While editing, a bit of a touch up on texture and clarity usually makes a nice effect for enhancing their beautiful and unique patterns.

The constant advice is, experiment. Try, as a small weekend project, to photograph some birdies in your backyard, at the park or beach. Observe and practice without pressure. Feel free to make mistakes and do over. Free as a bird should be.

Mixed

Vanity Unfair

Every time you deal with art, feelings get in the mix. Unfortunately, also does vanity. I have seen it too many times, from seasoned professionals and teachers to instagrammers with thousands of followers. Beware of “fame”. A snob nose looks up and forgets what down to earth means.

It seems that people tend to forget where they came from. That at some point, they had a camera in their hands and didn’t even know where the shutter button was. Nobody comes out of mama’s belly with a DSLR asking the OB-GYN to lower the chin a little. Not even a sweet Polaroid or smartphone is provided to babies in the maternity ward, they can barely open their eyes to the world yet. Therefore, it is safe to say that nobody was born knowing how to take images, even less make one.

I ask for more compassion, less conceit, a little bit of humbleness from my fellow photographers who may have given in to the self-importance myth. You may have learned from your mistakes and turned into a really good picture maker, storyteller and visual artist. But that doesn’t mean that you get to decide what is right and what is wrong. Or bully and laugh at the ones still starting their journey. Of course, we know stories of masters fighting via letters and friendships ending and actually causing new strings of ideas, but what about respect? Let me time travel and mix centuries a bit. Imagine Renoir telling Picasso to leave the cubes to Euclid. Or Leo da Vinci, a master of all trades, teasing Dali, “What time is it? Never mind, your watch is melting”.

Respecting people’s styles and choices is what makes art diverse and interesting. Nobody wants to be copied, yet many devalue a style different than their own. The need for a self-proclaimed elite to set rules of conduct in art goes against its very nature: freedom of expression. I was once in an expo of photographers and experienced that stuffy nose attitude first hand:

“Where is Henry? Not coming?”

“Nah, but who cares? All he shoots is flowers.”

Laughter in the room. I still regret my awkward silence.

After all, Monet did a lot of water lilies. Just saying. My point is who gets to decide that flowers, sunsets and butterflies are not meant to be photographed anymore? Overdone? Maybe, but what isn’t? Unless you photograph snowflakes and fingerprints, completely different subjects are a rare find on a limited planet. Even people can have doppelgangers. However, each photo is a unique moment, a unique look. I bet Henry is happier shooting flowers somewhere than “socializing” in a musty conference room and minimizing someone else’s work. Plus, I have news for you: everything is overdone these days, one month in social media is all it takes. So we should just get bored and move on? What happened to the Photographer’s eye? To interpretations? To creation? To giving something your own pinch of salt?

Speaking of social media, the self-proclaimed elite escalates to a sad – yet almost funny – degree. I like humor and agree that the political correctness patrol can go too far and kill a harmless good joke. But I am talking about a pattern of making fun of the inexperienced. I wanted to follow some photography humor accounts. Some are funny and relatable, but others seem to target newbies, hobbyists and specific niches as joke material. Apparently, you are wrong if you like to shoot neon lights, take a picture of your camera, shoot with a specific brand, the list goes on… Again, who gets to decide what is right and wrong? Who is better than whom? In joke, censorship. Making fun of their own peers seems to be part of the world of some (not all) “influencers” and their “influencees”. I personally dislike this term, it actually makes me cringe a little. I know it can be used in a good way like, “my uncle was a good influence during my teen years”, but in our world scenario, it is about trying to influence someone to buy or do something. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against capitalism and as someone with a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising, I know we live in a economic market where people target people to sell products and services, but I prefer the term I practiced in college, and in my favorite Jane Austen novel: persuasion. In my lexicon, it doesn’t completely take the power of the consumer, it tries to charm him or her, instead of focusing on your own influence. Persuade reminds me that people will always have other options, so the offer needs to step up to win. It also feels more respectful, a convincing technique that allows a certain degree of free will, a chance to disagree, to rebel, to say no.

I am not anti-trend completely. I work with Stock Photography and I am well aware that trends matter. For instance, the Pantone color of the year 2020 is 19-4052 – Classic Blue. That dark blue of the sky at dusk, reminding of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. A good name to remember when the dangers of criticism is the subject.

In this sense, I love trends because it makes art dynamic and vibrant. But that doesn’t mean you are committing a sin for shooting a subject in last year’s winner color – living coral. Or that food in rustic wooden tables images is desired one day and horrible in the next. It’s all cyclic, and some even timeless. I understand that much like in design and fashion in general, trends come and go… and come back. Yeah, you won’t probably see me in a shoulder pad blouse ever again, but I was happy doing so back then and I felt pretty. I also dream about wearing a hat and long gloves in good 50s style, but I doubt I would go grocery shopping like that, instead of my less-than-glamorous yoga pants. These are the rules, and I get it why they exist – for dynamic range and evolving purposes. And that happens with visual arts also. But the degree of judgment is just too harsh.

The vanity of demeaning others is a classic study in Psychology: the perspective of lowering others to stand taller. A constant need to rise to the top, many times caused by low self-esteem or questioning of one’s own abilities. You will not see, I hope, an adult mocking or intimidating a baby because he or she can’t talk or walk yet. Adults are secure in their abilities and usually give the child kind reassurance. As a teacher, I try to be very aware that I am dealing with human beings who chose my course to learn and improve their photography. Even though my job is to point mistakes and offer choices that can lead to better outcomes, I keep in mind that I am not a goddess or a judge. Most importantly, many times I learn something from them too.

Shoot what you want. Don’t worry if you be ridiculed, if that is overdone, if it is not “in”. The only thing that needs to be “in” is your desire to translate what your eyes see through your lenses. Expressing yourself is not an experience that someone else can control. Only you. Trust me, chances are, others will recognize their own emotions in your image and will like it. Nobody owns the truth. Empathy matters more than influence. Let’s cheer each other up and celebrate the fact that Photography is a passion many people have embraced throughout history. It is something we share, a memory maker, time stopping magic that can unite us, if we only allow it.

Mixed · Photography

The Redeemer's Welcome

How to combine two tourist attractions and landmarks in one photo? 

Visit one and photograph the other!

A Wonderful City

The “Christ the Redeemer” statue is the most famous postcard from Rio de Janeiro, and voted one of the Seven Wonders of the World. A huge statue of Jesus with arms wide open over the Guanabara Bay. I photographed it from the also famous Sugar Loaf, on a very cloudy day. Dense clouds resembling a blanket cozily wrapped around the mountain, a foggy scenario that gives any photographer a more unique capture.

The History

Image via personal portfolio by Luisa Wholley

 The statue was built through the collaborative work of artists from different nations. The artwork made of soapstone tiles was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski, and built by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa and French engineer Albert Caquot. The face was sculpted by Romanian artist Gheorghe Leonida. Its conception started in 1921 and the grand opening happened in 1931.

The Art Deco style statue is 98 feet tall and the outstretched arms measure about 92 feet. It was placed on the top of the Corcovado mountain, standing 2,300 feet above sea level, and it can be seen from different neighborhoods in Rio, bringing a sense that the city and all Cariocas are being blessed. One may challenge that notion due to serious social, political, and economic issues. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that the “Marvelous City” has been blessed with natural beauty, famous beaches like Ipanema, and the beautiful rainforest that covers the mountain, making a beautiful base to the statue.

Religion Is Optional

Although the attachment to the predominantly Catholic population in Brazil is obvious, admiring and visiting this landmark is not a matter of faith. Naturally, if you are a Christian, you may feel more rooted in your beliefs by staring at the serene and warm image that the statue represents. However, even if you have a different religion or none whatsoever, you are still going to experience a profound sense of power. The workmanship, labor, and grandeur of the sculpture make an impact on its own.

Imagine all that massive effort happening so many years ago! It certainly makes us wonder how they managed to achieve such an ambitious project without the conveniences of modern times. In the same way that the Egyptians built their pyramids, without any bulldozers and cellphones to communicate with crew members.

Therefore, if you are planning a visit to Rio, make sure to include a visit to the statue. It’s much more of a sin than going to Rome and not seeing the Pope, because the Pope is not standing there, waiting for you. The “Redeemer” is patiently waiting to welcome you. You can access the summit by train or car, but be prepared for many steps to reach the base.

Brazilians always say, “God is Brazilian”. A debatable statement, but the statue certainly helps the people of Rio feel proud when looking up.

Image via personal portfolio by Luisa Wholley

Mixed

And a Happy New Year!

2019 was a bit challenging for me, health wise. I had many ailments that made me aware that my body is aging and in need of more care. When we’re young, we think we are invincible and nothing will happen to us – mainly because we “feel” invincible, as our bodies are newest model, state-of-the-art machines very well tuned and all parts are oiled and shiny. As we age, more maintenance is needed and the constant neglect starts taking its toll.

This year I realized that.

In 2020, I wish and make the resolution of doing a better job in the maintenance department, in the hopes that I can, if not reverse, at least slow the aging process with some awareness.

Mindfulness tells us to value the present. The past and its regrets are to be observed, used as a learning tool and let go as a free elderly bird once nested on our backyard tree. The future is a big question whose answers many times depend on the present living, and most times is simply unpredictable and uncontrollable as the arrival of a new bird, landing on our familiar, yet seasoned and inevitably changed tree.

However, we can still mindfully reminisce, as I am now spending the holidays in my native Rio with my 93 year-old-dad and talking about stories of the past. Also, we can plan – to a certain degree – the year that it is about to begin.

Fill your wishes with positivity, your heart with gratitude, your spirit with joy. May your 2020 be made of fully enjoyed 365 days, 8760 hours and 525600 minutes. I am wishing all of us health, mindful awareness, joy, hopes and actions, peace, love, empathy, compassion, self-care, thankfulness and resourcefulness. Of course, some times will feel better than others, but make them all count.

Carpe 2020!

Thanks for reading this post and all my words in 2019. Hope you stick around.

Kindly,

Luisa

Mixed

Merry Holidays!

I am not a religious person “per se”. My parents weren’t much of church goers, although my Grandma was a devout Catholic. For being a great private school in Rio, they put me in a Loyola jesuit school which offered all the grades, and it wasn’t easy to get in, I had to work hard. Not about religion, just good old Math and Grammar. Later on, I chose to attend a renowned catholic college for its excellence in education, and with even harder work I got accepted. But this was about education in Brazil. In reality, I was really just a sheep slowly going astray to vaster pastures. Man made rituals, a book written by men in ancient times and dogmas didn’t give me the answers I was seeking. Still, I have my own diverse set of beliefs, and Christmas stayed with me, more for family reasons, present exchanges, delicious food and the greater meaning that grew roots in my heart. As a matter of fact, I love the holiday season. The spirit of giving, the comfort of receiving. One of the reasons I named my son Nick is because of the patron saint of kids, Saint Nick, or Santa. Baby Jesus to me is the personification of goodness and messages of hope. The idea of an immigrant spreading the word about love, tolerance, the importance of good deeds and kindness is all I need.

I don’t know much about Chanukah, except for the menorah and the beautiful story of the oil that was supposed to last for one night and, by miracle, lasted eight nights. I don’t know much about Kwanzaa or any other ethnic or religious celebrations – but I do know the spirit of togetherness and love seems to be a common theme in all these festivities. And that’s what matters at the end of the day. I mean, the year. I mean, always.

Therefore I am not joining the “what to say” drama. I say Happy Holidays because I simply don’t know what holiday the person is celebrating, and the ones not celebrating may still be excited about the New Year, also a holiday. And if not even that, I prefer to think that they won’t be offended by my well wishes. Just like I don’t, if others say it in different ways. Wish me well, and I’m swell. Because to me, personally, the goal is to absorb what Jesus, that wise man that some people quote fervently and robotically, without truly reflecting on the meanings of his words, said: “love thy neighbor”.

Whatever your holiday is – a religious event, a gathering of loved ones, or none whatsoever, I wish you peace, love and happiness: personally, to your family and your dear friends. Also, in larger scale, to the our big family called humankind. We can use that. A lot. Any given day.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Mixed · Translation

Mad Me

My sisters playing bossa nova in Brazil in the 1960s

I was watching the series “Mad Men” yesterday (I know, I am late on that train) and I got really upset – again – and decided to post about it. Nothing to do with the show, which I am enjoying quite a bit, as I was born in 68 and remember my mom wearing wigs and pretty scarves and my dad playing “Manhattan” in the living room. Also, Advertising was my major in college and I even did an internship in a big agency in Rio in the late 80s, early 90s. Although it wasn’t wild as the one in the show, and I was a level-headed young woman… I ended up not working directly in Advertising, though. Some people may not know this but, before becoming a pro photographer, I have worked for many years as an ESL instructor and English-Portuguese translator. I worked in many fields within translation, from pharmaceutical companies to literary publishers. I even went back to my university “alma mater” to take a course on Translation for Subtitles. Therefore, I learned a thing or two on the captioning subject. And that is the reason for my being even more upset yesterday.

Rule number one on translation or transcription? Don’t guess, don’t rush, don’t be lazy, don’t assume! Do your research. I didn’t have google when I first started translating, and that was tough. Nowadays, there are so many resources…. But if you still can’t figure out something, don’t translate it at all then. Better omit than make a mistake. Time frame is usually tight for translators and mistakes will be made, but cultural aspects are one thing that requires extra care. Even if it is just background music.

That’s when I go back to Mad Men and its subtitles. Suddenly the background music gets to be actually foreground, as no one is talking, and a classic from my childhood, “Água de Beber” by Tom Jobim starts playing. Bossa nova was a beloved genre in the 60s, part of the culture of that era, before being downgraded to “elevator music”. Born in Brazil like myself, this genre got famous worldwide for its tender notes and sweet lyrics, and it enchanted any ball with its suave demeanor. Many romantic tunes became couples’ theme songs. My parents included, which elected “Wave”, by the same Jobim, as their “official” song.

As the notes start on the show, the caption reads “[music playing in Spanish]”.

I yelled at the TV. My Irish-Italian-American husband, unaware of the sinful mistake, laughed at my rant:

“Wtf??? That is Portuguese!!! Bossa Nova, folks! Brazil doesn’t speak Spanish, that’s “Água de Beber”…. ok, you don’t have to know the song, of course, not even the genre, nor Portuguese, but don’t assume, please. Just write “background music”, or “soft music” then… at least it’s not incorrect.”

I know that I am a Brazilian-American and the world doesn’t need to know about the culture there as much as I do. However, a translator or caption professional can’t just assume. It is enough that I have to go to many places and people start speaking Spanish with me just because of the way I look. I love Spain, I live in Florida, I have dear friends who speak mainly Spanish. People can speak whatever they want, in my opinion. And although I believe that when you migrate to a country you should assimilate and learn the language to speak in public places, I understand it’s not easy sometimes. There is also the desire for honoring your roots and not “losing the language”. That’s why my son speaks Portuguese, so he can help me keep it alive at home and so he is able to talk to our family in Brazil with closeness. He also took Spanish in school and has many Spanish-speaking friends, he communicates very well with them in their native language. But I don’t. There are differences. Including differences in my mood… Most times I answer in English, and the conversation naturally goes back to English. Sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow and just smile, trying to understand at least 50% of what is being said. Sometimes I start speaking Portuguese and people get surprised. Many times, I start explaining that I am an American citizen born in Brazil, and therefore I am bilingual in English and Portuguese only – most people understand, but some look at me as if I were a snob just trying to be difficult. Why can’t I be proud and protective of my roots too?

DNA testing showed that I am 59% Portugal, 19% Spain and 19% French, plus other ethnicities in smaller numbers. I have Latin languages all over my DNA, I love them all and embrace the diversity with all my heart. I can communicate a little in all of them. But I was raised in a specific country with a rich and specific culture. Portuguese is actually more similar to Italian sometimes… I just wish people stopped assuming and knew more about the largest country in South America. It has a different history and culture – unique authors, singers and artists. It’s not fun to see your native culture dissolved in a melting pot, becoming a generic substance. Mixing is great, but while maintaining unique individuality is better. Each culture is so rich, it’s important to protected them from fading. I am assuming that Spanish speakers also go through that, trying to untangle their individual countries’ cultures from the web of generalization too.

It’s all way worse when it transcends beyond the grocery stores of Florida into the mass media realm. You should have known better, caption makers.

Thanks for reading, or “obrigada por ler”.

Holidays · Mindfulness · Mixed

Once Upon a Bike – A Christmas Short Story


For the fifth time during that Holy Night, Julia checked the tree. Nothing. Not a single clue that a bicycle was in her near future. But “hope is the last one to die”, as Grandma Maria always says.

The problem is that Julia started questioning the whole Santa’s existence. There was a rumor in school that the good old man was actually just a character and something you should “grow out of” as you become a wiser kid. A very concerning rumor that meant no North Pole Santa quarters, no reindeer, no sleigh.

The girl knew that Santas in shopping centers and malls were just men dressed as the real (or not?) guy, hired to entertain shoppers. She was a smart kid and figured that out pretty early on. But the recent news was a bit deeper than that. “Your parents buy and hide the gifts.” The echo of that brutal statement has been haunting her for a couple of weeks, but she couldn’t bring herself to ask the parents, the very same people who would have been deceiving her for all those eight years. The betrayal. But the intentions were nice… Would they do that, though?

Julia had absolutely no proof of that deceit. Also, it was difficult proof to obtain, as she knew that her mom did indeed buy gifts for her and everyone else, for that matter. There was always a gift to and from everybody. The surprise gifts were part of the ritual, just like the red shiny ball ornaments resembling Rudolph’s nose, and the spinning musical angel. She even helped her mom wrap many of the gifts for others, knowing all too well that hers were out of sight – and she loved that mystery factor. Actually, one of her early detective skills was to circle around the massive tree and try to read the tags in search of “to Julia” packages, investigating shapes for possible guesses. She also liked to make sure that everyone had at least one gift to open. She should have known better by now that her mom, as the perfect hostess she was, would never leave anyone behind. How she pulled it all off – food, gifts, decor, so much planning for so many people – remained a familiar Christmas miracle. She even made sure there were gifts with blank tags, ready to be used in case of an unexpected guest showing up. And it did happen a few times. Once, a friend of her aunt’s was invited. As her family lived far away, Julia’s mom would never allow someone she knew alone on Christmas Eve. But it turned out that she wasn’t exactly all alone, and brought her fiancé along, a strong and robust guy with a nice smile:

“Jul, get me two blank-tag gifts for this couple, and a pen. What’s the fiancé ‘s name again? Oh, yeah, Peter. Grab two, any will do”, whispered her mom. Julia was a good elf in operation “Everybody’s Got a Gift”. Yes, the gifts were generic, but aimed at making all guests feel included and welcomed.  As genuine as the inclusion and welcoming were, these gifts were obviously spare ones, as everyone knew they were last minute guests and the stores were closed by the time they arrived. Presents would vary from cologne or fancy soap kits to books. Little “one size fits all” things that could please anyone – and even be used by someone in the family, in case there weren’t any extra guests. Reflecting upon it now, deception was suddenly looking like a recurrent theme during the Holiday Season, despite the noble reasons…

Blank-tagged gifts and plenty of extra food were mandatory in the home. For Julia, the fun gift exchange and her very important role as caller and delivery girl was the highlight of the night. Another organizational tactic from Julia’s mom. Everyone arriving had to place their gifts in the already packed “under the tree” space. It was like playing gift Jenga, balancing skills required. And to ensure maximum attention from the crowd to each gift exchange, so that everybody witnessed the whole process, Julia was the only one with access to the tree when the exchange started. She would then pick a present and slowly read the tag in clear and loud voice, to overpower Aunt Leah’s uncontrollable chatting ways and Uncle Henry’s hearing issues:

“To THOMAS, from LAURA!”

“To whom?”

“THOMAS! Not you yet, Henry!”

After that, she would hand each gift to each happy recipient, who then HAD to open it in front of everyone. Underwear or intimate gifting not recommended.

It was a mission Julia took very seriously, the years perfecting her speech and delivery. It also required a certain compassion practice, making sure to pick the gifts in an order that would prevent someone singled out as “the one without any gifts yet”.

That was the routine for Julia’s family, the South American tradition where everyone gets together on Christmas Eve for a very late supper. We’re talking after 10 pm here. Drinking on empty stomachs sometimes led to Uncle Fred’s somewhat disturbing and borderline perverted dance, and some Grinch-like, “hangry” snarky comments from any family member that could easily lead to an argument, depending on the Christmas spirit level in that particular year. But her mom wouldn’t change the tradition for anything, and counted on the hors d’oeuvres (she loved French words) to keep the crowd under control.

Gathering, supper, gifts at midnight, while the Papal Mass on TV, live from the Vatican, blessed the mayhem. Then déjà vu leftovers for the Christmas lunch on the next day made sure that all extra pounds were well worth gaining. That was the way, every year. That’s the way our girl knew and loved Christmas.

However, this whole Santa thing was a pickle. Julia thought that maybe the bike would bring some proof. When she first started understanding and enjoying Christmas, a very legitimate concern followed:
“Mom, can Santa deliver to us even though we don’t have a chimney?”

“Santa actually loves condos and apartments, Jujube. No need to squeeze that jello belly into the chimney, all he has to do is come through the large windows.”

“Good.”

But carrying a bike would be hard and, most importantly, she would easily be able to spot the large volume and distinctive shape under the tree.
“Dad, I am going to wait awake to see if Santa brings my bike.”

“Good luck with that. Guy is magical.”
“Or not even real”, she thought.

And so they gathered for the feast. Turkey, ham, about ten side dishes, eight choices of beverage and  seven desserts later, everyone had to loosen the belt to wait for the gifting, which would start in a couple of minutes.

Ready to assume her leading role, Julia came back from the kitchen, where she had taken her totally empty plate and engaged in a conversation with Auntie Silvia about Disneyworld wishes. That’s when she glanced at the tree and gasped. A huge, definitely bike-shaped gift, wrapped in transparent orange cellophane with a massive golden bow was perfectly placed under the already extremely full tree. But… but how?

Her mom saw her standing by the tree, looking like a reindeer caught in the headlights:

“Yeah, I know, looks like you got your wish… Santa came while you were in the kitchen. He was in a big hurry with all the worldwide deliveries, and couldn’t wait to say hi, but asked me to tell you he loves you and that you are a very good girl.” And gave her a gentle forehead kiss.

“Wait! Mom was in the kitchen with me a second ago. Dad was at the dining table the whole time, still attacking the ham, I could hear him. I left for just a few minutes. It couldn’t have been them…” thought the soon-to-be bike owner. Chuckling at her confused face, Julia’s dad reminded her:

“Told ya, the guy is magic.”

“Yes, he is. No doubt about it anymore.”

At least for one more year. Or two. Until she found out she wasn’t the only family elf her parents recruited, and that everybody had a place and a role, including sneaking in her presents – no matter how big they were – almost invisibly, while the parents were still safely in sight to avoid suspicion. That year, the unexpected and strong fiancé was the lifesaver who ended up carrying the bike from the garage to the tree, relieving a very tipsy Uncle Fred from the duty. She eventually learned about “Operation Bike”, laughing and learning from the best how to replicate the same magic for her own son Noah, many years later.

Santa exists because he can live inside of us. The bearded magical guy can remain forever as an endearing symbol and warm memory of love, joy, fun, sharing, giving and celebrating with family and all the dear people we meet in this journey of living.


merry christmas snowmen smiling

From: Luisa

To: You.