Wednesday, November 27, 2013

For What Comes Before the Merry and Bright

The Christmas tree went up last night, and I admit there was the tiniest bit of rebellion in the act because I get so tired of hearing all the outrage about how Christmas is encroaching on Thanksgiving.  I mean, Christmas is my favorite holiday, my favorite joyful, sparkling piece of the year, so I guess I'm not too concerned with its slow and steady expansion over a holiday that seems to me to be just one overblown meal planned and cooked for days and eaten in half an hour.

Yes, the Christmas tree went up last night, and I'm not sorry.  In fact, I think I showed some fairly impressive restraint in leaving the rest of the trappings boxed up in the garage.  But the tree is up, and I can smile just thinking about all those twinkly lights reflecting off the windows in the room.  This time of year, I just feel I need a dose of that shiny cheer.  I touch the ornaments we have collected over the years with a kind of reverence, remembering with each one the time in which it was acquired or made or received.  I walk around and around the tree, making sure the decorations are spread evenly, that the red is not too bunched and there aren't too many angels hovering in one spot.

The winter is a dark and sterile season, when the trees drop their leaves and turn to skeletal forms that shiver in the biting wind.  The grass turns brittle beneath our feet.  The sun sleeps long nights and, when it awakes, offers only the watery light that feels thinner than the summer days somehow.  We are entering a dark and barren season, and often I think of the Christmas lights as powerful weapons against the dreariness of this time of year.

But today, I was thinking about how maybe that's the easy way out, diving into the brightness of the next celebration before sitting with the simplicity of the one at hand.

Because what this holiday asks of me is both much more simple and much more complicated.  A day of giving thanks is so very straightforward.  It doesn't require gifts or wrapping paper or special songs or trees or lights.  It just requires me to be grateful for the things that I have received.  But as simple, as perfectly straightforward as it is, it can also be, or at least I can make it feel, rather complicated, too.

I can so easily turn this day into a list, a list of all the things that I have been given for which I feel prompted on this one day to say thank you.  And so I make my list, and I read it off, and I dutifully say thanks for this and thanks for that.  But really, I am thinking of whether the turkey will be done on time and whether someone will need to make a run for ice before the store closes.  Really, I am just going through the motions like a child who recites a prayer he has heard his parents say, knowing the words but faking the meaning behind it.

The honest truth is that it's easier for me to dive into the glitz of Christmas than to wade through the slow and methodical process of cultivating real gratitude, the kind that doesn't just show up once a year but that underlays everything that I do.  It's much easier for me to gloss over Thanksgiving because it reminds me how much of the rest of the year I spend not giving thanks.  It reminds me that I struggle with a very immature kind of entitlement that makes me believe I deserve all that I have been given and that I have a right to mourn all that I wanted but didn't get.  It's a complicated day for me because I can say thanks with the best of them, but I struggle with being able to live it the rest of the year.

The Christmas tree is up, the lights are reflecting off all the windows, and I take great comfort in how the glow seems to ward off the long, dark nights.  I am for merry and bright, I am for holy jolly, but perhaps I can also be for the stillness that comes before the lights and the carols.  I am thinking today about how to begin the quiet work of being thankful, not the flashy celebration of the next holiday, just the simple reverence of learning to be thankful in all circumstances.

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License

Friday, November 15, 2013

In All the Places I'm Broken

When I was a child, my mother had a broken white pitcher on a shelf in her bathroom.  The way I remember it, though goodness knows time can warp these stories, my mother had long wanted a white pitcher and bowl set. In my mind, she visited the store often, picking up the pitcher and then putting it back with a sigh because it was a purely decorative item, just something beautiful she hoped to place on an empty shelf over her bathtub, not the kind of thing the mother of three young children gets to buy for herself very often.  So when she finally walked into the store and bought the set, she was so excited she wasn't paying as much attention as usual on her way out of the store.

And just as she stepped out onto the sidewalk, maybe because she was shifting her grip to pull out her keys or maybe because a gust of wind hit her, her fingers slipped and the package fell out of her arms.  When she got home, she found the pitcher in two pieces.  The handle had broken off at an angle that left jagged little stumps of arms on the body of the pitcher.  And though it had mostly survived a fall that could by rights have shattered the poor pitcher, though my father promised her he would glue it back together, I remember the sharp disappointment on my mother's face over the loss of this one, beautiful thing she had wanted so badly.

The pitcher was mended, as promised, and the pitcher and bowl took up residence on the shelf over my mother's bathtub, as planned and yet not as imagined.  Because in breaking, in being glued together and always ever needing to be turned just so to hide the damage, the pitcher ceased to represent whatever it was that my mother had wanted from it.  It could no longer be that one clean, white, beautiful thing she had bought for herself.  Instead it was just another broken thing, just another worn, glued together mess in a house full of worn, broken, mended things.

The funny thing is, now that I think back on it, unless I had heard my mother tell the story of dropping the package, I would never have known the pitcher was broken.  To me, the pitcher still looked perfect.  I even liked the angle she had chosen to hide the cracked handle; it seemed a strategic placement to best show off the whole shape of the thing.

Lately, I have come to understand that pitcher as a metaphor for a truth I must, it seems, learn again and again.  Because I am a worn, broken, mended thing myself, and I am always placing myself at some awkward angle to try and hide all the cracks that run through my life.  And even though I know that about myself, know how riddled I am with the effects so many falls, I keep working to position myself just so, both hoping and never quite believing that no one else can see the damage.

It's amazing how our perception can get so distorted.  Here I was, sure that everyone could see every little place I was falling apart and, at the same time, sure that no one was as banged up and glued together as I felt.  But this weekend at our church's women's retreat, I happened to be privy to a series of conversations that reminded me both how messy are the lives I think are glossy and clean and how glossy and clean some people think my own life is. 

There are any number of examples I could give, but most of them contain stories that do not belong to me. So, here is one little shard of my own disaster I can share.

Lately, I have been tempted to pull out of church entirely, not for my usual reason of oh crap this place brings up a lot of angst for me, but because I have been embarrassed about Lincoln's behavior while he's there.  In our early morning practice, when I am still in charge of him, he's been exhausting and defiant.  Some weeks I am already close to tears by the time I drop him off at his class, and I say goodbye to him at his classroom door with a knot of fear in my belly, wondering what report will be waiting for me when I pick him up.  And wouldn't you just guess I've made sure I carry this burden alone both because Sam seems to handle Lincoln better than I do and because he is completely unperturbed by reports of Linc's bad behavior at pick-up time.  Somehow I have managed to strap on the full weight of the I've failed as a parent yolk and also throw in a healthy dose of why can't I just let these things slide off my back?

Until this weekend, I had been so focused on being nervous about his behavior and then feeling guilty about being nervous about his behavior, that I had almost forgotten that some people might not just see us as that family with the difficult special needs son.  I had forgotten that it was possible there were people who didn't just see us a burden to the children's ministry, people who didn't blame us for being the worst parents ever and secretly wish we took a lot more vacations.  So when a woman I barely knew told me it seemed like our family has it all together when it comes to Lincoln, I couldn't help but remember how we all seem to exaggerate not only our own cracked surfaces but also the smoothness of everyone else's fragile facade.

Until this weekend, I had forgotten how many people adore our Lincoln, how many of the children in his class run over to greet him and and wrap him in hugs when he arrives.  I had forgotten that my worry about his behavior does not change the fact that he is welcome in this church and in his class, that he deserves his own chance to learn bible songs and meet new friends and adjust to the rules of a different environment than he experiences the rest of the week.  I had forgotten that it's okay for this to be hard for me, even if it's not as hard for Sam.  I had even forgotten that while he is in this very labor intensive period of his development, it is okay for me to just be worn out and fed up and that I could maybe enjoy having someone else watch him for a few hours instead of carrying this unwieldy woe is me cross, always worrying what new challenge he might present that particular morning. 
See, what happens after weeks and months and even years of holding ourselves just so, afraid to be seen in a bad angle or let the cracks show, is that we become rigid, with thoughts and lives and bodies so distorted they hardly know how to let go, to let our guard down, relax and drop the calculated pose.  I don't know about you, but I'm tired.  I'm tired of feeling like that old, cracked pitcher that can't ever be turned to the side lest someone see the damage.  I will tell you right now that, from every angle, there's going to be some damage.  I am just holding on by my teeth in about a dozen ways at any given time.

Let me take a moment to remind you that you can tell exactly nothing about someone's life by the way it appears on the outside.  And also, let me remind you that people can tell exactly nothing about who you are if you spend all your time trying to hide all the imperfect, broken and mended bits.

I wish we did less of that.  I wish we didn't always feel like we had to hide the places we've broken and come back together.  After all, some people think you end up stronger in the broken places and others think the cracks are where the light gets in.  I wish we had the bravery and the patience and the compassion to accept the broken places of the people in our lives.  I wish we took time to ask each other about those things, and I wish we weren't afraid to start conversations in which we share our own.

I wish we saw the beauty of mended vessels, honored the scars, watched for the light coming through everyone's cracked open lives.  I wish we shared more how we have ended up stronger in all the places we've been broken.  I wish we talked more about who we are, who we were, and who we're becoming than what we look like or what we buy or wear or eat.  And I wish we saw in ourselves the light of redemption coming through all those holes and cracks and scars because, until we do, we will always wear ourselves out trying to keep our bad side turned from the world, will always see others through some falsely optimistic lens, and will always see ourselves as broken pitchers, whose worth has been dashed and whose damage cannot be undone.

Image credit, used under Creative Commons License