A Year Without A Christmas?


I’ve never made any secret of how much I despise the fakery of New Years Eve or the whole new year/new me nonsense. And I’ve had a few years where Advent has been a little more difficult to navigate than others. But I love Christmas. I always have. I’ve tried over the years to make sure my boys have a Christmas that is about a lot more than a tree and some presents. Because the boys spend Christmas Day at their father’s house, we open presents on Christmas Eve morning. That gives us an entire day that is about time spent with family and we end the day with Midnight Mass, by which point the excitement over presents has more or less worn off. We come home and the one of the boys will put Baby Jesus in the manger. But sometimes, life is beyond our control and this was one of those years.

My mom went into the hospital Christmas Eve morning. Even as we opened presents, I knew we were headed there. My sister made sure the gorgeous roast beef I’d picked out was served as planned. And the boys texted me all day and into the evening. I finally came home around 9:30, too exhausted to go to Mass. I reheated my dinner and sat at the table with the boys as they proudly recapped how they helped cook dinner. They had saved the Christmas wine until I got home and we toasted a Merry Christmas that felt anything but merry. By 10:30, we were all worn out and after my younger son declared that this was the year without a Christmas, I had to remind him (and myself) that nothing can ever take the real Christmas away from us.  We talked for a bit and together we decided Jesus wouldn’t mind coming into the manger a wee bit early this year so that we could get to bed and get some much needed sleep.

Come New Years Eve, Mom was still in the hospital, improving slowly, and the rest us at home toasted good riddance to 2017 even before toasting the beginning of 2018. As it turned out, I spent the Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the entire 12 days of Christmas trekking back and forth to the hospital. While the doctors were busy figuring out how to help Mom feel better, I was busy trying to find little ways to brighten her spirits. You’d be amazed at the healing powers of a few bites of homemade ham with pineapple and few sips of New Years punch in a crystal punch cup carefully packed and brought from home. And yes, there were more than few Miss Daisy jokes made during her stay.

Mom was able to come home just in time to celebrate Little Christmas. Last night, I brewed a nice pot of tea for us. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about all that had happened in recent months and especially her stay in the hospital. Eventually, we came around to the subject of trust. My mom is trusting me, as her medical conservator, to work with our family doctor to make sure she gets the care she needs but also to respect her wishes regarding treatment. That kind of trust is one thing when you’re feeling well enough to care for yourself and it’s another thing entirely when you’re really sick, in a strange place, on strange medicines and you’re not even sure what’s real anymore.

This morning as I spent some much needed, albeit very cold, time at the beach, that conversation kept running through my head. It made me consider the way I trust God – or don’t – on a far deeper level. I’m not shy about acknowledging that trusting God is not something that comes easily to me. Yet, over the last ten years, I gradually grew to trust God more than I ever thought I could – not without lot of protests and tears, mind you. But all of the sudden, these last two weeks, trust became something far more visceral. It became about letting go, surrendering to whatever was going to be, and trusting that somehow, someway, whatever happened, I wasn’t going to face it alone. And I didn’t. God showed up in a myriad of ways big and small in family, in friends, in strangers, even in nature as a whopper of a snowstorm gave me a desperately needed day of rest and time with my boys and gave Mom an extra day of excellent nursing care.

This Advent was not an easy one. And it has been said in this house that this was the year without a Christmas. But I don’t believe that. It’s just that this Incarnation stuff is a messy business that doesn’t translate well to Hallmark movies or sappy three-line greeting cards. This year, Christmas was not without miracles. Nor was it without an epiphany.



Joy. Third Sunday of Advent. This is the week we traditionally put up our Christmas tree and our Nativity. We usually haul out the old records – yeah, remember records? –  and we sing along, badly. I turn out cookies in big batches. The house is loud and bright and smells like heaven.

Not this year. The tree is up, lit, and decorated but we did it quietly. The Nativity boxes are all stacked in the corner for later. Maybe tonight. Cookies might happen before Christmas Eve.

The traditional Christmas preparations that usually make me feel lighter inside feel heavy this year. The excitement that usually bubbles up in me just hasn’t been there this year. The closer we get to Christmas, the heavier things weigh on me.

And yet, joy is not absent.  Joy showed up in the simplest, most unexpected way. A little piece of candy from an old lady’s purse was all it took to brighten my whole world. Earlier this week a new client, whom I had never met, was introduced to me as I was leaving work. As usual these days, I was in a whirlwind with a long list of things I needed to do after work. She smiled and we shook hands. Then suddenly, she reached for her bag and dug out a strawberry-filled hard candy and handed it to me. Everything instantly lightened up for me and it must have been all over my face when I thanked her because she caught my hand, dug out five more, put the whole handful in my hand and then stood up and gave me a big hug. She could not have known but those particular candies bring back the sweetest memories of my childhood. As I walked to my car, I still had a long list of things I needed to do after work but the whirlwind felt … well… a lot less whirly. And I caught myself noticing the way the sunlight hit the snow and the sparrow singing in the tree over my car and how chubby the squirrels have gotten all of the sudden.

The next day, I came into work, still smiling like a little girl over that little handful of candy. There waiting for me was a whole bag of the same candies. After I’d left, the client had gone out to her car and come back in with a full bag and left it for me. That was enough to move me to tears.

I’ve always been one to find joy in the littlest things in life: the way the dew hangs on a spiderweb or a buttercup growing up through a crack in the cement or the way the snowflakes stacked up precariously on the bush outside the kitchen window reflect the light of Christmas lights. The last ten weeks, my mom’s health suddenly declined and I’ve been more and more caught up in taking care of her and running around trying to get the house ready to celebrate the holidays in the way we always have. I’ve been so caught up in all of it that I didn’t even realize that I had started to miss seeing the little things that had always brought me so much joy.

strawberryJoy for me this year was found in the simplest, smallest act of kindness from a total stranger. A little piece of candy and a smile was all I needed to remind me to stop, breathe, look up, look around and remember the innocence and wonder of childhood. Because when God shows up, at least for me, it’s usually in the littlest of ways.




peace two candles

Many images come to mind when I think of the word peace. Quiet. Stillness. A snowfall. An empty beach. An early morning cup of tea. A winter night sky full of stars. But what happens when those things are not readily available, or least not available uninterrupted? What happens when life feels like it has been picked up and shaken around like a snowglobe in the hands of an overeager three year-old – what does peace look like then?

I wish I knew. The best I can come up with is that’s something to hang on to. It’s the wall I find to lean against during a panic attack. It’s the warmth of the sun on my fair or the wind in my hair or the voice of a friend that gives me something to hang on to until everything stops spinning or falling in on me or both.

But here’s the thing – all of those are outside of me. The good images that come to mind when I think of peace and the things I hang to when I’m falling apart – all those are outside.

Peace, true peace, is a gift that lies within. It means digging deeper than surface images and finding something – or rather Someone – greater to hang on to. Or perhaps it means allowing myself to be held. Perhaps the path to peace means letting go and allowing myself to be held by the same hands that hold the whole universe steady. Perhaps true peace can only be found through surrender and trust.

It seems like this Advent, if I’m to know peace, I’m going to have to surrender and trust. And I think I’ve been shaken around enough that surrender and trust are less terrifying now. Ask me again around Christmas.



The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie


Advent & Old Movies

This time of year always brings with a mix of feelings I could do without – a hint of nostalgia, a touch of melancholy, a touch of sadness – all things that come up when the Thanksgiving table is set and there are empty chairs that once were occupied. Some years are harder than others. This is one of those years.

stuffingI was put in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year. It should be said that I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I recruited my sister and my younger son to help me. Note to self: offering a 15 year-old boy the chance to wield a large kitchen knife is a terrifying, yet highly effective, incentive to get him take on the role of sous chef. My mom, who usually presides over two days of baking and then preparing Thanksgiving dinner itself, sat this year out entirely. Aside from helping us figure out which of the three faded, smeary, barely legible versions of ‘Grandma’s Stuffing Recipe’ was actually the right grandma and the right stuffing, she left it up to us to figure it all out. In the end, we pulled the whole thing off quite nicely. Despite talk of keeping things low-key, there were four pies, two kinds of cookies, a decent-sized turkey, two kinds of stuffing, and enough side dishes that the leftovers will have us playing refrigerator Tetris for the next week.

With Thanksgiving over, Advent is fast approaching. And in my house, the approach of Advent is steeped in fond memories of my childhood. Some years that brings comfort and other years – well – not so much. This year – yeah – not so much.  Being in a position of splitting time between two churches, and still being considered a newcomer in both, is hard. This year it is a bit easier than last year but being a welcomed outsider still feels like being an outsider. After a last minute decision to pop in to my old Catholic parish on Thanksgiving morning, I learned of the coming retirement of the priest who was my pastor for the better part of thirty years and the only confessor I ever really trusted. I knew that was coming sooner rather than later, but it still caught me off-guard. The feeling that home is no longer home just became a bit more intense. The feeling that time is slipping by too fast also became a bit more intense.

casablanca-1.0.0Maybe that explains the sudden desire to lose myself in old movies. The last few weekends, I’ve curled up with my favorite blanket to be swept away by Doctor Zhiavago, Casablanca, and Gone With The Wind. I have Citizen Kane and To Have and Have Not and a few others in the watchlist. I know every line of dialogue and every note of the score and yet, here I am, tissues in hand, sniffling over the same old movies I’ve watched a hundred times.

Like an old movie, I know the music of Advent and every line of the story. I know what will make me smile and what will have me in tears. Some years, Advent is deeply spiritual. Some years, it’s simply a bit nostalgic. This year, the coming of Advent has me wanting to stop time, even for a little while. That’s not exactly a new feeling. The last few years, Advent has been rough. I know each passing day brings that the long emotional slog of January to March closer. I dread those weeks that bring up dark memories and old nightmares. Some years, I can let myself get caught up in the quiet of Advent and I find great joy in the Christmas season (the real one, not that fake Hallmark crap) and that  joy carries me very well through those dark months. This year, I’m struggling already and I know damn good and well nostalgia isn’t going to cut it. Either I’m going to have to intentionally let myself be swept away by the season of Advent and all the feelings it calls up or Christmas will slip through my fingers, leaving me with little to carry me through my darkest months of the year. Before there can be hope, peace, joy and love, there has to be trust and surrender. I have a week to come to grips with that and it feels like I need a month or two.

A Foggy Christmas Eve

christmas eve

Anybody who knows me knows I typically get really excited for Christmas. I’m a big overgrown kid. I like the excitement and buildup before Christmas. I love setting up the big Nativity scene, although I do tend to be somewhat mischievous.  Who needs an Elf on a Shelf when you can have a sheep on the inn’s roof?

But this year wasn’t one of those years. I didn’t have that sense of innocence or the childlike buildup of excitement. I couldn’t quite say why. Even sneaking a velociraptor in with the wise men’s camels didn’t bring me the same joy as it had in the past. The weather was unseasonably warm. And too many days were cloudy, gray, rainy or foggy or all of the above. Somehow that sort matched how I felt. A little lost, a little foggy, and decidedly unsettled. You have to understand, I love fog. I love when I can’t see what I know is only a few feet away from me. But I wasn’t loving it so much when I was foggy on the inside. Spending all of Advent with the threat of unpredictable tears wasn’t helping much. The kicker came on Sunday before Christmas. I was walking through the food store when I’ll Be Home For Christmas came on the store radio. I finished my food shopping with tears streaming down my face. But the lightbulb finally clicked on.

My mother had been saying for months that going to another church for Christmas Eve Mass after 29 years at our old parish was going to be traumatic. There was no way to make it not traumatic and so, in a logical fashion, I made all the necessary firm, rational explanations that I have made since we switched to the new parish on the Sunday after Easter. But hearing Bing Crosby crooning about home brought up all the old memories and all the feelings attached to them. For the first time since my Dad died, I would be spending Christmas Eve in the simple little church that he had loved. We’ve been there for eight months now but somehow being there for Christmas made that change of location suddenly very real and very solid. At the same time it was also very unsettling and I am unsettled enough thank you very much. I’m not quite sure what home really means anymore and that’s kinda scary since I’m Mom and therefore it’s my job to make everything alright for the boys. I was actually terrified of somehow screwing up Christmas.

Christmas Eve came and we settled into our pew. The choir sang for a bit before Mass and they sang was the carol I was named after: Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella. My Dad loved that song and thus my middle name is Jeanette. By the time that song was finished, I realized the fog inside had lifted. I now could see what I had known was right in front me all along: I was in the right place. I saw the same sense of peace touch my Mom and each of the boys at different points during the service and by the time Mass was over, I knew for certain I had managed to get us all home for Christmas and the only trauma involved was the foggy fear of the unknown.

Trust is not my strong suit. And spending all of Advent feeling lost in the fog and at the same time knowing the only thing to do was keep moving forward required trust. So as I sit here sipping my tea on this gray day after Christmas, I thank God for bringing me through the fog. And at the same time remind Him this would be a lot easier for me if He’d just go along with my need for control and call it a day. But I’m guessing that probably isn’t going to happen and I suppose part of me knows that might be for the best.


Advent Tears


Maybe I’m under too much stress from work and school. Maybe it’s the car that doesn’t seem to understand that it needs to last one more year without bankrupting me. Maybe it’s the fourteen nights straight of dreams where horrible black smoke monsters are coming to kill me. Maybe it’s the fact that the weather is too warm and my ice queen soul desperately need it to snow. Yeah, I guess maybe all that could be starting to wear me down. Whatever the cause, I’m finding myself ridiculously prone to tears this Advent season.

Anything and everything has set me off. Sometimes it hasn’t taken anything at all. If I’m still for more than five minutes, I’m crying. So, of course, I’m trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. And, of course, that isn’t working so well.

Riding in the car? My favorite Trans-Siberian Orchestra song set me off.

Twitter? Pictures of Rev. Daniel’s creche touched off the water works. Particularly when he pointed out that he loves this set because it’s the only one he’s ever found where Mary is actually holding Jesus like a mother instead of just staring at him in the manger like she’s not quite sure what to do with him.

Today it was as simple as taking my son to see the last installment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.  It wasn’t the movie that got to me. I’d read all three novels so I knew what was coming. No, it was the commercial before the previews before the movie that did me in. There’s a Windows commercial where their NYC employees flash mobbed outside an Apple store singing Let Peace Begin With Me.

Oh no. Not going there. This is stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Cheesy. Sappy. Sentimental. Shit where are the tissues?! Seriously, have I gotten that pathetically sappy that I’m crying over commercials now? Really? This is a new low.

Or is it?  Do I really want to shut down that softer side of myself? I know my weakest points. I have serious issues with trust. I rarely feel safe. But over the last few years, I let my defenses down. I allowed myself to trust more and there are at least some places and times when I feel mostly safe. In short, I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable again. That vulnerability doesn’t come without a price. Reconnecting with the innocent, childlike wonder-filled part of myself makes the world a big, beautiful place that I love. But it also means that the vitriol, fear, hatred and violence hit much deeper now. Putting my infamous protective inner walls back up no longer seems like an option I can live with.

So now what? As I struggle with this teary feeling where nothing feels solid, I hang to a few lines from The Shack – which I am re-reading for the nineteenth time.

“Jesus, I feel lost.”

“I know… But it’s not true. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost.”