Slow Down

img_9183You know that sinking feeling you get when you’re driving along and all of the sudden, the Check Engine light comes on? And then you drive with one eye on the road and one eye on the light and wonder if this will turn out to be a simple sensor or something really expensive, say like a fuel pump. Yeah, well, my body’s Check Engine light clicked on three weeks ago and I decided to ignore it and try to make it to the end of the semester then deal with whatever was leaving me doubled over with stomach pains. That turned out to be a pretty stupid idea.

After three days of pain and chills, I decided that I would suck it up for one more day, get through my day at work, then go see my family doctor and see what was going on. All I had to do was make until 2:30 or so on Thursday afternoon. Instead, my mom took a tumble before my alarm even went off Thursday morning and I ended up in the emergency room with her. Thankfully, her injury wasn’t anything catastrophic – a broken arm but nothing requiring surgery. I spent most of the day Thursday and good chunk of Friday at the hospital with her, arguing to get her admitted to evaluate her heart condition, while in agony myself and not telling anyone. Finally, Friday afternoon, the chills were so bad, I had to go home while my sister stayed with Mom. I took a hot shower and still couldn’t stop shivering. My teenage son brought me two blankets and the thermometer. I’d spiked a fever of 102.2. I finally had to admit I was sick. I went to the walk-in clinic Saturday morning and they wanted to put me in an ambulance immediately and send me off to the same emergency room where I’d just spent two days with Mom. They suspected colitis or something similar and said the ER could keep me hydrated via IV fluids, run some tests, maybe give me some antibiotics. I refused to go, knowing it would just mean long hours of being ignored in the hallway, cold and miserable, when I could keep myself hydrated at home and wait to see my family doctor on Monday. Probably not a brilliant choice but oh well, I’m still here.

I spent the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday on the couch. Monday, my fever was lower but not gone. My doctor made sure I could keep fluids down, told me to stay away from solid food for a few days, and to rest. E. Coli from eating raw cookie dough or diverticulitis were his two prime suspects. Given the way things played out, diverticulitis was the final diagnosis. I missed a full week from work and school. I ended up coordinating Mom’s move from hospital to a nursing home for rehab from my bed. I lived on nothing but Gatorade and water for 8 days. Care to guess who does all the grocery shopping and cooks Thanksgiving dinner? Yup – yours truly.

Turns out spending a week completely flattened and another ten days feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck will give you a whole new appreciation for the words Slow Down. I spent a lot of time crashed out on the couch. Bed time got backed up to 7 or 7:30. Visits with my mom were only a couple hours at best before she’d kick me out for looking too pale. I still managed, with help from my younger son, to pull off a fancy Thanksgiving dinner for the two of us. But he has spent the remainder of the long weekend hounding me to sit down and rest.

This morning, as I settled down at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a copy of John Pavlovitz’s Advent devotional Low. I read the following:

“Life comes with the collateral damage of living, with failed plans and relational collapse, with internal struggle and existential crises, and we carry these things into this season. The good news is we don’t need to discard our messiness to step into this season, and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Bring every bit of your flawed self and all your chaotic circumstances to this day. Welcome the mess.”

from Low by John Pavlovitz

And as I sat there, gazing out the window and contemplating this, I realized that I am the mess. And trying to force myself to keep going at full power “just a little bit longer” isn’t working. My bad habit of trying to make sure everyone else is taken care of first also isn’t working. It damn near put me in the hospital. And so maybe this Advent, instead of spending half of it trying to get through to the end of the semester with my A average intact and the other half trying to make sure everything is ready for Christmas, I may actually have to slow down and take care of myself. I may actually have to accept that I don’t need to pull off a miracle of getting it all done and coming out on top. Because the Christmas miracle isn’t mine to pull off and it never was in the first place.

Advent, Music & Memories

Twelve notes. That’s all it took. Suddenly, I was 6 years old again, twirling around the living room with my father.

I took my younger son to see The Nutcracker and The Four Realms last night. I was a little shocked when the opening notes of the overture and the opening scene brought me to tears. Of all my father’s Christmas albums, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was one of my favorites. I still listen to that music every year. He read me the story of Clara and The Nutcracker more times than I could ever count. I knew the movie was a different take on the story. And yet, with those few opening notes all the innocent wonder came flooding back. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. 

It’s funny how much music is tied to memories. The Rolling Stones and baking endless batches of chocolate chip cookies. U2 and hanging Christmas lights. Pink Floyd and writing end of term papers. And of course, it wouldn’t be Advent without O Come, O Come Emmanuel and my father’s alternate lyrics inducing church giggles.

I have so many good memories of Advent and Christmas. And yet, as I sit on this dreary first Sunday of Advent, I find myself feeling a little off. Last year, the holidays were a time of great apprehension. This year, things are more stable but there’s that part of me that constantly asks, “For how long?” Last year was the year without a Christmas. I don’t want to be so afraid of a repeat occurrence that I miss out of what good can be this year. So, I’ve tried the last couple days to listen to some of my old Christmas favorites. I mean the really old childhood favorites from my father’s collection. These are the songs I asked for over and over that have nothing but good memories attached to them. This is my attempt at being hopeful. The Holly and The Ivy, The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This?, Carol of the Bells, and The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns lead the playlist. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid with a great love of pipe organs, bells, and big choirs. 

What I’m finding is that trying to be hopeful is not really possible. Either I can cling to hope… or not. Either I can remain haunted by ghosts of unhappy Christmases past or I can let go and experience one full of joy, love, and wonder. The opening notes of the Nutcracker Overture caught me off guard in that movie theater last night because I went in not knowing what to expect. I was ready for something new, something unexpected, something wonderful and I was not disappointed.

Can I approach this season of Advent with that same kind of hopeful expectation? I suppose I shall have to wait and see.

A Year Without A Christmas?

lights

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

joy

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.

 

 

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.