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.

Me Too

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It had been a crazy day to top off a crazy week. Thursday was winding down and not fast enough. All I wanted was to get to 2:30 so I could go home. I just needed my day and my work week to be over. I was tired, stressed and achy. At 2:20 my boss called. She needed us to call a client right away. My coworker was already late leaving and would already have to rush to pick up her daughter at school. I had a little time before I had to go get my son. “Go.” I told her. “I got this one.” I didn’t feel like it. I needed to get some detailed information from the client and there was no telling how long this could take.

Please, please, please let this be an answering machine, I prayed as I dialed.

“Hello?” It was the wife.

Shit! Seriously God?!? Was an answering machine too much to ask for?!

So I introduced myself and asked my questions about the husband. She explained that she needed insurance for herself as well. She said she’d be harder to help as she has a chronic illness. She sounded ready to cry.

Okay, maybe I have a few minutes.

“I understand what that’s like.” I explained, “I have rheumatoid arthritis and I know making sure your doctors and drugs are covered is so important.”

“Me too!” She suddenly brightened up and grouchy as I was, so did I.

We went on to spend the next forty minutes, long past quitting time, talking about how we were misdiagnosed for years, how we finally got the right diagnosis. We discussed the weather and the havoc it wreaks on our bodies. We talked about what it felt like to deal with the undercurrent of skepticism from people around us and the frustration of being treated as if having a flare is somehow our fault. We delved into the feelings of guilt that come with not being to do the things we used to be able to do so easily – working full time being one of those. We touched on the anger we felt towards doctors who wouldn’t listen to us or treat us as human beings with thoughts and feelings, choosing instead to see us as guinea pigs, case numbers or both. We compared treatment strategies and the fear of the misjudging the complications from the drugs we use versus the damage the disease itself can do.

When we finally hung up, she was noticeably calmer and more upbeat. So was I.

Alright. I admit it. I needed that. Thank you, Lord. Okay. Quit smirking damn it.

As the conversation replayed in my head later that night, I realized how easily I fall into the trap of hiding or outright lying about how I’m really feeling. It’s not because I think people don’t care so much as I know they can’t truly understand. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel betrayed by your own body, you can’t truly relate, no matter how much you want to. It’s easier for me to just keep quiet than to try to find the right words to explain.

Yeah. Me. A writer. Struggling for words. I hope that paints a bit of the picture.

The problem with keeping those feelings hidden from others is that, after awhile, it becomes such a habit that I start keeping them from myself too. How many times do I have to be reminded that the secrets I keep are the ones that poison me slowly? Obviously, I needed one more.

This reminded me of another conversation, one I had shortly after I had filed for divorce. After an exceptionally raw session with my therapist, he told me, “Chris, you’re trying to get somebody to completely understand the pain that you feel. It’s never going to happen. No one will EVER understand it. That pain is yours and yours alone.”

That statement knocked the wind out of me. I cried uncontrollably for two days. Then I walked into church at the end of the second day and stood before a statue of Jesus, beaten, bloodied and dressed in the red robes and crown of thorns. As I looked into His face, it suddenly hit me full force that He knew. He knew my pain. He knew ALL of it. He’d been right there with me through all of it, not watching it but feeling it with me.

I guess I needed to be reminded of that too.

It’s funny how much healing there can be in those two simple little words: me too.