Laughing at Fear with Toucan Sam

Do you have irrational fears? I sure do. Octopuses coming up through the bathtub drain (megalohydrothalassophobia); razor blades cutting my toes (xyrophobia); too many little things or holes in one place (trypophobia); and cooking for other people (mageirocophobia).

I’ll admit to any number of fears that I can’t even remember developing. However, this week I experienced the genesis of a brand-new irrational fear.

Plague Mask
A photo of the plague doctor mask, but not the one from Beauty and the Beast.

For about three seconds in the new Beauty and the Beast movie, I caught a glimpse of a plague doctor’s mask—the kind worn back when people were dropping left and right from the Black Death. The mask covers the nose and mouth and extends into a point like a hooked bird beak. Instantly I was seized with a horror that stuck with me through the rest of the movie, on our walk to the car, and when closed my eyes to sleep that night.

In the morning it haunted me still. Even in the bright sunlight, I couldn’t chase the creepy image from my mind. When I walked Dudley out later that evening, in the corner of my eye, I spotted a figure wearing the unnaturally hideous beak-like mask.

By that afternoon, even surrounded by people at work, I felt threatened by the menacing image.

Certainly the people of 14th century Europe feared these masks as much as I do now. Apparently plague doctors filled the beaks with aromatic herbs and spices such as mint, cloves, and myrrh, to “protect” themselves from the putrid air caused by rotting corpses and plague related symptoms.(1)

Plague_doctor_costume-1

I tried to reason my way through the fear by figuring out why I was so afraid. I briefly considered that in a previous life I lived during the time of the Black Death. But tantalizing as that fantastic theory was, realistically, of course, it didn’t explain my instant and abiding terror of my brief glimpse of the mask in the film. Maybe I was exposed to the sight as a young child and suppressed my horror until now. Maybe the mask, combined with the idea of plague, death, and unsuccessful medical practices, was just too much to absorb. Who can explain the complex dealings in the dark recesses of our brains?

I finally confessed the unreasonable depths of my fear to Laura that night.

That night I slept like a narcoleptic sloth.

“Well, Buddy, you just need to find a way to make it funny,” she suggested, channeling her inner Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series.

Then, like working on Riddikulus-charm homework, we cobbled together a hilarious scenario of Toucan Sam in a gas mask visiting Darkwing Duck who has eaten too much broccoli and has a bad case of farts. We rolled laughing, and that night I slept like a narcoleptic sloth.

toucan sam“God has not given us the spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). This situation reminded me of the necessity to rob fear of its power to rob us of our peace.

Sometimes that might mean praying, might mean staying busy, might mean exposing yourself to that fear, might mean seeing a therapist—but sometimes it just means laughing.

Like Professor Lupin said, “It helps. It really helps.”

I’d LOVE to hear about your irrational fear and how you deal with it in the comments below.

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  1. Before the understanding of germs and such, people assumed that plague could be caught from foul odors. This was known as the miasma theory. They also thought that obesity could come from smelling food. I am ever so glad they were wrong.
  2. Apparently not every one finds these masks repulsive. If the internet is any indication, it seems the steampunk and cosplay movement have recognized the horrific possibilities in the artistry of the mask. Dozens of depictions are available for purchase. And in 2005, a figure in a plague-doctor mask sent a menacing video to government officials. Creepy stuff!

Why My Hogwarts Letter Never Came

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”—Albus Dumbledore, former Headmaster of Hogwarts

I was 30 when I first walked through the Leaky Caldron Inn and entered the world of Harry Potter. My delayed experience with the books was less because my conservative parents wouldn’t let me read them (though they wouldn’t have even if I had been interested) and more because my young-teenage self didn’t have the attention span to read an 800-page book.

And I’m glad that I didn’t because I had be old enough to appreciate fairy tales again.(1)

Last year it took me four months to read from “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal,” to “All was well.”And now I would fight to the death anyone who claimed that J. K. Rowling’s seven gripping novels aren’t literature—and good literature.

I’m sad, not that so many people took a moral stand against Harry Potter for all those early years, but that they took such an uneducated stand, with acerbic criticisms as, “Sure, the books are getting kids to read—but look at the quality. It’s horrible writing.” This without cracking open the books (2).

The story is a treat, but the language is a feast.

The story and characters are a treat, but the language creating the story is a feast. Laura and I marveled to discover the word play throughout the novels. (Our wonder was further enhanced by Laura’s knowledge of Latin.) In fact, the entire story is about words—the abstract and the literal, the spoken and the figurative.

Through all the books, Rowling incorporates literary, historical, and mythical allusions and creative wordplay. Take, for example, the name Newt Scamander. It sounds like a cross between newt and salamander—perfect for a character who loves fantastic beasts and knows where to find them. Take also Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, an animagus (for you Muggles, that’s a person who can shape shift into an animal). Sirius’s animagous is a big black dog. Sirius is the name of the brightest star in the Canis Major constellation. And Canis, if you don’t recognize it, is where we get our word caninedog. (See what Rowling did there?)

Have you noticed how all of the Weasley children’s names are characters from medieval history or the legend of Arthur? Did you know the name Hedwig means female warrior and that there was a Hedwig patron saint of orphans? (I mean, how did Rowling know that?)

But in addition to the fantastic writing, throughout the series, readers experience inspiring character attributes such as

  • Harry’s courage and passion for truth
  • Hermione’s voracity for learning
  • Ron’s loyalty
  • Dumbledore’s wisdom
  • Hagrid’s tenderheartedness
  • Snape’s sacrifice

Certainly, along with the good there is plenty to learn from the characters’ flaws:

  • Voldemort’s self-sufficiency
  • Draco’s deceitful theatrics
  • Ron’s jealousy
  • Hermione’s sometimes self-serving ambition
  • Neville’s fear and timidity
  • Harry’s far-too-frequent rebellion against the rules
  • Siruius’ recklessness
  • Lupin’s self-doubt
  • Snape’s insecurity and bitterness
  • Dumbledore’s prideful youth and idealism

Readers also learn that the most despicable evil in the world is not the satanic Voldemort type of evil, but the Delores Umbridge and Dursley kind that we recognize in hypocritical smiles and overt nastiness—the kind of evil we are most likely to commit.

None of the abundant themes or lessons speak to me more than that of the power of words. This resonates with me probably because I’ve always wanted the superpower of words—to speak and see results, command and be obeyed.

I’ve always wanted the superpower of words.

Beyond the actual wordsmithery creating the story, the world of Harry Potter is built upon commands (spells), verbal cause and effect. Don’t you love it when Hermoine points her wand at Harry’s broken glasses, utters, “Reparo,” and the glasses mend? And when faced with a boggart (again, Muggles, that’s basically a boogeyman who can transform to look like your greatest fear), isn’t it relieving that the students could speak the word Riddikulus to transform it into something hilariously non-scary?

But when we learn that Bellatrix used the cruciatus (torture) curse to drive Neville’s parents mad, didn’t you cringe from horror? Isn’t it awful to learn that Stanley Shunpike was doing Voldemorte’s bidding beneath the imperio (manipulation) curse? And don’t we all hold our breaths when, in the movie, Bellatrix Lestrange points her wand at Sirius and gleefully screams Avada Kedavra—the dreaded death spell?

In that scene, you realize that Bellatrix didn’t pull a trigger or thrust a knife. She spoke, forever altering the life of another. She used not physical violence or force but the tongue—this is the deadly weapon in the world of Harry Potter.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

This concept is a biblical one, repeated in Scripture several times, and encapsulated poignantly in Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

Maybe that’s why my Hogwarts letter never came.(3) Maybe the Ministry knew I couldn’t handle it, that my critical, judgemental, or angry words combined with my power of the wand would wield unspeakable damage.

I’m thankful that in our world I do not have the power to speak a word, flick a wand, and effect change—for good or evil. And yet I do—how I do! Not with a wand but with my tongue, with my tone, with my superfluous words and even my unspoken words.

In this very unmagical world, there is an almost supernatural power in the ethereal quality of words. And each day I must examine the words and lines I utter.(4)

  • Am I speaking the truth in love—or am I just blurting out the raw truth?
  • Am I seasoning my words with salt—or is my speech just salty?
  • Is the law of kindness in my mouth or the law of judgement?
  • Am I praising others and the Creator or praising myself?
  • Am I witnessing or bearing false witness?
  • Am I turning away wrath or inciting and indulging in it?
  • Am I caring or careless with what I say?
  • Are the wounds I make faithful and helpful or vicious and devastating?

Instead of speaking harm, manipulation, and death—crucio, imperio, avada kedavera—let’s find the words to bring light, kindness, joy—lumos, reparo, riddikulus—

And love.

Always.

(For you Muggles that’s—oh, just read the books.)

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Notes

(1) C. S. Lewis penned this in the dedication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

(2) I respect my parents—and any parents—for being wary of Harry Potter. I strongly feel that in the realm of fantasy individual conscience must be applied. (I’ve known people so sensitive that they wouldn’t read even The Chronicles of Narnia. Bravo to them for sticking with what they believe is right.)

However, in these polarizing pop-culture battles, I think it’s wise to know the “enemy” you’re fighting before you engage in a full-scale war; in other words, we should research or read a book or watch a movie before forming our opinion or conscience about it. Or find a reliable full summary and perhaps read differing reviews.

As someone who was initially leery of the Harry Potter books, after giving them a try, I did not find in them anything to offend my conscience and make me stop reading them. They did not incite in me a surge of interest in the occult (though more than once I have wished to accio [summon] a TV remote or cell phone from across the room), but they have only encouraged me toward being a better and braver person while thoroughly entertaining me.  Children, often, are not as discriminant, and therefore might need more supervision or interference.

Perhaps on a different note (but perhaps not), I like this quote by Holly Ordway: “Healthy children and adults recognize the difference between fantasy stories and the occult: it is the difference between fresh and spoiled food” (“Once Upon a Time: The Enduring Appeal of Fairy Tales,” Christian Research Journal 38, no. 5 [2015]: 51.) Of course we must make sure that we don’t simply enjoy consuming trash.

(3) Realistically, I would have received an Ilvermorny letter, being from North America. But Hogwarts is much cooler. And I didn’t get a letter anyway, so it doesn’t really matter, now does it?

(4) Scripture references alluded to here are as follows: Ephesians 4:15, Colossians 4:6, Proverbs 31:26, Proverbs 27:2, Exodus 20:16, Proverbs 15:1, Matthew 12:36, and Proverbs 27:6.

Finding North: A Year at Goose Hill

It was probably just an ordinary Tuesday for you, but today marked a year since I wrote my first post on The View from Goose Hill blog. (Well, actually, I wrote my first post on Leap Day, but close enough.) I was scared on that day I published the first post—scared of being one more echo in the Internet’s noisy chasm.

Blogging is lonely work. You sit down on the Internet, surrounded by millions or billions of other voices (because everyone has a blog), and you start typing, start talking like a street preacher in Times Square. And no one is stopping to listen—or at least that’s how you feel when you look at your blog stats. There are so many other things for people to hear. And it gets discouraging fast!

This year, writing on Goose Hill has helped me define my purpose for writing, to find my north. The needle is still a bit wobbly, but I think I’m closing in on the right direction.

We’ve been watching through the Rocky movies recently, and one way that I identify with the Italian Stallion is his need to fight. There’s no explaining it. It just is. When he’s not fighting, his fists are clinching; and when he’s fighting, he’s giving it all he’s got.

I write until someone listens.

I don’t write because someone is listening. I write until someone listens. I write because I’m a writer, and, whether anyone hears me or not, I’ve got to keep my fingers going.

I want to write like Rocky fights (actually I want to marry Rocky, but that’s beside the point). I want to create with passion and abandon, knowing other people are stronger or bigger or faster, but none of them have my heart. I might not go down as the best writer or the most skilled hand-letterer or the finest photographer, but no one will be able to say anything against my effort to create and improve.

I’d love to be racking up hundreds and even thousands of readers and likes on my blog and Facebook author page, to trade my passion for glory, as Rocky’s song goes. But I’m thankful—so thankful—for every friend and follower who takes time to read my posts or look at my lettering projects.

I’m thankful for you!

In my first blog post I quoted the incomparable Mary Oliver who asked, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I don’t know what you plan to do, but for now I don’t know of anything else I’d rather be doing than sending out echoes into a chasm from a little blog on Goose Hill.

Grief Is. . .

grave“Grief is just love with no place to go.”

This definition by Jamie Anderson feels true but not entirely true, because grief is often mingled with other things.

Though it has no expiration date, we all know someone whose grief has ripened to self-pity. Grief laced with regret or despair can ruin a life and spoil good memories. Grief infected with bitterness festers like a canker.

But I’ve never known grief as pure as that for my niece Paislee who was born last February at 24 weeks and passed away four days later. There’s no bitterness, no pity, no regret, no despair tainting the grief—just the cavernous loss of all we had hoped for.

Grief is most often the loss of what you had, but sometimes it’s the loss of what you weren’t able to have.

Grief is the price we pay for love. (1)

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C.S. Lewis, a man who knew something about grief and even wrote a book about it, said, “Grief is not a state but a process like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend.”

Last summer, on an evening walk, Laura and I found a baby bat sprawled out dead on the blacktop, his pink skin still hairless. Bat pups hold on while their mothers fly. Best as I can figure, he fell off her back sometime the night before.

It doesn’t go away; it just visits every once in a while.

After Paislee died, my parents went in to hold her for the first time free of the tubes and wires. In the pictures, her little mouth gaped open, stiff from the intubation tube.

The bat pup’s mouth gaped open too, in such a strange way reminding me of Paislee, reminding me that grief is just around the corner. It doesn’t go away; it just visits every once in a while to remind us of life and death and love.

Grief is a bruise, soothing to press and to feel the throb of love that responds, to sense Paislee’s absence, perhaps even more deeply than we sensed her presence.

Grief is, as Lewis said, a journey, a winding path with reminders in the strangest places.

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Grief is blunt and cold like the February wind chilling the graveside service at a hillside cemetery, but it’s also the embrace of friends who gathered on a workday bearing borrowed sorrow for a child they hadn’t known.

Grief is a knitted cream cap, not large enough to stretch over my fist, and a father carrying an unfathomably small casket to its resting place. Grief is a potted pink tulip on my desk from a coworker whose name I didn’t yet know. In memory of your niece.

Grief is my mother’s quivering voice on the phone saying, “She’s gone,” and the old gospel song “He Giveth More Grace” that played on Pandora only minutes after. His love has no limits/His grace has no measure;/His power no boundary known unto men./For out of his infinite riches in Jesus/He giveth and giveth and giveth again.

Grief is the taste of salt and tears, and grief is the taste of peanut butter cake.

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Grief is food and the hands that prepared it.

When someone dies in the South, people start baking. The answer to death is a hot oven or a quick run to the grocery store; the solution to grief is potato salad and brownies.

Grief is the taste of peanut butter cake.

As if knowing that our heart will stop, other people step in to keep our stomach going. Maybe it’s their distraction from the grief. Maybe they just don’t know what else to do.

The day after Paislee passed away, I drove down to South Carolina to be with my family. When I arrived at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, the table and counters and fridge bore the signs of Southern grief management, of breads, casseroles, cookies, fruit, meats, candies, sweet tea, and a peanut butter sheet cake, the likes of which I’d never eaten.

It’s that cake I remember most about those days of receiving guests and comfort. The moistness gave us something to talk about, to gather around and share. Its sweetness cut the bitter, like grace on a plate.

Grief is sorrow, but not without comfort, not without hope.

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balloonsGrief is to reappraise our hope for eternity, to reaffirm our faith in Christ.

At Paislee’s graveside service, we released pink balloons, watched them climb to the atmosphere and float over the mountains like pink prayers. Who knows where they landed.

Grief is to know heaven more deeply, but to know we aren’t there yet.

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For now, grief is—

But some day no more.

 

 

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Author’s Note: Scripture references that I allude to are I Thessalonians 4:13 and Revelations 21:4.

(1) Attributed to Queen Elizabeth II, though, as quotes go, it’s hard to say where the quote actually originated.

 

The Inconvenience of Kindness

I try to be nice to people—but I don’t always enjoy it.
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     You’ve probably heard that no good deed goes unpunished! Well, depending on your definition of punishment, that principle seems to almost always prove itself true in my experience with doing good deeds. Almost always, in­ some small or big way, I am inconvenienced, taken for granted, abused, or even rejected when I try to do something nice—or at least I am afraid of being inconvenienced, abused, taken for granted or rejected. Maybe my fear just makes it worse. (I also have a propensity for messing up even the smallest favor. As my dad would say, I could mess up a one-car funeral.)

No good deed goes unpunished!

      Part of our plan for more purposeful living involves doing something with or for others at least once or twice a month. As we were thinking through a list of “nice things to do for others,” a small part of me groaned, even as I looked forward to doing the items on the list. And, of course, I immediately recognized this as an area in which I need to grow.
     This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inconvenience of kindness, and I think there’s a good reason for it.
     Love, hospitality, righteousness, even just being nice—these are all only as valuable as the sacrifice or inconvenience involved in practicing them. As a selfish human, this isn’t something I like to hear. Though I derive great pleasure from being nice simply for the sake of being nice, the risk of negative repercussions has often kept me from doing something good for someone.
     This is probably why Christ warned against doing good deeds to get a human response. (“That your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” [Matthew 6:4 NKJV].) He knew that being reward for doing good deeds might give us a big head and rob us of a heavenly reward, and He knew that being repaid with unkindness or no repayment at all would discourage us from doing good things. God wants us to have a higher motivation for doing good—for the least of these, for Him

I’ve been thinking a lot about the inconvenience of kindness.

     On Tuesday morning—Valentine’s Day—we were walking Dudley around our apartments before work. As we rounded the last corner, a big muddy Husky came walking up to us dragging a tattered rope. Clearly, he had broken free from his tether.
     Though I love animals and felt sorry for him, I probably would have hurried by because I was afraid he might bite me, afraid he might make me late to work, afraid he might drag me across the parking lot. In other words, I was afraid he might inconvenience my otherwise well-laid-out Tuesday. Laura was the one who picked up the rope and dutifully led him like a small horse back to our apartment.
     And sure enough, he did inconvenience us. He muddied Laura’s white coat and my red sweater. And by the time we called animal control and got him tied up and got Dudley calmed down, I was going to be late for work. So I emailed my manager and switched my work-from-home day from Thursday to Tuesday. And, well, you know how a routine is when a Tuesday turns into a Thursday—the rest of the week is thrown off.
bottle
     But if I had walked by him, gone into work on Tuesday, and worked from home today, I wouldn’t have gotten this 17-dollar Under Armour water bottle that the assembly speaker gave away this morning.
     Sometimes good things come to us when we choose to do good things—not in a karma, formulaic sort of way, but by doing the right thing at the right time.
     If we’re honest, contrary to the old saying, we aren’t always punished for our good deeds, and we certainly aren’t always rewarded for them. But doing a good thing is always good enough. And we can let God take care of the rest.
     Oh, and the owners, who had been driving around looking for the dog, eventually saw him lying on our front patio. They were happily reunited. The dog’s name was Neeko.
huskey1

Unintentionally Living Intentionally

Live intentionally.

I’ve been hearing that phrase a lot lately. I even jotted it in my journal sometime last year because it sounded like a good thing to try—sounded like a good New Year slogan.

But I forgot about it because, turns out, January wasn’t the best month. A heavy year like 2016 doesn’t just slough off at midnight on December 31. If you’re not careful, you drag it into the next year like a dead body shackled to your soul.

The Northern Kentucky weather didn’t help things. In this month, we’ve seen only a handful of sunny days. The days that aren’t raining and snowing are heavy and overcast. The ground is the consistency of a Wendy’s Frosty, and my boots make sucking noises in the mud when I walk Dudley outside. Laura and I have been sick on and off with colds.

I haven’t been able to shake the deep-down sadness

Overall, I wasn’t able to shake the deep-down sadness, for one reason or another. I could hardly get through a week without crying.

Earlier this week, I broke down once again to Laura, replaying my gloom and insecurity and fears—all I’m not, all I want to be, all I’m afraid I never will be. She answered by jotting something on a piece of paper.

“Here, fill this out.” At the top, she had written, “My goals” and at the bottom, “Steps for achievement.”

This was easy. I’d already made the list—in fact, I’d made more than one in my journal. Lose weight. Write more. Get better at hand lettering. Spend more time outside. Make more friends. Volunteer somewhere to give back. But I was overwhelmed by the expectations for myself. When I finished scribbling my list (overflowing onto the back page), Laura put another piece of paper in front of me—a hand-made spreadsheet breaking down the hours in each day of the week.

I’m unintentionally living intentionally.

We dumped our pile of goals, desires, and hours onto the table like puzzle pieces and sorted them onto the spread sheet: work, exercise, church, writing, reading, lettering, adventures, service. We fitted them together to form a life that will mean more than one of these days living, than I want to living, than if only living. A life with more purpose, more structure, more productivity, more focus—hey, maybe more intention.
I didn’t mean to do it—but I guess you could say I’m unintentionally living intentionally.

I encourage you to do the same thing with me. Here are some good ways to get started:

1. Make a list of what you want to change or goals you want to reach.

2. Figure out a plan of how to achieve that change and those goals.

3. Schedule that plan into your life.

4. Make it happen.

5. Good grief, find a good friend like Laura who will take on the year with you.

Hey, I already went to bed later than scheduled. I skipped the first day of my workout. I ate more sugar yesterday than I should have. I didn’t write on Friday. Part of starting something new is realizing that you’re going to fail, that you’ll have to make adjustments for life.

You know, 2016 is so last year. But for all we’ll fail and all we’ll succeed, 2017 is a new start.

Let’s make it count.

I’d love to know what your goals are for 2017—or even just for tomorrow. Let me know in the comments.

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Her Light in Me

This Christmas, Laura always remembered to plug in the strand of colorful lights around our patio door before I got home from work. The gumdrop colors framing the glow of light from within our apartment gave me something to look forward to as the evenings darkened.

img_7245In fact, all of our decorations inside made me eager to be home from the cold and dark. The three-foot Christmas tree sitting on an end table, laden with ornaments we’ve collected through the years; the nativity scene on the bookshelf; two snowmen figurines and some festive Christmas balls on the mantel; a decorative towel on the stove. It’s not much—not compared to other more elaborate decorators.

When I think of elaborate decorations, I think of my mom. Decorating my apartment takes me thirty minutes; Mom takes a series of days or even weeks to scatter her house with garland, ornaments, bells, cardinals, holly branches, pine cones, cotton snow mounds, glitter, and the many musical Hallmark snowmen and Disney characters that my grandmother sends my younger sister every year for Christmas.

But whether extravagant or meager, why do Mom and I go through all the trouble? In fact, why does anyone decorate at all?

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. Isn’t this why, rather than enticing the sun to shine again, we provoke our spirits to lift by wrapping just about anything in lights or tinsel or shiny ornaments? (Even Rudolph contributes with his nose so bright.)

When the world turns blue in the winter evening darkness, I can think of nothing more relaxing than to admire the tree twinkling in the corner of my living room. But I didn’t always feel the excitement of turning on the lights.

When I lived at home as a teenager, Mom was gone for whole days during December, Christmas shopping. The phone often rang close to dusk as Mom was running into the last few stores. “Can you start dinner?” she asked. “Just turn the oven to 350 and stick in the casserole.” I already knew her next request. “And can you turn on the lights?”

Some folks understand their responsibility to light an entire season.

It was a chore, back then, going from one end of the house to the other, reaching behind tables and beds to plug in the electric candles taped into each window sill; trudging out on the cold concrete porch to plug in the icicle lights; getting stabbed and poked as I reached around the Christmas tree to illuminate the strands of lights and the star for our neighbors to see.

If the house wasn’t lighted when Mom came home, she shuffled through the kitchen and dining room, each arm laden with shopping bags, and yelled, “Nobody look!” After she stashed the gifts in her bedroom, we’d find her half buried behind the tree, feeling among the branches for the green electrical plug and mumbling something about how she didn’t understand why someone couldn’t plug the lights in and was it really that hard?

I always felt guilty right then, feeling I was somehow failing to carry out or carry on a tradition that meant so much to her.

I’ve learned since then that decorating for Christmas is something you choose to do or not do—it isn’t mandatory. Just look at any neighborhood where some yards are lit up like a—well a Christmas tree while the neighbors house is Halloween dark. But it seems some folks understand their ability—even perhaps responsibility—to light an entire season with the glow of lights. It’s our defense against the darkness. I like to think that the urge in these people starts with the light in themselves—a selflessness that sends them climbing attic steps or descending basement stairs to retrieve boxes and bags, to wrap and hang and stand and string their decorations for others to see, to dispel the wintry gloom and darkness threatening to consume their patch of the world.img_7259

Last year, I visited my parents at Christmas. When she walked into the house after being away all day, Mom was smiling, pleased. “You can tell Sarah’s home—the lights are on in the windows.”

The truth is, I couldn’t wait to plug in those candles and her tree and watch the darkness flee.

And last week, as I hesitantly stashed away my  decorations for another year, it occurred to me that maybe, even with my dinky tree and measly decor, I have a little bit of Mom’s light in me.

 

Hopes and Fears of 2017

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

nativityThis line from my favorite Christmas carol is speaking, of course, to the little town of Bethlehem that welcomed the Christ child to the world.

Tonight, as we sit on the edge of a new year, do you realize that within “all the years” is included 2017? I’ve seen people on Facebook beckoning the new year with open arms, eager to escape a fearful and turbulent 2016.

Well, 2017 might be better; it also might be worse. We have as much reason for expectation as we do for cautious trepidation. But in all times, the good and bad, our hopes and fears are met in the grace, goodness, and peace of a Savior who already knows what the year will hold.

Let’s cherish 2016 for what it taught us and take 2017 as it comes—one day  at a time.

 

Good Tidings of Eggnog and Joy

eggnogWhen I was young, Mom threaded popcorn, piece by piece, in strands to drape around the tree.* After Christmas, she wrapped it around a slab of cardboard and stored it in a tin where it kept for close to 20 years. But a few years ago, instead of the real popcorn, I went home to find strands of plastic popcorn draped around the tree.

Soon, even the tree itself was in jeopardy when Mom mentioned buying an artificial one rather than the fragrant pine my parents usually haul home from the Lowe’s parking lot.

A few years ago, another tradition bit the dust at my own suggestion.

Thanksgiving is the starter pistol that launches the Christmas season marathon. It also launches Mom’s festival of turbo baking. For most of the Christmas season, Mom stands in the kitchen, her oven glowing. We can expect ham and Swiss sandwiches with poppy seed spread on Hawaiian rolls; a cheese ball rolled in pecans; chocolate covered pretzels; peanut butter fudge; peppermint brownies; cappuccino punch; cracked corn casserole; fried bread; Rolo pretzel bites; and lemon cookies rolled in powdered sugar.

Jesus didn’t eat the cake, and neither did we.

During the week of Christmas, Mom always baked a star-shaped white cake, slathered it with her homemade yellow icing, and wrote in blue frosting letters, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” We sang to Christ then blew out His candles. But inevitably the cake sat there for weeks, molding under the cake-taker cover. Jesus didn’t eat it, and neither did we. But who could blame us with all the other gratuitous goodies that Mom spread before us.

At some point it became awkward to gather and sing “Happy Birthday” to a conspicuously absent Jesus. Finally two years ago when I saw her reach for the cake mix box, I objected, “Mom, don’t make it. I mean, why don’t we just stick candles in one of the brownies or pieces of fudge?”

She looked hesitant, as if I may have been spouting heresy.

“I don’t think Jesus will mind,” I insisted. “Do you really think He’d want us wasting a whole cake? Besides, it isn’t even His real birthday. Some scholars say that he was probably born in the spring.”

Another skeptical moment, and then, “Well, all right.” She wedged the box back in the cupboard, and so ended that tradition.

It’s the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

One Christmas tradition, however, remains as constant as a carol. And unlike the neglected, moldy cake for poor Jesus, it hardly lasts a few days.

Thanksgiving is soon enough for my family to hope that Dad will pull out his deep silver pot and whip up a batch of eggnog.* We wait for the moment when he lugs a gallon of milk and carton of eggs from the refrigerator, grabs the blue sugar container with the melted edge, and pulls a little brown bottle of rum flavoring from the cupboard.

The milk “glub glubs” as he empties the gallon into the pot and turns on the burner. Egg whites, sugar, and vanilla thicken and mound like snowdrifts against the sides of the silver mixer as he beats them on the highest speed.

Next, he folds the egg white mixture into the heated milk and dusts it with nutmeg. He stirs and stirs and stirs, a mesmerizing rhythm of spoon tapping the sides of the pot. The simmering brew fills the house with the smell of rum and spices—the smell of every Christmas season that I can recall.

eggnogWhen the eggnog has cooled a bit, he calls someone to hold the strainer and funnel while he pours the concoction into a milk jug. Baked pieces of egg whites and clumps of nutmeg catch in the metal strainer as the warm mixture flows into the funnel. Finally Dad rinses off the sides of the jug and into the fridge it goes.

About eight ounces of eggnog that won’t fit in the jug gets poured into a cup. Most of that remainder never makes it to be chilled in the fridge, not after the cup is passed around to lips eager for the first sip of the season.

It’s a long process, so Dad only makes two or three batches a season. But those we ration,  in the back of the fridge, and peek in now and then to make sure no one has taken the last of it.

Those rich, thick sips remind me of the very essence of Christmas

Holiday guests ask for it, and more than once we’ve watched half a gallon at a time go to particularly close friends. As they carry off a brimming Rubbermaid pitcher, I’m initially hesitant to share. It’s not that I even like the stuff so well. (Truth be told, the eggy sweetness turns my stomach if I drink much more than a slosh.) It’s just my favorite Christmas tradition.

Each year those reliable rich sips, unchanged by the passing of time and variance of life, remind me of other enduring Christmas’ traditions—peace and goodwill, charity and love, tidings of comfort and joy.

I suppose those should be shared, a pitcherful at a time.

 

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*I won’t deny nibbling at it once or twice when I was very young. In fact we have pictures catching me in the act. My only regret is that it wasn’t cheddar flavored.

**Though we don’t know exactly where the word eggnog originated, some etymologists believe it comes from the term noggin, referring to a wooden mug that eggnog was often served in. Some etymologists believe that nog stems from the Norfolk word referencing strong ales. But perhaps it came from colonial times when Americans asked their bartenders for an egg-and-grog. Say it fast over decades and you’ve got eggnog. Man, language is weird and wonderful.

Stuffing and a Silent Moment for Thanksgiving

thankfulforFor the past several Novembers, I’ve watched eagerly as my Facebook news feed turned into a gratitude fest with my friends posting daily things that they were thankful for, leading up to the big day of thanks itself.

But this year, it seems that Trump and Hillary, emails and lewd tapes, Democrats and Republicans (and third partiers), shootings and riots, legals and illegals, Harambe and alligators, and every other piece of news festering in my feed has robbed us of the one thing we need to concentrate on the most: a quiet moment to be thankful.

It reminds me of my favorite part of Thanksgiving.

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Though I attended many praise services on Wednesday evenings in my childhood, I don’t remember a single one. No doubt, I sat through many readings of I Thessalonians’ invocation to “in everything give thanks.” I’m sure I droned out the dusty hymns that sat in the back of the hymnal: “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “We Gather Together.” Albeit sincere, those services seemed terribly predictable and, quite frankly, just seemed like a desperate attempt to catch up on what we should have been doing every day all year.

In all those praise services, my attention span was shortened by eagerness for the pastor to say the final “Amen,” because Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

Thanksgiving began for me as soon as the service was over.

When we got home after church, I slipped into a nightgown, then milled around the kitchen, waiting for Dad to change into his plaid pajamas and begin gathering the ingredients for Thanksgiving stuffing: two loaves of bread, a stalk of celery, an onion. He balanced three eggs gingerly on the counter. Then out came my mom’s biggest pot into which he plopped the butter. I stood on my tiptoes to watch the sticks grow shiny and soft, transforming into a puddle of gold.

Wiping his eyes on the sleeves of his T-shirt, Dad swept chopped onion pieces into the pot.

I rushed to hand him the next ingredient, my favorite, the celery. He chopped off the end and separated the stalks down to the center. “Can I have the heart?” I asked eagerly. Dad had taught me the term heart years earlier, one of the first years I was allowed to stay awake and watch the process, and I was proud to have remembered the term.

When he handed me the neon yellow center, I fingered it for a bit before nibbling the end. I hated—still hate—the taste of celery, but something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk, Scratch-clunk. The knife chopped through the fibers, and Dad added the green u-shaped chunks to simmer with the butter and onion.

Something about eating the heart felt exotic.

Finally the bread. His machete-like knife sliced through two loaves with Dad’s big hand holding the cubes in place. Crumbs sprinkled the counter as he dropped them to soak into the butter mixture.

Next the soggy cubes went into a big Tupperware bowl where he tossed them in beaten eggs.

To be honest, I’m not sure of the next steps because at this point, comforted by the kept tradition, I usually slipped off into my room and crawled into bed, the scent of onions and celery tucking me in. And in the stillness, with light seeping under the closed door and the sound of Dad’s pots and pans clinking in the kitchen, I counted all my blessings and fell asleep.

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I didn’t type all of my thankfulness into a Facebook status this year. But this evening, when I crawl into bed, I think I’ll pretend to be that little girl again, wrapped not in the aromas of onion and butter but in the silence of gratitude and contentment.

I wish the same for you.