Reflections on Darkness and Light

For the past few dark months, I’ve searched for light—the strand of lights hanging in my neighbor’s backyard, the white lights on my tree, the twinkle lights on the church decorations, the sun rising over the houses in front of my bedroom window, the flames in our fireplace, the window candles my mom bought us last year as a house warming gift.

I’ve huddled around what light I could find, much as early man might have encircled his bonfire, allowing the flames to warm him and ward off what dangers lurked in the darkness. The dangers in my darkness are gloom and depression, sadness that wants to eat my spirit alive, encircling my mind with menacing snarls. Seasonal depression is a real thing that I experience every autumn and winter. (Let’s just say I won’t be moving to Norway or Alaska anytime soon.)

According to historians, ancient people thought the darkening winter days meant that the sun might go away forever. To entice the sun to shine again, they built enormous bonfires—the first Christmas lights. Though we know better now, on winter days we still feel as if the sun may never shine again. Good tidings of comfort and joy are eclipsed by the early darkening evenings.

Just as it seems we can take the darkness no longer, the longest day of the year signals our coming relief. I love the thought my friend Cheryl expressed last winter solstice: “Since midsummer, the days have grown shorter and shorter, darker and darker. But on this night we are reminded that even darkness has its limit. Every night after this there will be just a bit more light each and every evening.”

I love that this day comes the week of Christmas. “It gets darker and darker,” Wendell Berry observed, “and then Jesus is born.” In your busyness and bustle of these last days before Christmas, remember: the light is coming and the Light has come.

Christmas Tension

Sitting at a red light one rainy day in early November, I jumped a little when I remembered that Christmas 2020 is still on. So much has been canceled, postponed, or modified this year, so realizing Christmas Day was only a month away, well, it startled me. Almost as quickly, though, my thoughts careened in their usual trajectory when I contemplate this time of year. In short, I dread Christmas. I am, in many ways, afraid of it.

The Christmas season is a tangled mess, at once too much and not enough. The momentum of the year barrels toward this day of gift giving and merry making. Retailers long for the financial sustenance of the season. We hold out all year for the peace and joy that Christmas supposedly brings. After a long 12 months of rising action, the story of the year culminates in one day that holds the climax, falling action, and conclusion of our annual tale. Alexander Smith said, “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.”

But starting around Thanksgiving, Christmas doesn’t seem to be holding time together as much as I seem to be holding it together. The darkness of winter, the expectations of the holiday, the busyness of the season, the weight of the year’s troubles—I feel like a piece of overstretched elastic at the end of December as I’m tugged between the gift buying, the money spending, the traveling, and the annual frustration that no matter what time my mom starts snapping pictures on Christmas morning, I always look like I just rolled out of bed and never met a makeup palette. It’s all just . . . too much.

The Christmas season is at once too much and not enough.

At the same time, it’s not enough. I crave simplicity at Christmas. Long evenings staring into the lights on the tree. Glimpsing the last smears of pink and purple sunlight out the kitchen window. Feeling the warmth from a mug seep through my chilled fingers. Reminiscing about Christmas mornings past when I gathered round the fragrant tree in an itchy flannel nightgown to open presents I’d selected from the glossy pages of the Sears Wishbook. But there never seems to be enough time for enough of that during Christmas.

I might as well have a condo on Mount Crumpet, because like the Grinch, who was ruled by fear of rejection, I too am ruled by fear at this time of year. Fear that I won’t have enough time to spend mulling my thoughts, fear of not finding the perfect gifts, fear of the dark evenings and icy roads, fear of what contention might arise with family, fear that some tragedy will pull the rug out from under me, fear that the season we wait for all year won’t live up to its hype of peace, joy, comfort, and good will.

Christmas has always been about a taut pull between hope and fear. When Christ was born, the world had been waiting for its Messiah for 4,000 years. But at least in the waiting, God had spoken through prophets. Then the prophecies and appearances—all divine interaction—stopped. The world experienced 400 years of silence. Until one day, a day like any other when the priest Zechariah was on temple duty, Gabriel the angel appeared and offered the first words from Jehovah in four centuries. “Do not be afraid.” Those comforting words heralded Christ’s coming as marvelously as the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” Do not be afraid, Gabriel told Zechariah. Emmanuel is coming.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” holds my favorite Christmas carol lyrics. In thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Can you feel it in those lines? The tension between darkness and light, between hope and fear, longing and despair, weariness and relief? Those two lines of human experience stretching to meet at the corners of a manger.

Artist Lindsay Sherbondy put it this way: “Christmas is wide enough to hold big tensions—of pain and peace, joy to the world, but sorrow for all that is still broken. The tension of waiting and longing but knowing that Christmas means that the Messiah has come, victory is His, and someday all will be made right, in Jesus’ holy name.”

Colossians 1:17 says, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Though the world seems to be crumbling, Christ is holds all things together. And He is holding us with everlasting arms. He is working all things for good in his grace, He is holding the lines of tension in this world. And that means, I can let go.

I don’t have to ignore the world’s brokenness to experience peace, don’t have to force perkiness to experience joy or turn my face from sorrow to accept comfort. I can sit in the middle of all the tension because Emmanuel has come to this messy middle. He rules in the chaos and in the order, in the beauty and ruin, gladness and tears.

What lines of tension are you trying to hold this Christmas? Can we trust that in his grace and might Christ is holding it all together—and holding us? Can we wait in the middle of fear and hope, and know that He is with us? Can we hear the Spirit say to us what Gabriel said to Zechariah 2,000 years ago: Do not be afraid. Emmanuel is come.

Showing Up in Drafty Old Living Rooms

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“I hear them coming now, George.” Mary is near tears of joy as she leads her husband to the living room. “It’s a miracle, a miracle!”

Seconds later chaos erupts in the Bailey’s drafty old house as the townspeople burst through the door. There’s Mr. Martini trotting in with his mixing bowl full of change from the jukebox. Good old Annie with her stash of divorce money (for if ever she got a husband.) A teary-eyed Mrs. Hatch, who has clearly forgiven Mary for not marrying Sam Wainwright. Tom, the codger who had wanted his money—all $242 of it—that dark day when the stock market crashed. Mrs. Davis is in the crowd too, the lady who George had kissed for requesting $17.50 (I’d like to think she added a random amount to the table that night—$8.62 or something like that.)

There’s Mr. Gower emptying a pickle jar of cash after making the rounds on his charge accounts. Some unnamed grateful homeowner empties a flour tin of savings. Violet Bick returns the bus fare George had slipped her in his office earlier that day. Even Carter, the bank examiner who’d only wanted to spend Christmas in Elmira with his family, pitches in. The high school superintendent (you know, the portly old guy who couldn’t beat ‘em, so he joined ‘em in the swimming pool all those years ago) drops some bills and change on the table and tells George, “I got the faculty all up out of bed.”

The high school faculty were hardly the only people in town who had been awakened that night. It was late when Uncle Billy pounded on their door, tugging them from their cozy Christmas Eve slumber. But they patted their pants pockets and unsnapped their change purses or reached in the top cabinet for tins and jars and deposited it all in the laundry basket the silly old fool was carrying.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Uncle Billy exclaims to Mary as he dumps the collection on the table. “So many friends!”

The last time this frenzy of townspeople were gathered around George, they were asking him for money, looking for someone to rescue them. On that Black Thursday, he had given them his hard-earned honeymoon money. This time they’re bringing him their money.

“Isn’t it wonderful? So many friends!”

“Mary did it, George. Mary did it,” Uncle Billy trembles with excitement as he explains, “She told some people you were in trouble and then they scattered all over town collecting money. They didn’t ask any questions, just said, ‘If George is in trouble, count me in.’”

As the dollars and coins mound on the table, Ernie, the cab driver, calls for silence and reads, “Mr. Gower cabled you need cash. Stop. My office instructed to advance you up to 25,000 dollars. Stop. Hee-haw and Merry Christmas Sam Wainwright.”

What surplus—$25,000! Sam’s offer could have covered the $8,000 deficit three times over.

The living room erupts in cheers, Mary cues Mr. Martini to start pouring the wine, Janie seizes her chance to debut the song she’d been plunking all evening, and the crowd belts out “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”

Halfway through the first verse of their jubilation, Bert the cop announces, “Harry Bailey!”

And in darts George’s kid brother, the war hero, the man in whose shadow George had long labored, whose success had been build on George’s sacrifices. He says a curious thing. “Looks like I got here too late.”

Surely he doesn’t mean he’s too late to solve George’s financial problem. Recently released from the military, even as a commander, he wouldn’t have had the cash to pay what is the equivalent of almost $120,000 today. Harry explains that he left his celebratory banquet in DC as soon as he got Mary’s telegram.

Mary knew George needed more than money—he needed his friends and family to pull him out of his despair and back to the reality that no one in that town would have allowed George to go to jail over $8,000. That’s why she called Harry home, why she invoked the townspeople to help George. And that’s why Uncle Billy exclaims, “Isn’t it wonderful? So many faces.”

Wonderful. That’s the same word Clarence the angel used in the graveyard when he tells George, “You see, you really had a wonderful life.” Wonderful because of all the faces in his life.

Our presence means something.

If I had been in the crowd that evening, I might have felt a little unnecessary among so many people, even a little miffed that my sacrifice had been overshadowed by the generous offer from a millionaire. I might have plucked my limp five dollar bill from the pile and pocketed it, thinking, “Old Sam Wainwright, your rich friend, old Hee-Haw—he’s got your back. With all these other friends, what am I doing here?” And I might have retreated out into the snow and trudged home to my quiet house.

I wonder, after Cousin Eustace had tallied each sticky penny and crumpled dollar bill, how much Sam really had left to pay. The meager offerings of many often count as much as the bounty of one.

We sometimes miss out on encouraging others, showing grace to others, speaking life to others because we are afraid we cannot give the whole amount. How can one kind word fight the deep darkness of the world? What can one random act of kindness change? How can my meager efforts ever budge the trajectory of someone’s life? And so we stay home. We count our dollar bills then jam them back in our pockets because $8 isn’t $8,000.

If just Sam’s telegram had come through that evening, George might have been relieved, but he would have missed seeing the faces of so many friend willing to show up and confirm what Clarence had said: that each life touches another, that no man is a failure who has friends.

Our presence means something, even when others in the room (or around the world) might seem smarter, more attractive, more financially stable, more well-spoken—when others seem to have more to give. The point is that we show up in the drafty old living rooms of people who need us, bringing what we have to give.

Whatever else we bring, when we bring ourselves, it’s always enough.

The Canine Connection

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“I’m sorry,” I heard my boss say over the phone. “Due to hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have to lay you off until further notice.”

When I hung up the phone, the reality sank in. Though I had already been working from home three days a week, now I was isolated from my coworkers entirely and facing full-time quarantine with my housemate Laura and dachshund Dudley.

Since the weather was balmy the next day, we decided to explore the neighborhood we’d moved to last winter. Laura and I doubled our stride to keep up with Dudley as he led us up the sidewalk on the first walk of spring. All the coronavirus quarantine news hadn’t fazed the little dog. His hind end wiggled, excited and determined. He had a neighborhood to inspect, dogs to meet, yards to mark.

We found that nearly every house in the neighborhood has a dog. In the yard next to us, Hank, a Labradoodle the color of a Hershey bar, galloped around in that clunky way of overgrown puppies, his fluffy back legs making him look as if he were wearing pants.

On the other side of our house, a boxer the color of red clay, trotted over to the fence. “His name is Sancha,” the little neighbor girl told us. Then looking down at Dudley, she added, “He doesn’t like little dogs. He likes to bite them.”

We smiled but pulled Dudley away from the fence.

Gertrude, a graying dachshund across the street, nipped at us when we stopped to meet her. “She’s old,” her owner, Linda, said, “but she’s sassy.”

All the talk—the squabbling, joking,
griping—had gotten to me.

Up the sidewalk Dudley trotted, stopping now and then to drizzle his mark on the territory—a message to other dogs, like a Facebook post.

Facebook. I had deleted my Facebook app earlier that day. All the talk—the squabbling, joking, griping—had gotten to me. I didn’t know what to think of the pandemic and quarantine, but I was tired of hearing about it. Everyone was talking about staying connected during the quarantine, but I had found myself receding into isolation.

But Dudley simply wanted to connect with the other dogs he smelled along our walk. And other dogs also wanted to reach out to Dudley.

“Ooouf oouf,” a dog barked at us through an opened window, only its eyes visible through the slats of the blinds.

Across the road a small black-and-white mutt called in a high pitched “Woooooo,” as if he’d forgotten the f on the end of woof. Dudley turned his head to look as we walked by.

Farther up the way, a dog poked his head around a bush from the backyard, looking for all the world like Snoopy. I half expected to see a little yellow bird sitting atop a red dog house in the backyard. But the dog never barked, just watched as we walked by.

As Dudley charged on, a deep bark broke the silence, and we looked to see an enormous dog standing with its front paws up on the slatted fence, looking very much like a small bear.

We looked to see an enormous dog
looking very much like a small bear.

“Boy, he looks scary,” I said to Laura, reckoning that the big dog could probably finish Dudley off in two bites, if he had the appetite. “I hope he can’t jump the fence.” We hurried by, not wanting to rile the dog and test his fence-jumping skills.

At the corner, we were startled by a ferocious roar. A brindled mutt came charging toward us on the other side of a fence, his fur raised on his shoulders so that he looked more like a hyena than a dog. He snarled, running back and forth behind the gate. The patch of fur on Dudley’s back stiffened like a brush, and he charged at the gate, ready to give back to the dog whatever he was giving out. “Let’s go home,” I said, heart still racing.

We had almost made it home when we heard heavy steps coming up quickly behind us. “Sarah!” I heard Laura yell. “It’s that big bear dog!”

She scooped up Dudley, but the big dog could still easily reach him, and had he jumped on Laura, she would have toppled over.

“Somebody come and get your dog!” I yelled toward the house, panic rising in my voice.

The owners came running, apologizing over and over. The dog circled us once
again and then loped toward another yard. “He just wants to play,” the lady assured us as she chased after him.

We were relieved to make it home safely, and the next day when Dudley scratched at the door, asking for a walk, we were wary, still a little shaken from the encounter the previous day.

He looked friendlier somehow.

All the other dogs were out, barking or staring at us. But as we walked by, I noticed that the big bear dog was standing at the gate, tail wagging, whining to come greet us as if we were old friends. He looked friendlier somehow, like one of those life-sized stuffed animals you buy at Valentine’s Day.

Taking a good look at him from a distance, I wondered how I could have mistaken his playfulness for aggression. He hadn’t intended to harm Dudley. He’d just wanted a friend—a connection.

The angry dogs, the sassy dogs, the friendly dogs, and the dogs simply staring at us—they all reminded me of those people I’d been annoyed by on Facebook. Though all of us were handling the coronavirus pandemic differently, we were all just trying to feel a little less alone. They needed connections. I needed connections.

Dudley paused to sniff a thick patch of grass by a mailbox, then squatted. He needed connections too.

The Sacrifice of Strangers

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Photo by Justin Casey on Unsplash

During my teen years, I devoured books about World War II, watched any black and white movie I could get my hands on, collected special edition WWII magazines, listened to big band music, and longed for the day when I could visit Pearl Harbor and Normandy. I even researched and partially wrote a novel about four brothers serving in different branches of the military.

Knowing that first-hand resources were the best, I decided to interview my great-grandfathers about their experience in the war.

But when I asked them about it, they seemed largely unaffected. “No,” they said with neither regret nor relief, “didn’t see combat.” Though drafted they were never sent overseas. Pap Gaylor trained in the navy even though he couldn’t swim. Pap Shank’s story was so unremarkable, I can’t even recall it. I left the conversations disappointed, convinced they were the only two old men who didn’t fight in World War II.

I resented that my heritage was bereft of war stories.

For a while, I resented that my heritage was bereft of harrowing, bomb-and-bullet-ridden war stories. I, the writer, deserved better material to work with.

But not only did I miss out on the stories, but not having a family member involved in past conflicts made it hard to connect with Memorial Day ceremonies.

Through the years, I have met veterans who did fight in wars. Mr. Perkins, a medic in France who risked his life in Nazi gunfire to pull men to safety. My high school friend Josh, whose battalion served in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2003 and laid down fire so that others could rescue POW Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

And then there’s Mr. Smith, an elderly man who lives across the street from my parents. He’s small and his eyes are full of boyish mischief—as if when he lied to join the army at 17, he ceased growing, like a clock stopping to mark the death of his youth. I visit him when I can, hoping to hear a little more about the war that left him with a shattered shoulder and a glass case of metals. After each visit, I hug him goodbye, noting each time his diminishing frame. I don’t know how to say “thank you,” but I know I have to try. His story has affected mine—his courage of yesterday ensured my freedom today.

I thought of Mr. Smith last year on Memorial Day when I attended a ceremony at a local park. As the sweating volunteer choir and band puffed out a jubilant montage of military branch themes, dozens of veterans hobbled or strutted forward to claim a small flag as a token of thanks. And then a moment of silence fell over the crowd as we turned toward the marble marker in the middle of the park, reading the chiseled words, “MIA POW You are not forgotten.”

On Memorial Day we might shake hands of survivors and celebrate active service members, but we remember the ones we cannot touch or thank, strangers who fought for their family, their country, and me.

My freedom was secured by the sacrifice of strangers

Somehow, standing with the sun beating down on that silent moment, I didn’t bemoan my grandfathers’ lack of service, but felt humbled realizing that my freedom was secured by the sacrifice of strangers, a host of people I’ve never met who served, gave the last full measure of devotion, and intertwined themselves inextricably with my own story just as surely as any blood relative or veteran I’ve encountered.

And as for my great-grandfathers, I’ve forgiven them for their nondescript stories and uneventful service. They didn’t give their lives or shed their blood. But the older I get, the more grateful I am for those who, as the poet Milton said, “also serve who only stand and wait.”

The Patience to Do Nothing and the Humility to Be Silent

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When I was a kid, my family watched an old Walt Disney movie called Goodbye, Miss Fourth of July. It told the story of a young Greek immigrant woman, Niki, who moves to a small West Virginia town just in time for the 1918 Spanish Influenza. As I remember, there’s an explosion at the town’s factory where Niki’s father works. People are carried out of the rubble on stretchers. Niki ties a tourniquet on a man’s leg. Chaos reigns.fourth

In the commotion, Niki runs into her father who explains that the explosion was caused when one of his colleagues, who had been carrying some chemicals, collapsed because of the influenza. The influenza spreads through the town, with people passing out on the streets and filling the hospitals and makeshift hospitals. Niki goes to work, right away, tending to her ailing neighbors, despite their hateful racism toward her. And, as the title suggests, Niki dies in the end.

As a kid, cause and effect eluded me. I was confused at how a virus could cause such chaos. Now, in 2020, there’s a new virus and I’m stuck in my house, rationing toilet paper and hoping our economy holds together while those scenes from the movie play out in hospitals.

Officials say that the best thing we can do is nothing.

Niki got to wipe fevered brows and tie tourniquets on legs. But officials tell us that the best thing we can do is nothing. So I’m staying home, eating Laura’s sourdough bread, keeping up with friends and family, painting my basement stairs, and tending plants—a whole lot of nothing.

The one thing I’ve ever had to offer the world was my words. Admittedly, they’re never exactly eloquent words or important words or profound words. Still I’ve held them out to whoever wants to listen.

But in the first few weeks of quarantine, a strange thing happened—I was wordless. You would think that at this novel time I would have more to say than ever. Yet I couldn’t think of a single word to add to the cyclone of opinions, laments, comfort, jest, gripes, and speculation swirling on social media.

I watched people doubt the situation, joke about the situation, panic about the situation, solve the situation, wax eloquent about the situation, speak truth into the situation, spiritualize the situation. With more time on their hands, it seemed everyone had more to say than usual.

But not me. Their surplus of words had turned into my dearth.

As a writer who knows the immediacy of turning a crisis into literature before the next guy has a chance to steal the idea, I feel disappointed, even guilty about my lack of prose production just now.

It seemed everyone had more to say than usual.

It reminds me of another kind of silence.

Over the past year, I’ve been working out what to say to people going through hard things—the death of a husband, a miscarriage, heavy disappointment. I’ve been contemplating this partly because I want to best comfort my friends, but also because I fear ending up in a blog post as an example of what not to say to grieving people. One of my friends who lost her husband told me, “You can’t say anything wrong because there isn’t anything right to say.”

My fear of saying the wrong thing often keeps me from saying anything at all besides, “I’m here for you whenever you need me.” (I imagine on some blog somewhere this, too, will be listed as the wrong thing to say.)

Perhaps sometimes silence comforts better than a word, offering the assurance of knowing that, rather than looking for a solution or giving a pithy, piteous response, someone is just sitting with you in your grief.

But I am uncomfortable being speechless. A response gives the illusion of control, a way to avoid the humility of not knowing. I resist being a mere spectator rather than a commentator. I defy contemplating rather than reacting, absorbing rather than responding. Yet, maybe that is just what this time of quarantine requires—the humility to know when to say nothing at all.

The world needs silence too.

In this time when everyone seems to have something to say—and indeed some very good things to say—remember, the world needs silence too. It needs people who will face the chaos with contemplation, people who will surrender to the unsureness and just be present at this extraordinary time, watching, withholding judgment and action, not resounding what has already been said but waiting to say what comes next. This crisis will pass and will be both remembered and forgotten, merging into the flow of history’s calamity and fortune. But test our blood—coronavirus is a part of us, as much as our DNA, informing our lives now and in the years to come.

For me, words might come later with distance and perspective. But right now, in each day of uncertainty, I’m seeking the patience to do nothing, wrestling with the humility to be silent.

 

What George Bailey Begot . . .

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Only an hour before, he’d run through a shower of rain and rice toward a European honeymoon and happily ever after. But that was before the cab driver, Ernie, pointed out the run on the bank. Now George Bailey stands before the small crowd of frightened, agitated citizens in the Building and Loan office, reminding them, “Now just remember that this thing isn’t as black as it appears. We can get through this thing all right. We’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

No, things are never quite as black as they appear when you keep your head. And as George searched for a solution, Mary holds out her honeymoon fund—$2,000—to keep her neighbors afloat.

George grabs the wad of cash and starts with Tom, asking, “How much do you need?”

“I’ve got $242 here,” the man states matter of factly.

“Aw, Tom,” George tries to reason with him, “just enough to tide you over till the bank reopens.”

But Tom insists, “I’ll take $242.” And with no regard of the townspeople standing around him, Tom walks away with nearly 12% of George’s money.

“How much do you need?”

The next man, Ed, steps up, emboldened by Tom’s forceful insistence. “I got $300 here, George.”

“All right, now, Ed.” George seems hopeful that maybe Ed will see reason. “What’ll it takes till the bank opens?”

“Well,” Ed reassesses his needs in light of George’s plea and concludes, “I suppose $20.”

“Now you’re talkin’,” George counts out the bills, moves on to the next person. “All right now, Mrs. Thompson, how much do you want?”

“Well, it’s your own money, George,” she says fitfully, coming out of her panic to acknowledge George’s sacrifice.

“Don’t mind about that,” George assures her. “Now how much do you want?”

Following Ed’s lead, she says, “I can get along with $20 all right.”

George pays up and turns next to a little lady timidly approaching the counter. “All right, DavisMrs. Davis?”

In a quivering voice, she requests, “Could I have $17.50?”

George is so stunned at the specifically conservative amount that he reaches over the counter and kisses her hard on the cheek. “Bless your heart, of course you can have it!”

We don’t see how the rest of the scene unfolded, but since George and Co. had two bucks to spare at closing time, we can assume that the rest of the townspeople kept their heads and abandoned their frantic self preservation to focus on their real need—to have faith in their neighbor and stick together.

We all beget things.

This scene reminds me that we all beget things. Panic often begets panic. Rebellion begets rebellion. Joy begets joy. Fear begets fear. Confidence begets confidence. Selfishness begets selfishness. Kindness begets kindness. Courage begets courage.

When the quarantine for Covid-19 first set in, we went to the store only to find the shelves empty. Toilet paper and paper towels, hand sanitizer and wipes, flour, rice, and beans, baking soda and spaghetti—all gone. Wiped out. A whole group of people like Tom had been there, people eager to take their full $242 worth of toilet paper and supplies and then some. Their gluttony for security, their fear and panic begot the same in others, perpetuating the depletion of supplies.

Imagine if someone with George Bailey’s composure and optimism had been standing at the toilet paper shelves. When the next person who walked up, emboldened with the previous man’s selfishness, demanded his cart to be filled with all the toilet paper it could hold, could George have reasoned with his humanity?

“All right, now. What’ll it take till you can get back to the grocery store?”

“Well,” perhaps the man might have stammered before deciding, “I suppose four rolls?”

And I wonder if, by the end, the reason and self-composure would have spread until maybe a Mrs. Davies character might have asked for a single roll.

The Bedford Falls crisis passed and so will our toilet paper crisis. Things aren’t as black as they appear. As long as we keep our composure and our humanity, we’ll get through this together—maybe with a square or two to spare.

 

 

 

Time for Everything

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Early on in the quarantine, I ordered a copy of Katherine Anne Porter’s short story “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” one of America’s few literary works about the Spanish Influenza of 1918. At the end of the story, the main character has recovered from a near-death brush with the virus. As she views the world still reeling from the loss and upheaval, she says, “Now there would be time for everything.”

Two weeks ago, when I was laid off from my job, I was bequeathed a whole lot of the stuff we all previously seemed a little short on: Time. As I walk through my neighborhood and see people walking, playing with their kids, adorning the sidewalks with chalk, working on home projects, I’m reminded that we now have time for everything—at least everything we didn’t have time for before.

Several years ago, after I resigned from teaching, I was without a job for nine months. During that time, I fretted. I put in dozens of resumes (some at places that didn’t even make sense). I worried myself to distraction. I guilted myself out of enjoying the time off. Really, looking back on it, I wasted the time. And I don’t want to do that again. But I learned some good lessons. Maybe some of it will help you use this time productively. (1)

 1. My Job Isn’t My Identity.

I knew it was coming. But when my boss told me I was being laid off, I felt, of all things, shame. Just like that, I was stripped of my entrance to the office, my access to emails, and the security of a paycheck and benefits. Though the lay off had nothing to do with my performance, I felt like poor Mr. Banks on Mary Poppins, standing there while Mr. Dawes popped his umbrella inside out, ripped his carnation, and punched through his top hat. I had been stripped of my purpose and identity. Who was I if not the person who woke up each morning to edit magazine articles?

Mr. Banks

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that I am the person who wakes up and makes a list and stays on task to complete that list, even if the tasks are as simple as walking the dog and painting the front door. The success of my job doesn’t define me—I define the success of my job and any other endeavor I put my mind to.

2. Shoes = Success. Kudos to you if you can wear your pajamas all day and still get stuff done. I’m not wired to work like that. If you’ve ever seen A Series of Unfortunate Events, do you remember Violet’s habit of tying back her hair?

“When Violet Baudelaire tied her hair up like that, it was a sure sign that the pulleys, levers, and gears of her inventing mind were working at top speed. . . . She never wanted to be distracted by something as trivial as her hair.”

Violet

Similar to Violet, when I really want to get something out of the day, I have to pull on shoes. It gets me ready for whatever comes at me.

3. Make lists—Check Them Twice

As soon as I was laid off from work, I decided to make the time count. In fact, I started feeling stressed thinking about how to make sure I fill this time most profitably, whether that meant resting or working or creating. So I deleted the Facebook app from my phone (which is, let’s face it, the first step toward any kind of productivity) and made a list of what I wanted to accomplish. (For list-making tips, see my blog post “Why You Must Do To-Do Lists.”)

So far Laura and I have painted our front door, shutters, and cabinets; planted flowers; cleaned our siding; organized our whole house; put together our lawn mower and mowed our yard; watched two Masters Classes (screenwriting and cooking); and run errands for our church. But we’ve also slept in, taken lots of walks, loved on Dudley, played games, read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to my niece and nephew over video chat, mastered homemade lemonade, challenged each other with writing prompts, and started a new creative endeavor.

But time is blurring together. Being out of work creates a world without time stamps. So now beside my list of all I want to do, I’ve created a list of what I did each day so that I can remember what each day held and how full or free it was. Whether in your journal or on your phone or on the pizza box, scratch a plan for each day and stick with it.

4. Find a Balance. I’m not sure who initially launched this quote into the webiverse, but it sure has taken off recently:

Twitter

Of course, it didn’t take long for someone to poke holes in that achiever mentality.

Pandemic

As a self slave driver addicted to guilt and hurry, I’m drawn naturally to the first quote.  But there’s a side to me that finds a lot of relief in the amended quote and wants to believe that I’m fine—that if I come out of this having only played innumerable games of Rummikub and Ticket to Ride and drank lemonade and slept in that it will be worth it.

But I know that there’s a balance between the two. I need the pressure to perform when I’m frittering my time on Instagram, just like I need the grace to let myself sit down for a while when I’ve gotten too frantic. Find the balance for yourself: rest, play, work, create.

5. Take Time to Process. Busyness can be productive, but it can also just be procrastination to process a difficult situation. The truth is, I felt shame about losing my job early on, but I took the time to explain to myself how irrational that shame was. If it’s not shame for you, it’s most likely frustration, anger, fear, or grief because that’s what this is—it’s a whole lot of grief over the loss of life, the loss of businesses and livelihood, the loss of security, the loss of celebrations. And we need to take the time to deal with all of our natural responses in healthy ways.

Time is precious, and we’ve been given a little bit extra right now. Though we wouldn’t have chosen this time for ourselves, it was chosen for us. So to borrow and amend a line from the poet Mary Oliver,

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious quarantine?”

 

. . . . . . . . . . .

  1. I acknowledge the range of experiences with this quarantine. Not everyone has time for everything. Some of you have kids to educate and entertain. Some of you are frantic to find work. Some of you are in difficult housing situations with difficult family members. Some of you are frozen by fear or loneliness. Some of you are working from home. Some of you might even be working on the front lines of this virus war. I can’t speak into your situation, but my heart goes out to you.  This post is mostly for people just sitting around in their jammies, binge watching Tiger King for the third time, and eating through their pantry. Honestly, I dread the thought of regret, and I’d hate for anyone else with all this free time to have the same regret when it’s over. This post is just encouragement in case those people are looking for some.

Room for Growth: What I Learned While Decorating My Bedroom

You wouldn’t know it to see the pile of clothes on my bed at the end of a week or the unruly state of my pajama drawer or my less-than-straight eyeliner, but when it comes to certain things, I am a relentless perfectionist.

When Laura and I moved into our house, we organized the downstairs. Living room, kitchen, bathroom, laundry room. Then we moved upstairs where Laura set up her bedroom, bathroom, and then the office.

I planned to feature a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea theme in my bathroom, but eventually I snubbed Captain Nemo and his sea foam green walls, and chose a paint that looked like chocolate milk in the can to go along with a rustic, missive theme complemented with purple clover.

The last frontier was my bedroom, which sat in disarray for weeks. It’s not that I wasn’t trying. I had Pinterested my fingers sore. I knew exactly what I wanted the room to look like.

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But my room ended up looking nothing like the images in my mind (or on my iPhone screen). Instead, I wound up with less-than-Joanna-Gaines perfection—and I love it. Along the way, I learned that I had room for growth in several ways.

  1. Decide what’s nonnegotiable. I knew I wanted deep green walls. But I also wanted a nature theme with insect and animal pictures, flowers, and quotes. It quickly became apparent, however, that something had to go. In the end I decided to keep the flowers and quotes and ditch the bugs and animals. But I kept the one thing I knew I wanted from the beginning—green walls.
  2. Be willing to obliterate your ideas and be open to surprises. From the start, I knew I wanted either a pink or yellow bedspread, so that’s what I searched for. Then one day, this lovely, rich yellow bedspread with flowers appeared in my search. Despite the way I usually feel about floral prints, I knew it was the bedspread for me. But I had to be willing to let go of my original plan and be surprised by a better one.
  3. Be willing to fail. I don’t like failure. For this reason, I might never succeed. But at least I understand the principle of the matter: To get something right, you have to be willing to get it wrong—again and again and again. I didn’t want to get my room wrong—it’s my place, after all. So for the longest time, it sat unpainted and undecorated. But finally, I had to move forward with painting the walls and hanging things, with the fear that I might not like it. Fortunately, in this situation, it all worked out.
  4. Stop looking at ideas. At some point you’ve got to stop gathering ideas and start implementing them. As you look at the Pinterest pages, you’ll become less and less confident in your ability to create anything as beautiful. And chances are, you won’t, but that’s ok because it will be your own idea. Just do something—hang the first picture, paint the first wall, arrange the first piece of furniture, and your satisfaction and confidence will follow. (Or at least you won’t be sitting around looking at blank walls forever.)
  5. Trust your own sense of style. I became an expert on Hobby Lobby’s return policy in the season of my decorating discontent. I purchased wall decor and shelves, pictures and knickknacks, and I returned said wall decor, shelves, pictures, and knickknacks. At some point in my Hobby Lobby runs and Pinterest hunts, I realized that I was trying to copy other people. So I returned the mass-produced decorations and designed my own. I decided on an E. B. White quotation and designed a print from Smallwood Home. I bought a $3 picture frame from IKEA and designed my own quote from an Emily Dickinson poem. And last, I framed two floral prints from Beverly Gurganus Fine Art (when you sign up for her email, you get a free printable every month.) The place is truly my own.
    Do you ever consider how many other people have the same decorations that you have? Remember the apple fad and the duck trend and plaid couches of the 80s and 90s? There’s nothing wrong with fads. They create a certain ambiance that resonates with us, at least for a while. But at least be willing to give your own ideas a chance. You’re more creative than you know—and you know your tastes and style better than anyone.
  6. Lower your standards. One of my MFA mentors, Jim Minick, told me that the cure for writer’s block is to lower my standards. This advice has extended accurately to every creative endeavor. When you release your delusions of perfection and give yourself permission to succeed in increments, you can appreciate what you’ve done, free from the expectations of what you thought it might be.
  7. Make peace with imperfections. I’ve been in houses decorated to the Pinteresty perfection many of us crave. But I’ve also spent time in houses that had eclectic sparsity. Guess what? Both felt like home. My bedroom isn’t perfect. There are some walls that could probably use a picture or decoration. The picture frames don’t match exactly. If you look real close, the paint is smudged on the baseboard, and there’s a spot on the wall where the blue paint is peeking through. But that’s just a remind that, “Hey. A human has been here!”

Has a room ever pointed out some room for growth in your own life? Do you have any good stories of how a room came together perfectly? What are some fads in the past that you embraced? I’d love to hear your decorating stories and ideas.

Room 3

Room 2

Room 1

Sixteenth Century Comfort for Twenty-First Century Fears

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Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices. —St. Teresa of Avila

Sometimes when I’m stroking my dachshund Dudley’s ears it comes over me—the smothering inevitability that, sooner or later, I will stroke my pup one last time. Perhaps it will be on a stainless-steel table with the drip of an IV in the background. I will go home to a house without his corn chip smell or the fluffy entrails of a toy littering my living room.

One day, Dudley will pass away. Everything does.

Sometimes I withdraw my hand from his ears. Maybe it would be easier to disconnect from him now, I think, before time drills the well of my love any deeper.

Several months ago, my friend Kaitlyn bought a bouquet of peonies for her house. “I was smelling and admiring them, and all of a sudden this bittersweetness came over me,” she said. “I often find myself looking to the future and thinking, ‘Soon this will be over, dead, gone’ and it robs me of the joy in the moment.”

The grass withers and the flower fades.

I feel that way with seasons, especially summer and fall. Winter might as well be the end of life as I know it. Winter will end, but just after summer, it will return.

Sometimes I feel that way about life. I’m 34—might as well be 70. Life isn’t over yet, but it will be.

We finish our years like a sigh.

In her poem, “The Summer Day,” Mary Oliver asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” Yes, Mary, always too soon.

Melancholies like me recognize the gravity of the situation we’re in. We are at once taken with the world’s beauty, with the wonder of life, yet saddened at the mortality and the passing of everything.

In her search for comfort, Kaitlyn discovered St. Teresa’s words and shared them with me.

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:

That was St. Teresa’s sixteenth century version of “Now, don’t panic, but. . . .” All the pretty flowers, your dog, your friends and family, the world, your life—all disintegrating and fading away. Gee, St. Teresa—why would I panic?

But she didn’t stop there.

God never changes.

In a world hurtling toward the end, the only sure thing is God. All changing things highlight that point even more.

Patience obtains all things.

The Latin word patientia, from which we get our English word patience, literally means “suffering.” We often think of patience as simply waiting. In reality, patience is waiting uncomfortably but enduring. Patience obtains all things because it withstands all things to get what’s at the finish line. And what is at the finish line?

Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

We don’t just wait passively for heaven at the end of life. God has already given us everything we need while we’re waiting—grace, hope, faith, love, all found in him.

The Unchanging Things

Solomon, also a melancholy, reminds us that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). I don’t know about you, but even with eternity in my heart, mortality often has me by the throat. Surrounded by the transient aspects of life, I can so easily forget to focus on what God has promised will last forever.

“I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

“You have the poor with you always.” (Matthew 26:11)

“The word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Peter 1:25)

“He who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:17)

Though the world churns with circumstances I am not powerful enough to subdue, I have these always things to focus on—God, His Word, and people.

I can rest peacefully, courageously, patiently in knowing that God holds my times in His hands. With each change and loss, He offers unchanging grace to pass through them.

God alone suffices.