Category Archives: Holidays

22nd day of Lent. The Cornucopia I’d Forgotten.

Yesterday I stood in the middle of Sahadi’s–a specialty foods store in Brooklyn Heights–staring at their selection of nuts and dried fruit. I was there with two wonderful friends. One said, “What do you like? Nuts? Dried fruit? Do you like hummus?” And the other, “Isn’t it amazing? Pick something. We want to buy you something.” “Oh, I have no idea” I said. And, “You don’t have to do that.” I was overwhelmed with the cornucopia of products, the commotion, and absolutely taken with their adorable toddler. Couldn’t I just keep playing with him?

There are multiple ways to express love. What’s less obvious is that there are ways we prefer not just to receive love, but give love as well. I didn’t realize people had a bias about love until several years ago when I read Gary Chapman’s book The Five Languages of Love. In his book Chapman does a nice job distilling five easy ways or languages of loving. According to Chapman, some prefer to show their love with physical touch, while others prefer to show their love through acts of service. There is also spending quality time, sharing words of affirmation, and receiving gifts. The idea is not that we don’t value all of these ways. Most people do. The key insight is that because we prefer some more than others it is helpful to appreciate the love language your partner has so that you can love them in ways they’ll appreciate, and easily see. It’s also important to understand theirs so that you can remember what is important to them as they go about loving you. Who wants to miss being loved?

Standing in Sahadi’s, it became clear that it would make my friends happy if I picked a few things. They–I know this is obvious–were simply trying to show me their love. When it comes to loving, the worst thing we can do, is refuse. As Michael Himes points out in the talk I listened to the other day, unrequited love is as painful as it is because we are made in the image of God, who is love. When our love is rejected, the pain reaches to our core.

We left Sahadi’s with five pounds of love. As we walked away from the store, I picked up their toddler. “Would he let me do that?” I wondered. At first it didn’t go well. I tried facing him forward. “Mommy?” he said plaintively. That was better but not good enough. I lifted him high into the air, and then down. High into the air and then down. “Look honey, he’s smiling” my friend said to her spouse. As we walked my actions gave them both a small break from actively parenting. I was delighted. Being of service is the my favorite way of expressing love.

As we parted I remembered something I’d left out of yesterday’s refection about grieving. It’s something David Malham says about love in his piece Momento Mori:

“The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.”

Love given and received, overflows. It’s too easy to forget this cornucopia is there when you’re with people you love. I forget all the time. Today, with quality time, five pounds of gifts, and a toddler lifted high, I remembered.

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It’s Good To Give.

Every year I wrestle with what I’m going to do to keep the season of Advent. It’s a question because while the religious season of Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25th. That’s when our cultural celebration ends.

Not that I shy away from holiday festivities. Not at all. I go caroling with my neighbors. I bake cookies in seasonal shapes, and wear a Christmas tree hat as that day approaches. This past Saturday I visited Bryant Park in New York city, as well as Rockefeller Center with my kids. The tree is up and lit in Bryant Park. Rockefeller Center’s is up too, but won’t be lit until Wednesday. I won’t see it for a few weeks. I’ll have to wait. Waiting is what Advent is about.

The waiting is for the birth of Jesus, who has already come, and who Christians hope will come again. In a sense, Advent is like the last weeks of a pregnancy. You know the baby is coming, and it’s just a matter of time until she does. The tension I experience between Advent and our cultural celebration of Christmas is something like having baby shower after baby shower before the birth. When the child is born, everyone celebrates, then goes home. Try that with a family member!

One of the reasons I like all the trappings of red and green–even while my church is draped in solemn purple–is because of the way we’re encouraged to think beyond ourselves. While it’s easy to get bogged down finding just the right gift, I like the simple reminder of the season: it’s good to give.

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Everything Happens. A Thanksgiving Day Reflection.

Sh*t happens. Everything happens for a reason. These are two popular phrases that many use, and few combine. When anyone tries, the outrage is reflexive. Disease? Disaster? Death? Happening for X reason? That’s language of blame. We’re sensitive to blame, and the way it reveals our refusal to own the result of our actions.

It’s much easier for us to say that good things happen for a reason. There’s no outrage. We accept the relationship between the terms, and happily extend them. We say, “everything” while we mean only “good” things. There’s no blame, so there’s less resistance. Some folks like to say that a good result was “meant to be.” Good fortune is then gifted by God, or the kindness of another. I suppose that can be true. Still, along the way, I think we miss that when we say things like this, we’re absolving ourselves of the good fortune which can also result from our actions. Instead we’re giving it to a someone else, or higher power who has a “plan.” I wonder, why are we so unwilling to accept that we have the ability to make good choices ourselves?

My Dad is in the hospital. Last week he had an emergency quadruple bypass. He’d been at a used book sale, and found himself slumping and without energy. My mom, from her corner of the room they were in, saw that he was supporting himself by holding on to a post. He was sweating. He didn’t know what was going on. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening” he said later. He’d been feeling a dull pain in his chest for weeks. We’ve learned since that his arteries were 90% clogged. I shook my head when he told us he was trying to “figure out what was happening.” Of course he was. It’s his, there’s-an-over-the-counter-medicine-for-this, way that he has of problem solving health issues. It’s a way that he doesn’t make good decisions. Choices. A person makes hundreds each day. Most of them don’t make any difference in our lives or that of others. It’s not something we think about because there isn’t any need to. It’s simply part of living.

At the book sale, a volunteer staff person saw my dad slumping, and asked him if he wanted a glass of water. He accepted the offer. My parents were grateful for the moment of kindness. I’m not sure if anyone tried to help them after that. Further kindness at the book sale is not part of the story they’re telling. At this point, additional kindnesses are as likely to be details hidden behind the larger moments leading to his surgery, as they are of something which did not happen. It can be a challenge to offer help. We don’t want to offend. We’re convinced that we don’t know how. We are afraid that we’ll do the wrong thing. We think things like it’s not really our business to get involved, because who knows what the real situation is… The way those questions play in our mind? They’re the dark side of the wide Libertarian streak we’ve embraced. It’s not just government we don’t trust. We don’t know how to trust each other, or ourselves. These same things also make it difficult to ask for help when we need it.

Last night a friend said, “Bypass? I went through that with my dad in January.” Another, “my dad had a new ticker installed five years ago.” And, “mine had this done ten years ago.” In the last week, I’ve been amazed at the sheer number of people who have joined in, saying “me, and us, too.” As a friend put it on Facebook, “It’s not so much that we ‘like’ this status, as we ‘understand.'” For me, the chorus of these messages is another reminder that while we have a terrible habit of thinking that no one understands what we’re going through, we all move through the same kinds of things in life. Often these events, are exactly the same.

After drinking some water, my parents returned home. The next day they called my sister, who lives a few short blocks away from them. She called their doctor, and made sure he would see them on Monday. Monday’s visit to their GP led to a return on Tuesday for tests with a cardiologist. That doctor drove them to the hospital in his own car. In retrospect that may not have been the best choice–an ambulance being able to provide more support–but in the moment it was a decision that spoke to the urgency the situation required. From my sister, to my parents doctors, here were good decisions. We make them, too.

Today is Thanksgiving. The family is dining today in the hospital cafeteria. I’m a little anxious about that. It’s different. It’s also something that people do every year. We won’t be alone. Not in this, either. Another friend said, “Thanksgiving in a hospital with a sick relative? Been there. Done that.” For a brief moment I thought of asking, “Yes, but, how was the stuffing?” Then I remembered the most obvious thing. This day isn’t about the what of the meal. The work of service by those preparing and providing the food, will still take place. It’s not about the where of the meal either. Home isn’t about walls and a roof. Home is where ever you happen to be, with people you love. Today is a day for being together. A family gathers, and give thanks. In this, a life where everything happens.

2012. Are We There Yet?

Last night I wished a friend of mine a happy new year. She replied that I was too early with my greeting. Surely we’d speak again before the new year. Then I wished her a happy end of the year. She said I was still speaking too soon. Later, as the clock ticked past midnight, and the date rolled over to December 31, I wished her a happy end of 2011. She smiled, and bid me goodnight.

One of my favorite lines from the Pixar film The Incredibles is Mr. Incredible’s response to that classic car travel question, “Are we there yet?” “We’ll get there when we get there!” is his wonderful reply. These days, when the kids ask me that question, it’s with a smile forming on their faces. They expect the Mr. Incredible reply. Instead, they’re more likely to ask, “How much longer?” What they’ve learned, I think, is that unless we’re stopped in traffic, the answer to their question gets smaller and smaller each time they ask. It’s also a sign that they’re living in larger swathes of time. Six hours is long, but no longer an eternity. Five and a half hours is shorter. So is four. And three. Time gets longer in the last hour. That hour still takes forever. That’s a burden stemming from the wonder of anticipation. It takes forever for me, too.

Another year is upon us. It may take a long time to get to midnight tonight, especially if you are outside, and it is cold where you are. Soon 2012 will be done, as well. We’ll be on to 2013. That year will also pass faster than we believe. “Where did it go?” we will ask. I love the way finding myself in the flow of experience, removes the felt sense of time. You lose yourself so completely, you’re no longer aware that hours have passed, not until the trip to the beach is over, or the book you’re reading ends. Those are times when we’re fully present to life. It’s also the only part of our waking time, that resembles a good night’s sleep. The kind of night where sunlight streaming through a window is enough to roust you, and you beat the alarm clock at your side. I love wakings like that!

My favorite birthday greeting is a variation on the following. “Here’s to the year ahead and all it holds! May your lap overflow with all manner of good things. And in the difficult times, which will come, may you remember your friends and family are at your side.” I’ll let that be my wish for your 2012. Am I too soon? If you think I am, pretend you’re on the other side of the International Date Line. The rest of us? We’ll get there when we get there!

It’s A Wonderful Life!

Since 2006 the Pittsburgh Filmakers have shown the film “It’s A Wonderful Life” in one of their theaters during the holiday season. For the last three years, the price of admission has been covered by the donation of a canned or non-perishable food item. It’s collected as part of a food drive supporting the East End Cooperative Ministry. This year I waited to see a showing of this, my favorite holiday film, until the end of the run.

As I approached the door, I was informed that every seat in the theater was taken. The film, though free, was “sold out.” The fellow working the door reminded me that I could return the next night. The showings would continue for one more day. “I can’t,” I said. “I have choir practice. Here, take this.” I handed him my bag of cans. “Thanks” he said, and “Sorry.” He smiled politely. I turned and began walking to my car. I imagined the headline, “Film in 65th year still sells out!” and laughed quietly. I wondered too, how this happened. I had been looking forward to seeing this film for weeks.

Just as I started thinking, I realized the obvious. I was ten minutes late. Ten minutes isn’t a lot of time. And, I know the first ten minutes of this film by heart. Still, tonight, that was late enough. Why was I late? I’d come to the theater from Sweets’ Chorus concert at her Elementary school. The concert had ended early enough, but I’d stuck around afterwards to talk with other parents, teachers, and to congratulate the students that had performed.

I walk Sweets to school almost every day. One of the gifts of that, and of volunteering to chaperone various events, is that I’ve come know the children in her class, by name. There are many more students that I don’t know by name. Many of them, however, know me. When they see me in the morning, they smile, raise their hand for a high five, to wave, or give me a fist bump. One boy, the child of a friend, likes to channel a Star Wars Jedi and use “The Force” against me. The Force is powerful with him. He likes to use it to throw me against the wall. I indulge him. The greetings are part of their morning routine as they walk to class. They’re part of mine, too.

After the concert, I congratulated the students I saw and circled back with their teachers. The ones present had worked a twelve hour day. I wanted to acknowledge their commitment, and thank them for the good work they do. Next year, budget cuts in the school district may mean that some of them lose their jobs. No one knows exactly what that will look like. The staff is working under a cloud. I know what that feels like. It’s not fun. More than ever, they need to be lifted up. I’m good at lifting people up.

Earlier in the day, I’d approached one teacher as she walked down the hall. She was, as she almost always is, wearing a smile. I said, “I can’t tell you what a joy it is to see you wearing a smile at the beginning and at the end of your day.” For a moment, her smile, widened. “You’ve got have your game face on,” she said matter-of-factly. “Well. You forget I’ve seen you teach. I know it’s not just a ‘game face.’ You love what you do, and it shows. I’m a long way away from elementary school. Still, seeing your enthusiasm, often makes my day!” She thanked me. She’s an excellent teacher, and beloved by my Sweets.

That night, I saw many friends, and congratulated them on their son and/or daughter’s performance. To one couple, I spoke of my plan to see the movie that evening. I was speaking with enough enthusiasm that one of them stopped me mid-sentence, saying, “I can tell you’re excited, but you’re not going to convince us to go with you.” His spouse looked at him and smiled the way spouses do, with love. Then she told him “not to be a Grinch.” “Oh no,” I said. “I’m not trying to convince you. I’m just excited.” I’m a cheerleader. Apparently, I even do it when I’m not trying!

Seeing that the post-concert reception was winding down, I walked into the auditorium to see if any help was needed putting things away. As I walked out I noticed two students waiting. I had not seen their parents that evening. I offered them a ride home. They called home to see if their mom was already on her way. She wasn’t. They let her know I’d offered to give them a ride. I took them home. As I dropped them off, I confirmed Christmas Eve plans with their parents. Only then did I head to the theater. You know what happened then.

At this point the reason why I missed the film may be obvious. I didn’t fully understand until the next morning, as I found myself sharing a long hug with a substitute teacher. We were saying goodbye. She’s a great lady, and she’s landed a job in Virginia. She starts after the new year. Now, who gets to know a substitute teacher? Who hugs one even? I mean, really.

In a year and a half, we’d never shared a conversation that lasted longer than two minutes. Most of them were a lot shorter than that. Most of them consisted of a “good morning” greeting, or a “nice to see you back” welcome. Small moments really. The thing is, life is made of small moments. That’s what happened. A few of those little conversations were very very real. As we shared a second hug, this woman whose first name I didn’t even know, thanked me for my support. That’s when I realized how it was that I missed the movie.

I missed it, because this thing I’m living? Well, it’s a wonderful life.

Merry Christmas!

Independence Day 2009

We’ll see fireworks tonight. My father-in-law doesn’t watch them. They remind him too much of Vietnam and everything that happened there.

Fireworks, rockets of light designed for spectacle, can point to our darkest times. I had a fiance call off an engagement as we were getting ready to go see some. For years after I would describe the night as being “filled with fireworks, all the wrong kind.”

Tonight they’ll be light again. Airy. Shining and shimmering streams of color. Oh we’re in a deep recession, yes. Things are not easy. Yet somehow, the burden of being an American has lessened. Guantanamo is still open. We’re still in Iraq. Afghanistan has darkened. An election is Iran is a sham.

Still, you can climb up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty for the first time since 2001. It’s significant. When you go, you can be proud in a way that we haven’t been able in a couple of administrations. You might even be bold and recite Emma Lazarus’ famous words: “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The promise of their embodiment is closer that it has been in too long.

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