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.

The Story Continues

journal

I took six weeks off from writing publicly. I can’t say that was a planned hiatus but it was one that was very much needed. Jesus and I had some things to discuss off the record. So here I stand at the start of a new year and like most people, I looked around on New Year’s Day and said, “Okay, now what?”

Looking ahead, I have a whole new year, full of possibilities. I have a challenging semester starting very soon. I have a child preparing for his trip out of the country. I have another child preparing to graduate high school. A vacation is planned and a retreat is too.  My summer classes are planned out and thoughts about the fall semester are swirling as well.

Looking back, my Advent season was a blur between the craziness at work and finals at school. But at the same time, I bought myself a book. As usual, I bought it with the intent of reading it during my winter break. And as usual, I read a page or two and soon found myself completely sucked into a 624 page tome that I legitimately did not have the time to read. So, being me, I read it anyway to the neglect of everything else and finished it late in the night on the night before my sociology final, for which I was should have been studying. By the time I finished it, the semester was over, Advent was over, and Christmas was upon me. Christmas was the way I like it to be – full of quiet and family. There was silliness and laughter and time to just be together without the pressures of school or homework for any of us.

But even with all that 2016 has been and all that is to come in 2017, New Year’s Day started as every day does, with a strong cup of tea, sipped slowly at the kitchen table. The journal that had absorbed all of 2016 was filled. A new one sat waiting. One journal was closed while a new one was opened, but the story is the same story. It’s my story and so as much as things change, they stay the same. I’m still who I am. What became apparent to me during my blogging hiatus is that I finally have come to feel at home into my own skin. As much as I have always felt that I am an outsider, an observer, set aside from the world around me, I am who am I supposed to be and I am where I am supposed to be in life. I know some of what lies ahead. Not all, but enough.

For Christmas, I was given another book, which has captured me even more than the last. All of the questions that came up during my retreat in October are being answered one by one in a book that feels like it was written in answer to my private journal questions. It is a gift of the year that has past which will carry me into the year that has just begun. And so the story continues.

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.

 

God Ain’t Santa

Flashback: Christmas 1981

The one thing I really wanted for Christmas that year was a Matchbox Sounds of Service Garage.  I had written it carefully in my letter to Santa and come Christmas morning, there it was under the tree.  It was carefully wrapped but already assembled with batteries in it, ready to go.

Newsflash: God Ain’t Santa

erectprIt took me a long time to figure out that sometimes gifts from God are already whole and complete. But most of the time, it’s like getting an Erector set… one…tiny eighth-of-an-inch screw…at…a…time…and then getting the tools and instruction manual last.  As you know, patience is a virtue, it isn’t one of mine.  So my conversations with God tend to go a little like this:

God: “Here.  Hang on to this.”

Me: “Why?”

God: “It’s important.”

Me: “But what is it?”

God: “You’ll see.”

Me: “Yeah, but when?”

God: “Later.”

Me: “Can’t You just tell me?”

God: “Nope. You’ll know when you need to know.”

Me: “Do You have any idea how absolutely frigging infuriating You can be?!”

He never answers that last one but I can always feel the Divine Smirk.

The thing about that Matchbox garage is that I knew exactly what I wanted.  When it comes to my spiritual life, nine times out of ten, I have no clue what it is I’m asking for.  Yeah, there are those times when I know I want wisdom or clarity or courage but more often than not I see something I can’t quite name, something just beyond my understanding and all I know is I want that, whatever that is.  And that’s okay because unlike Santa, who requires an exact list, God already knows what the vague and nebulous that is.

Every year, Deacon Ron asks me what gift I will ask of God for Christmas.  This is one of those years when what I want is something I can’t quite name.  I saw it last week in a little boy.  He was about eight years old and was sitting a couple of pews in front of me at Mass.  He caught my eye as he was so thoroughly captivated by everything happening on the altar. Meanwhile, his little sister had fallen asleep in their mother’s arms.  When it came time to receive Communion, their mother was trying to position the sleeping girl on the pew and while she wasn’t looking, the little boy darted out of the pew. With his hands jammed into the pockets of his winter coat, he put his arms out like airplane wings and ‘flew’ his way up the aisle. Oblivious of the adults piously processing forward, he ran ahead and cut in front of the entire line. After receiving the Body of Christ, he turned and flashed his mortified mother a smile that I will never forget. For a moment, the world stopped spinning beneath me.  All I could see was his face and all that I wanted was what I could see in his eyes.

For the life of me, I can’t tell you what I saw.  Innocence? Joy? Freedom? Love? Grace?  Some concoction of all of those?  I don’t know. But I want it.  I pointed it out to God in that moment as the world stopped beneath me.

THAT – right there – that – I don’t know what that is, but You do and I want that more than anything.”

And I felt God smile.

I really hope this isn’t going to be one of those Erector set gifts that is going to come one little piece at a time. Much assembly required and batteries not included…yet.  But for some crazy reason, God seems determined to teach me patience.

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Unfinished… A Reevaluation

Last Christmas I wrote:

Right now, I’m doing pretty well and most days it’s not too hard to be thankful but when the stuff hits the fan – and I know sooner or later it will – I want to be cheerful. I want to be appreciative.  And no matter what comes, I want to be thankful for the simple joy of cookies.

When I looked back over 2012 to see if that had been my reality this year, I looked beyond my journals to include my Facebook posts.  I post pretty much every day, all spontaneous stuff: some of it wacky and some of it quite serious, even controversial at times.  I’ve stirred up some real hornet’s nests and I’ve been called a lot of well, shall we say ‘interesting’ things this year.  I’m know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea.  I’m more like a shot of good bourbon, either you can handle me or you can’t.  

But in addition to some of the political and religious posts that riled people up, there were a lot of little moments I’d captured.  The terms Eugenism, Andrewish, Momish, and Somedoggy were born. Friends tell they can always count on my page for a lift. “Compile your posts into a book!” they tell me.  Well I don’t know that there’s enough there for a book, not yet anyway, but I was amazed at how many silly little things I’d captured over the year.  I saw how much joy I’d had over the past year, all of it in the smallest moments of everyday life.  

I had started to pull out a few of my favorite posts to include in my Christmas letter. That letter was sitting on my computer half-finished when the news of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook broke.  Suddenly the look back over the year didn’t matter.  Only the right now mattered. I suddenly wanted my boys home with me and I wanted them home now, right that minute.  But Eugene wasn’t at school.  He was wrapping up a three-day field trip at Nature’s Classroom, 45 minutes away and wasn’t due back at school until 2:00.  Andrew was in class at his middle school and thankfully unaware of what had happened.  It took everything in me not to go the school and pull Andrew out early. I had to keep telling myself that my boys were okay.  I was the one who was a mess and I needed to pull it together before I picked them up.  It didn’t work.  I fell apart as soon as I could put my arms around them, take their faces in my hands and tell them how very much I love them.

Over this past week, I’ve tried to resurrect where I was going with that letter I’d started but I can’t.  Then I had a conversation yesterday with Eugene that gave me the perspective on what was in my way. I asked him what was his favorite part of his three days at Nature’s Classroom.

“Thursday night,” he replied without even stopping to think about it, “I saw three shooting stars on the night hike.” Then his voice changed, softened and saddened,  sounding much older than his ten years, “That was before…you know…before Friday.”

Before.  Yes, that’s what was eating at me.  Before.  And now there is nothing but After.  I want my Before back.  I want my sense of security back, however false it may be.  I want that piece of innocence back for myself and for my kids.  Dropping my boys off at school will never feel quite the same again.  But then again, picking them up will never be the same again either.  We’ve hugged tighter this week.  We’ve talked more about the good things in life, taking time to point out the goodness and kindness in people.

That now-scrapped Christmas letter had started off with the observation that our holidays had become a run-together mishmash my friend Kate dubbed ‘Hallothanksmas’.  I’d grown weary of hearing people say they just wanted the next holiday to start so they could ‘get it over with’.  But that was Before.  Now in this new After, we’re quicker with a hug, to say ‘I love you’, to say ‘I’m sorry’, to be considerate or to do some small random act of kindness and it makes me wonder, why did it take something so awful to bring out that goodness in us? 

The gifts of Advent are Peace, Hope, Joy and Love. What happened at Sandy Hook left me very shaken.  That unfinished letter ended up being a letter to myself, reminding me that Peace, Hope, Joy and Love have been very much present in my life this year but they could have been so easily overlooked.  It’s in taking the time to really see, to appreciate and to celebrate them that makes those gifts mean something.  So I will share one of those little moments with you.  This conversation could just as easily be one of my conversations with God,  myself as a child and God as the parent.

Eugene: “Why didn’t you tell me it was easier that way?!”
Mom: “I DID! You just don’t listen to me.”
Eugene: “I listen to you. I just forget to remember.”

Take time to listen.  Take time to remember.  Someday, it may matter far more than you realize.