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.

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Originally published in December 2012. Photo by Bert Kaufmann


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Serenity and Other Unnatural Conditions

I’m not sure which is harder:  being me or being married to me.

(We won’t let my husband comment on this one.)

I’m not so bad, really.  In some ways I’m a fantastic person to spend day-in-and-day-out, til-death-do-we-part with.  I communicate, and usually not by screaming.  I have hobbies, talents, helpful habits, etc.  I’m interested in the world around me.  Sometimes I even act like a responsible grown-up, in fact, I do laundry every single time my children run out of clean clothes.

It’s just that.  Well, you know how none of us is perfect?  And have you had times when it seems that all your weaknesses are seeping out of your pores?  Times when you are just a wreck, and then you realize that you were just a wreck last month too?  And January wasn’t so great either?

Remember Christmas?  That was a long time ago.

There are two things that make me hit the wall.  One, not getting enough sleep.  Two, the anticipation of physical pain.  Lately, these two things have gone hand in hand, and this past week was no exception.  My reoccurring cyst–my reoccurring nightmare cyst that doctors insist on sticking needles and knives into–flared up again.  At night, the pain woke me up every time I changed positions, but the agony in my head was much worse.

“No, I can’t,” I sobbed to my husband one morning.  “I just can’t have it lanced again.  I don’t care.  I would rather die than go through all that again.”

My husband, who is very good at fixing many problems, was just listening to me.  This is because he knows (from experience) not to try and fix anything while I’m crying.  Eventually I finished, and a child called from downstairs.   “Honey,” I needed to say just one more thing, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know why everything has to be such a big deal for me.”

My words hung in the air.  What I said was accurate, and we both knew it.   Things are a bigger deal for me than for my husband.  If it was his cyst, he would grit his teeth and get it lanced.

But I’m not sure that my teeth know how to grit.  Whatever in the world that means.

****

The morning that I finally called the doctor’s office I had two dollars and two hours to myself.   It was just enough for a cafe au lait at a quiet coffee shop.  My mind was unsettled.  For a week and a half, I had tried every natural remedy I could google.  I had cornered herbalists in the aisles of health food stores.  I had prayed and asked my whole church to pray.  And here I was, considering the very situation I was desperate to avoid.  I needed distraction.  I looked at the coffee shop’s bookshelves.  There were forensic thrillers, thick romance novels, and Chicken Soup for the Women’s Soul.

Chicken soup it was.  I hide the cover behind my bag so that none of the other coffee shop patrons could see what I was reading, and the book fell open to the Serenity Prayer.  Really?  I almost closed the book, embarrassed by the level of cliche to which I had fallen.  But since I was more desperate than prideful at that moment, I read through the familiar words.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

The prayer pressed down on me like the mass of my cyst.  The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.  Serenity.  What does that look like when I’m so scared?  Am I just supposed to pretend?  But I had already tried to ‘change the things I can.’  I was out of options.  More words came to mind: There are some things that you can’t go over, under or around.  There are some things that you just have to go through.  Oh Lord, I breathed silently, if there is no other way, walk me through it.

And through it we went.

The thing about going through something is that all you really have to do is just keep moving forward.  One step, repeat.  I walked into the doctor’s office.  I told them I was scared.  I told them the story of the traumas I had already endured related to this cyst.  They referred me to a new surgeon, one who would take the time to go slowly.  I called her office.   I took some anti-panic medication.  I walked into the exam room.  I told my story again.  They listened.  They gave me extra numbing medication.  I insisted that my husband stay with me during the procedure.  I squeezed his hand, and the surgeon talked me though it.  One step at a time.  And then it was over.

I have decided that this is as close to serenity that I’m going to get.  And that’s okay.  For some of us, serenity is a hard thing to come by.  My prayer was answered, bit by bit, as I found just enough courage and just enough help to take the next step.  Just enough courage and just enough help to go through, and then, to come out on the other side.

And thank you, God, for the other side.


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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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You Know

The thought came unbidden.

“Oh God, I hope that it’s not someone I know.”

Immediately I was ashamed of myself.  What does it matter?  If it happened to a stranger, does that make what happened any less tragic?  Oh God…

On my lap a child wriggled as I read the article on my brother’s phone.  Zoo tragedy.  Wild dog exhibit.  Two year old.  Fell.  Mauled.

I shushed my brother and his girlfriend’s conversation, not wanting my own very-much-alive children to hear that horrible word and ask me… Mama, what does ‘mauled’ mean?

*********************************

It happened just before noon on Sunday, just up the road from the church where… at that moment… we were most likely singing.  It happened just up the road, at the zoo we know, and I could picture the very spot where that exhibit is open, the place where two-year-olds ask… “Mama, pick me up?”

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The blame comes as sure as the grief.  The zoo.  They shouldn’t have had that open space.  It was dangerous.  The dogs weren’t safe… they escaped in May… what were they thinking… valuing animals more than people… something like this was bound to happen.  The mother… why wasn’t she holding him more tightly… she shouldn’t have let him up there… this is why those child backpack/leash things aren’t such a bad idea… you’ve got to be careful with your kids.  The bystanders… why didn’t someone jump down and fight the dogs off?

And I’m sure that the zoo employees… the mother… the bystanders… are asking themselves even worse questions…

Even as parents like me remember times when we have lifted up our own children to see the doggies.

*********************************

At the zoo people gathered… screaming, crying…  and down the road we gathered… singing.  We didn’t know, but we do know.

We too have lost children.

We too have been to blame.  And not to blame.  It all gets mixed up when a tragedy happens.  What if I hadn’t lifted him up?  What if I had held her hand?  What if I hadn’t let him go out that night?  What if I had told her not to date that boy?  What if I had reached out to him when he was younger?  What if I had taken the time to listen to her?

What if I could have stopped this from happening?

If I know anything, I know this–the ‘what if” questions are unanswerable.

And we don’t sing because we know the answers.  We sing because we love and are loved anyway.  We sing because our hearts are breaking and the world is hard and sometimes we are part of what makes it so bad, and yet… and yet, there is grace enough.  We sing because we don’t know what to do and yet we do know what to do–say help, say thank you, say I’m sorry, say how-in-the-world-can-this-happen, say I’m angry, say I’m scared.  We sing because we believe that someone is listening to all this.

**********************************

Oh God, this mother… this father… this child… you know them.  You know them.  May this be enough for today.