Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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A Story of Scared People

Christmas, the first time.

****

Mary,

See her lying there, trembling.  Her day of delivery approaches.  She is tired, but sleep will not come; and so she wills the sun to return.  Joseph will come for her then.

Joseph.  She smiles.  His name brings her peace.

In the morning, they will head south to Bethlehem.  In the morning, the donkey will carry her away from everything she has ever known.

The donkey.  As she remembers the dumb beast, her throat constricts and she pushes herself upright, now willing herself, “breathe, breathe, breathe.”  Breathe. It will be hard to breathe as she is carried along, the impact from every step a blow to her tight skin.  When will she finally burst?  When will the miracle-child, now kicking her in the ribs, come?  By the side of the road, under the rude stares of curious traders, as a spectacle to strangers?  Maybe there will be a woman–oh, let there be a skilled woman–to ease the delivery and stop the bleeding.

What if we are all alone?”

Breathe.  No, they will not be alone.  In the distance, as far away as memory lingers, she hears the rustle of wings.  Do not be afraid.  Always the first word and always the last.  Do not be afraid.  She lays back down, resting now at last.

****

the shepherds,

See them flee, trembling.  Brave men, rough and crude, they have met their match.  The sky pulses, the ground swells and rolls under their callused feet.  The world is ending.  The animals flee.  There is no rustle here, only words exploding in the air.

Do! Not! Be! Afraid!

They are scared enough to hear every word.

****

and Joseph.

See him now, trembling.  He crouches in the dirt, picks up a smooth stone, remembers.

Remembers his rage that night, that night long ago, the night when he was the first to know.

How he had considered his legal right to stone. His legal right to Mary’s death, to justice. How he had trembled then, picturing her face and hearing the screams. No. He had decided to just walk away.

But then.

Alone in his bed,  the rustle had came with a command. Joseph. Do not be afraid to take her as your wife. And in the blinding light, he had obeyed.

Now years have passed, and the royal travelers have come and gone.  With their gifts, they left behind a warning.  The king is suspicious.  Jealous. Furious.  He cannot be trusted.  And the angel comes again, this time with no comfort, only this–Get up.  It is time to walk again.  Get up.  Take the child and his mother far away.  Go now.  The soldiers are coming.

But remember, Joseph, Do not be afraid.  Remember the name of the baby.  Remember what it means.

Jesus, the Lord saves.  Just not in the way you were expecting.  Go now.

****

See you reading, see me writing. We know this trembling. At times. At times when anxiety threatens to overcome us, when just a word or two shoves us into a place where we would not choose to be. At times when the world turns upside-down, or the long days seem never-ending. At these times we need to know that they trembled too.

They were scared.  We are scared.  And the rustling, exploding command was given to them so that it could be given to us.  Do not be afraid.

It is there in the story. It is there in the songs. It was Emmanuel who kicked Mary in the ribs.

Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And it is because we are not alone that we need not be afraid.

SONY DSC

Originally published in December 2012. Photo by Bert Kaufmann


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When Christmas Hurts

I began this poem in the margins of my church bulletin last Sunday.  Our prayer request time had been (not unusually) raw and real, with brave people daring to admit that they weren’t doing “fine, thank you.”  It’s amazing how this honesty spreads across the sanctuary.  After we cried together, prayed together, and stood together to sing; something changed.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the closest I can come is to say that Joy seeped in through our cracked walls.

*

As words came, so did tears.

Tears like rivers, slowly cutting through bedrock.

Rivers carving out channels where there weren’t channels before.

And

we were swept downstream

together.

*

There in a jumbled heap

we looked at one another again, no,

we looked for the first time that morning

and saw the eyes of grown-ups

who were barely hanging on.

*

What do you do,

we whispered to someone listening,

when you are counting for Christmas to be over?

What if the missing is just too much

and each twinkling light stings?

What do you do if this was not the plan?

*

Tissue boxes arrived,

we passed them around,

but still we sat, breathing together.

Now we were waiting,

hands resting on the backs of our neighbors,

we were waiting for hope to come.

*

Hope does not come with happiness.

We knew it.  Happiness is too thin.

Hope needs friction, not fa la la la la.

Tensile strength, not tinsel.

We needed a Christmas strong enough

to bear this sorrow.

*

And it was given.

It was given the moment we stopped grasping, and

with hands on backs and true words spoken aloud,

we received it.

We were surprised.

The hope came through joy.

*

We stood to sing.

Joy to the world.

Joy to the messed up real world.

Joy, which is not candy,

but medicine.

*

*

I am indebted to the author and anti-sex-trafficking advocate Christine Caine for this metaphor: “Joy is not ‘imitation happiness’.  If happiness is like candy, then Joy is medicine.”  I have been thinking about this phrase since I read it in her painful and hopeful book, Undaunted, and I am grateful for her hard-won wisdom.


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A Gift for Scared People

Sometimes there are stories that sit with you.  I wrote my first draft of this post one month ago, but I haven’t been able to let it go–or perhaps, it won’t let go of me.  A month ago, I wrote from a sense that “Do not be afraid” was one of the central messages of the Christmas story.  Since then, I have experienced a horrible stomach virus that almost sent me to the ER, a series of panic attacks linked to our upcoming flight to California, and the surgeries of several friends and family members.  And of course, with all of you, I have watched in horror as we have learned about the latest school shooting.  Do not be afraid?  At times, it has become more of a question than a declaration.

But it won’t let me go.  Do not be afraid.  Through the hills and valleys of this month, this phrase has become inextricably linked in my mind–even, in my heart and gut–to the Christmas story.  As I keep editing and re-working this post, it has been working on me.  And so now, I give it again to you with my prayers that you too will find a measure of peace in the midst of your own lives.  Merry Christmas.

****

A Story of Scared People

****

Christmas, the first time.

****

Mary,

See her lying there, trembling.  Her day of delivery approaches.  She is tired, but sleep will not come; and so she wills the sun to return.  Joseph will come for her then.

Joseph.  She smiles.  His name brings her peace.

In the morning, they will head south to Bethlehem.  In the morning, the donkey will carry her away from everything she has ever known.

The donkey.  As she remembers his dumb beast, her throat constricts and she pushes herself upright, now willing herself, “breathe, breathe, breathe.”  Breathe. It will be hard to breathe as she is carried along, the impact from every step a blow to her tight skin.  When will she finally burst?  When will the miracle-child, now kicking her in the ribs, come?  By the side of the road, under the rude stares of curious traders, as a spectacle to strangers?  Maybe there will be a woman–oh, let there be a skilled woman–to ease the delivery and stop the bleeding.

“What if we are all alone?”

Breathe.  No, they will not be alone.  In the distance, as far away as memory lingers, she hears the rustle of wings.  Do not be afraid.  Always the first word and always the last.  Do not be afraid.  She lays back down.

****

the shepherds,

See them flee, trembling.  Brave men, rough and crude, they have met their match.  The sky pulses, the ground swells and rolls under their callused feet.  The world is ending.  The animals flee.  There is no rustle here, only words exploding in the air.

Do! Not! Be! Afraid!

They are scared enough to hear every word.

****

and Joseph.

See him now, trembling.  He crouches in the dirt, picks up a smooth stone, remembers.  Remembers his rage that night, that night long ago, the night when he was the first to know.  How he had considered his legal right to stone.  His legal right to Mary’s death, to justice.  How he had trembled then, picturing her face and hearing the screams.  No.  He had decided to just walk away.

But then.

Alone in his bed,  the rustle came with a command.  Do not be afraid to take her as your wife.  In the blinding light, he had obeyed.

Now the baby walks and the royal travelers have come and gone.  With their gifts, they left behind a warning.  The king is suspicious.  Jealous. Furious.  He cannot be trusted.  And the angel comes again, this time with no comfort, only this–Get up.  It is time to walk again.  Get up.  Take the toddler and his mother far away.  Go now.  The soldiers are coming.

But remember, Joseph, Do not be afraid.  Remember the name of the baby.  Remember what it means.

The Lord saves.  Just not necessarily in the way you were expecting.  Go now.

****

See you reading, see me writing.  We know this trembling.  At times.  At times when anxiety threatens to overcome us, when just a word or two shoves us into a place where we would not choose to be.

At these times we need to know that they trembled too.

They were scared.  We are scared.  And the rustling, exploding command was given to them so that it could be given to us.  Do not be afraid.  You’re nervous when you drop your kids off at school?  Do not be afraid.  The police cars are blocking off the next block again?  Do not be afraid.  You worry about what you will do when your savings are gone?  You can’t believe that your body is betraying you by growing old?  Your son is hanging out with the wrong crowd?  You wonder if you will ever find work that is more than just a paycheck?  You are overwhelmed by the decisions you face for the parents who used to take care of you?

Listen closely to the story this year.  Listen to the songs.  It is Emmanuel who kicked Mary in the ribs.

Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And it is because we are not alone that we need not be afraid.


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An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

For you and/or the introverts you love.

****

PART ONE: Who are we?

I must begin by stating, as clearly as I can, a simple fact for the record.  I like people.  I really do.  I have friends.  Sometimes I can even make small talk.  Goodness, I live with seven other people.  This is good.  I would be a very unhappy hermit.

And this is also good, because ‘wannabe hermit’ is not a synonym for introvert, nor is ‘shy’, ‘withdrawn’, or ‘antisocial’.  Can you tell that I’m feeling a little defensive?  Perhaps this is because the Cambridge Dictionary defines introvert as, “someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily”.  Ouch.  How about a definition for extrovert?  That would be, “an energetic, happy person who enjoys being with other people.”

No value judgments here.

Sorry Cambridge, but I’m coming at the introvert/extrovert continuum from a slightly different angle.  It begins with a few questions, the first of which is, “What charges your batteries?”  In other words, when you are depleted, overwhelmed or mentally worn-out; what energizes you?  A night out, or a night in?  Do people, experiences and challenges ‘get you going’; or require a whole bunch of extra processing time?  Are you more easily bored or overstimulated?  As the Myers-Briggs website summarizes, “Do you like to spend time in the outer world of people and things (Extraversion), or in your inner world of ideas and images (Introversion)?”

So, which category do you suppose a reflective blog writer falls into?

We are the introverts.  Hear us roar take some time to think about all of this.

****

PART TWO:  Introvert Torture

That would be a full work week (paid or unpaid) plus two social gatherings, every weekend, for all of December.

And don’t forget to put up the lights, make the cookies, buy the gifts, take the family picture and order the photo cards (not to mention actually addressing, stamping and mailing the cards… I still have an unsent box from the year our youngest was born), decorate the house, make more cookies, figure out what you can give to various worthy organizations, keep up and maybe create some meaningful family traditions, and try not to get too stressed out because you know that the holidays are supposed to be a reflective time.

Ah, December.

Stop reflecting.  Shouldn’t you be making cookies?

****

PART THREE:  Introvert Survival

First off, re-read part one, and write the Cambridge definitions on a piece of paper.  Burn it.  Dance around the fire.

There is nothing wrong with you.

Did you know that introvert’s brains are actually wired differently than extroverts?  A researcher named Dr. Debra Johnson published an experiment in the American Journal of Psychiatry in which researchers asked a group of people to lie down and relax.  Their brains were scanned, and then her team compared the findings to the participant’s questionnaire-based identification as introverts or extroverts.  They found that the blood flow in the introvert’s brains was actually longer and more complex, hitting parts of the brain that involved memory, problem solving, emotion, and planning.  The extrovert’s blood flowed in shorter, faster and less complicated pathways that involved sensory input.  It’s no wonder that introvert’s brains can feel so tired!

Now, it’s not that extroverts don’t think deeply or even that their brains are less complex than those of introverts.  It just seems that introverts tend to favor the longer brain pathways, even for processing very simple experiences (like, ‘lie down and relax’).  Before I get into deeper neuroscientific waters (with my swimmies on), I’ll just say that this rings true for me.  My extroverted husband and I can experience the exact same situation (let’s say a holiday party), for the exact same amount of time (as long as I can last), and I will come away mentally and emotionally exhausted while his reaction is something like, ‘what’s next?’

What’s next?  A break for my tired brain.

Breaks are the key to survival.  But they are not a given in the month of December, so to my fellow introverts, I say…

Please don’t let the holidays eat you alive.  This will take some planning.  Yes, planning.  I don’t mean to give you one more thing to do, but hear me out.  You need to plan so that you can choose.  You need to plan so that you can pace yourself.  You need to plan so that you will have more than a smidgen of energy left when something really important is happening.

This is my first piece of unsolicited advice:  plan to give yourself some space.  Before the party, after the party, hidden in the bathroom (just briefly!) during the party.  Close your eyes, take deep breaths, try to forgive yourself for the stupid thing that you just said and think of a question that you can ask someone when you emerge.  Write space into your calender like it’s an appointment, and then do the things that give you energy–the things that help you process and enjoy the rest of your life.  Be really protective of this time, and if you miss it, re-schedule.  The key words here?  Prepare and recover.

Second, reflect on what you can really do well, and say no to just about everything else.  You’re an introvert, and so you have unique gifts to give.  Could you spend some extra time on a thoughtful holiday letter (or e-mail)?  Is there someone who really needs you to reach out to them and then just listen for awhile?  Are you an especially considerate gift-giver?  Do you have an idea to make the holidays especially meaningful for your kids (or someone else’s)?  Are you an artist of some kind or another?  Take some time to think about this, and then prioritize these things.  When other things that you are perhaps not so well-suited to come up, you won’t have time to do them all.      

Finally, stop thinking so much about yourself.  This may come off as a bit harsh, and even contradictory to the two previous paragraphs; but as I live my own little introverted life, this is a constant tension.  How can I remain healthy while responding to the near-constant demands of my two small children?  When do I go to the party just because it means a lot to my husband?  What about the big family gathering after an especially stressful week?  What if I figure out ‘what I need”, but then I don’t get it?

Sorry.  Sometimes you just have to deal.  Sometimes you just have to play nicely with the extroverts.

But here’s the thing… if your plans for space get interrupted, at least you had plans.  If you have to do something that you don’t want to do, at least you know what you’ll do next time.  If the pace doesn’t seem quite right, at least you’re paying attention.

And if you really need a break, you can always hide in the bathroom for a little while.


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“Santa is Died,”

and other things that you don’t want your three-year-old to announce during preschool story time.

****

The question took me by surprise.

Up to this point, our family had employed a very successful ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ policy about the man with the reindeer.  It went like this–Mama and Daddy get you presents because we love you.  Your grandparents get you more (and better) presents because they love you and have disposable income.  Aren’t those silly reindeer cute?  And that man with the big white beard, isn’t he funny?

“Mama, is Santa real?”

The question came from the three-year-old, from the backseat of the car, on the drive to Thanksgiving.  The timing surprised me, but don’t worry– I was prepared.

“Well, honey, St. Nicholas was real.  He lived a long time ago and gave presents to children.  He loved children so much, and now we remember him when we see Santa.”

“Is St. Nicholas still alive?”

“Well… (I sensed that we were entering deeper waters)… no, not really.  He lived a long time ago.”

A long pause while both of my daughters considered this information.  Then the youngest spoke.

“Mama, Santa is died?!?!?”

****

So.  At this point I mumbled something about no-honey-Santa-is-still-real-in-stories-and-won’t-you-be-excited-to-see-the-doggies-at-Thanksgiving, and hoped that they would forget.  It worked.

Until the drive home.  My husband was driving the other car, and I was waiting for them to fall asleep.  Instead, our youngest started sobbing dramatically, clearly intending to communicate her distress.  “What’s wrong, honey?”   She breathed loudly.  “I sad,” she declared, “because,” sob, sob, sniffle, “Santa is died.”

Long pause.  Here we go again.

“You mean, Santa is dead,” her older sister corrected.

I interrupted.  “No, no… sweetie… umm… Santa isn’t dead.  St. Nicolas is dead because he lived a long time ago, but now he lives in God’s house, and we remember him and… uh… Santa… well… you see Santas all over the place this time of year.  And we tell Santa stories too, and…”

She was not appeased (yes, if you are wondering, this is the “Mama, You No Eat Animals!” daughter).  Sob, sob, sob… her volume was increasing now… “I sad because Santa is died!”

“Santa is dead.” The grammar police again.

I sighed, reached back, and held her hand.

****

If you would like to judge me for this little episode, you won’t be alone.  For days I berated myself about spoiling the magic of childhood; for making something that could have been so simple, so complicated; and for not having the right words when the moment came.

But then it got worse.  Remorse turned to panic as I remembered.  Preschool.  We had four weeks of preschool until Christmas.  I could see it all unfold before my eyes.  A crowd of three-year-olds listens intently as an unsuspecting teacher turns a page in a storybook.  “Look children, who is this man in the red suit?”  A chorus of sweet voices, “Santa!  That’s Santa!”

And then my daughter would make her announcement.

****

Briefly, I considered keeping her home for the month of December, but then I decided to start by talking with her teacher.

It was the end of the day, and parents were bundling their children.  I found the teacher.  “Um, Can I talk with you about something?”  She could tell that I had something serious to say.  She nodded, we stepped into the hallway, and I blurted out my story.    When I was finally finished, I looked down at the ground and waited.  Would we be kicked out of preschool?  Maybe I should have just kept her at home, and kept my mouth shut.  Now it was too late.  I looked up.

She didn’t looked shocked.  Quite the contrary… her expression was more like, “so, this was your serious news?”  She started to walk back to the other children, leaving me with a simple, “Oh, don’t worry about that.  We did something similar in my family, and my niece used to say the same thing.  Don’t worry about it at all.”  Then she was gone, back to the pressing needs of unmittened hands.

And that was it.

****

That was it… so far… but we still have four weeks to go.  Four weeks to go, and that’s just this year.

But I’ve decided to stop nursing my remorse and panic.  Here’s why.  In our brief encounter, here’s what I learned from my daughter’s preschool teacher:  It’s okay.  Kids say things.  Parents say things.  Families do things differently.  Life goes on.

And if a declaration like “Santa is died” isn’t as shocking as I imagined, maybe we can just keep figuring this all out.