I'm curled up by my tree right now, listening to Mannheim Steamroller. I just finished reading some passages from the New Testament. I feel close to a loving God, aware of his blessings and grace in my life. The sounds of children are filling our house--all of them are home with us after a semester of separation. Scented Christmas candles are burning, and those smells mix with the Christmas cookies baking to create a very pleasant, cozy background. I'm working on my third novel. I got the first draft for the cover of my second novel yesterday--which is like Christmas coming early. Perhaps most of all, I love and am loved by an amazing woman who make me happy. She just brought me a sample of the cookies she is baking for our neighbors. Life is good. The Ghost of Christmas Present has been a regular and cheerful visitor at our home this season.
Why do I say all of this?
Partly because I'm grateful for it and I think it's important and healthy for the soul to express gratitude.
But I say all this for another reason. This Christmas is merry and happy--but it's the continuation and fruition of many years of preparation. I realized that the blessings of this Christmas have grown from seeds that were planted many years ago--in ground that did not always seem very promising.
The satisfaction I feel in my children is deep and enriching beyond what I can express. But it was not that many Christmases ago when we had a squalling, screaming infant who would not stop crying. He interrupted our sleep and we didn't think our lives would ever be our own again. The same college freshman who now fills us with joy just by being home with us was much the same. I remember his first Christmas very well--rocking him for hours and hours, singing to him until my throat was dry and cracked, trying desperately to lull him to sleep and get him to stop crying. I remember driving with him through the foothills of Provo, UT on Christmas Eve, hoping the car would make him stop crying--even for a little while. I remember our frayed nerves and nearly despondent hearts as we drove past house after house. The people in those houses, we thought, must have perfect lives. They were warm and cozy and didn't have a screaming baby. The despair that tired parents feel in moments like this is hard to articulate.
My marriage is likewise a source of great joy and satisfaction. My wife is a warm and loving woman. She is loyal and supportive beyond anything I could have hoped for. She is beautiful and intelligent and she fills my life with light. Somehow, she loves me. But it wasn't always easy. I remember many Christmases that were difficult as we worked through the inevitable problems and challenges of married life--times when there was plenty of tears and heartache for both of us. Our marriage is very happy now but that took time and work, patience, tears and years of unstinting, unremitting, unyielding effort, mixed with the determination to make it work.
God is a warm and loving reality in my life. But there were other Christmases when illness ravaged my body and emotions, when I cried out for healing. Christmases where I wept bitter tears for my weaknesses and failings and sins, for the ways I had hurt others or myself. Christmases where I could go on only because I hoped that what we were celebrating was true. Christmases where I cried out for God's mercy and grace not because I deserved it, but because I needed it so urgently.
I have been blessed to be able to write books for fun, and to have them published. It is little-kid-on-Christmas-giddy exciting to see words you labored over become a real book, to have people you don't know read it. It's jump-up-and-down exuberance to get a note from one of those people--even if you don't make any money at it. But, I spent a lot of years--many, many years sitting in front of a Christmas tree writing term papers and 30 page essay final exams, cramming for finals, grading papers for tenured professors, and feeling the special agonies that a student feels at the end of the term. For years, my Christmases were not my own as I struggled to complete a dissertation. I also remember the rejection notices, the agonies that my book would never be published, never find a home.
We have a comfortable living. Not much extra, and it always seems we are only a few paychecks and car repairs away from disaster. But we have a snug cottage with a roof over our heads and food on our table. Literally--our table groans with the kindness of my students and their parents as incarnated in treats and holiday food. But I remember years when things were very lean. When Christmas was entirely dependent on the kindness of anonymous strangers. When I was the only teacher who didn't receive a gift. When we had to decide between health insurance and the light bill.
What has made the difference between the years in the past? The years of leanness and difficulty and the current happy time? I don't for a moment discount the grace of God. To do so would be to discount the effect of the sun on the flowers. Without any doubt, the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem benefitted us and has generated much of the energy behind our blessings. But there is something else that I think is important. Two things, actually.
First of all are the choices. The choice to work through problems in a difficult marriage. The choice to keep pushing through difficult years in academia. The choice to keep having children even when things were rough. To try one more publisher. And so on. Each of those bleak memories is a crossroads, where we could have taken a different path. I'm glad we didn't.
It occurs to me that the good things in life we have come as a result of choices and effort and a lot--so very much--of patience. But--the rewards seem only to come after a very long struggle sometimes. There will be plenty of times when letting go is tempting, in fact, when it seems the only reasonable option. But if you want the reward, you have to keep going a little longer. The blessings will come. We do eventually reap what we sow. I fear that we have moved away from understanding that profound truth as a society.
The problem is that when I needed to make those choices, I didn't have the experience I have now. I was nowhere near wise or mature enough to make the choices that would bring me happiness, or to understand how much joy they would bring. And it's hard to choose joy in the future if it means difficulty in the present--especially when you don't know how much joy.
Fortunately, I had traditions, which were the way my ancestors were able to pass their wisdom on to me, and the direction that comes from my religion. Even though I couldn't know how happy these choices would eventually make me, I made the right decisions out of duty, deference, and obedience. The good news is that it doesn't matter why we make good choices. As long as we make them, it generally works.
I love the idea of choices, of human agency. There is so much I can't control in my life and the lives of my loved ones. But I've learned that I always have choices. And looking at life as a series of choices empowers one and banishes feelings of helplessness. The act of choosing is an act of spiritual creation and seems to bring hope, strength, and resources. That is another truth I fear we have lost sight of culturally.
The second thing that made the difference were people. A thoughtful professor who made a difference in my life. A skillful and compassionate editor for my dissertation. The kind people who provided Christmas for our children. A loving and inspired bishop. Warm and supportive colleagues. The list goes on and on. Now that we are in a good place, I'm trying to be one of these people--to do for other people what was done so often for us. And there is great joy in that.
I had a recent experience I think is illuminating and I want to discuss it. At a micro level, it's about teachers. But I think it can be enlarged to a macro-level discussion about all of us.
Here is the situation: one week I was running a theatre camp. I got a call on the second day from a parent who was upset because their child had come home sad. No one had been actively unkind to the child, but the child does not know the other campers well and was feeling left out.
The camp had started on Monday and this was Tuesday, so there hadn't been a great deal of time.
I didn't fault the parent for being concerned. It's very difficult to watch your child hurting. The phone call, as far as I can tell, was simply to make me aware of the situation. I don't think the parent was suggesting that it was my fault. So, although I felt it was a bit premature, I didn't mind the call. Still, I did perceive a subtext that somehow it was someone's fault--either mine or the other children.
The next day, I structured the entire camp around activities I specifically designed to help the child in question find a friend. I did that even though there was other work I wanted to accomplish in our time together.
The child in question was nice, but not very outgoing and tended to wait for others to initiate conversations and so forth, so that made it more challenging. So during a break, I asked three separate children to be this child's buddy.
At the end of the break, a game that they were playing really clicked and this child was laughing and squealing with other children--completely immersed and included. I decided to let the break go on--again, even though we had a performance on Friday for which we needed to prepare.
So, essentially, I re-ordered the entire day of camp and threw my plans out the window for the specific cause of helping one child. I was happy to do that. I'd do it again--but that parent will never know.
To be fair, I did get an appreciative email later that mentioned the daughter had a better day. But, the parent did not feel the positive in the same urgent, visceral way as the negative. This is ironic because far more effort was exerted to cause the positive than the negative.
I'm NOT critical of the parent. This is fundamental human nature. We tend to feel much more strongly about the negative than the positive. We are far quicker to complain than praise. Morever, the parent really had no way of knowing how much trouble I went to for their child, so there's no way to be properly appreciative. What I did was invisible. And that's fine.
But, I think this is a pretty common thing. When things go badly we complain and act as if it is because someone has done something wrong. When they go well on the other hand, we tend to assume that it's just the natural order of things and don't usually express appreciation.
The reality, however, is probably exactly opposite. In a wold ruled by entropy, it is far more likely that things going wrong can truly just happen. Things going right, on the other hand, are far more likely to be consequences of someone's careful work.
That's certainly true in a school and I suspect in other arenas as well.
Just a thought.
The house is quiet tonight. I'm here alone. My family is all at the Titans game (thanks to the generosity of two separate friends). I had a Church commitment, so I didn't go. (Hello to Dorothy, by the way!)
I'm sitting in front of our Christmas tree, listening to my beloved Manheim Steamroller Christmas album. It's peaceful and warm. The lights are out except for the tree and some little Christmas village pieces. I just squinted at the tree, because I like the way it makes the lights blurry. Doing that reminded me of another time I squinted at the lights.
If my life were a movie, the camera would show me in the living room, then it would show me looking at the tree. Then it would zoom in on the tree and the lights would get all blurry as I squint. It would zoom back out and poof! It's a flashback.
I'm in a small, dingy apartment in New York City squinting at Christmas tree. I'm skinner, less gray and less happy. It's about nine years ago. I'm sitting by the tree typing. But I'm not checking emails or writing blogs or books. I'm frantically typing a term paper for my History of Education class. I'm hurrying because I still have to do papers and exams from American Theatre, and Dramatic Theory and Criticism. If memory serves, I will type around 70 or 80 pages between final exams and term papers.
I'm working full-time, going to school at NYU in the evenings, and trying to fill a demanding Church assignment.
The house is quiet because my family is off somewhere having fun.
I'm fighting depression and pretty major anxiety. I'm exhausted and fatigued, feeling overwhelmed with financial, academic and personal challenges that I won't go in to here. I can't describe the pressure and stress I feel. It wouldn't make sense to anyone else. But to me, they were terrible.
The camera zooms back out. I'm in my own home now. I have a wonderful job that I love. My degree is finished, bringing a sense of accomplishment and security. Finances remain a challenge, but things are more stable than they were then.
I'm typing for fun and enrichment, not on a deadline, and I'm typing using wireless internet!
I don't know what future Christmases will hold--what memories will be there when I squint at the Christmas tree next year and the next. But I am grateful for the peace and happy circumstances this year. Things aren't perfect. They never are, and never will be. But, I am grateful that they are better than they used to be!
Wherever you are, I wish this for you: that this Christmas is happier and brighter than last, and that next is happier and brighter than this year
Four years ago, we had just brought home a baby--our fifth child. That is a wonderful event, but every parent knows that it can get stressful very quickly. And for us, it did.
Our last bit of progeny, the exclamation point at the end of our family, issued forth on November 1st. We celebrated and brought him home from the hospital. That night, our four year old got the stomach flu. I spent the night with him, holding the bowl so he could throw-up literally every hour on the hour. Meanwhile, Mere was in another room trying every trick we had heard of to get our new baby to stop screaming and sleep.
The next day, the septic tank stopped working and started backflowing into our bathtubs, necessitating emergency pumping and digging.
It was against this backdrop that our child came into the world.
The plumbing started working again, and the stomach bug passed.
However, the baby didn't stop crying. He cried. And cried. And cried.
All night long. Every night. And most of the day.
Days and nights muddled and blurred into one long bout of crying. He just kept going.
We were exhausted (this was when I became addicted to diet Dr. Pepper, for those are curious)--physically and emotionally. These were difficult days and dark nights. There is a quiet desperation that begins to set in very quickly.
Happily, something happened.
The parents and other teachers at my school stepped in and stepped up.
Within a few days of the birth, by the time my Mother-in-Law went home, the meals started coming. Every night there was a meal--including weekends--and Thanksgiving. Several parents got together and provided our Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was assembly line--each person sent a different item--and it was a little different than our traditional menu items. But, it was one of the nicest things that anyone has ever done for us.
We literally didn't cook until Christmas break that year, and it was basically one long, six week Thanksgiving feast, a celebration of abundance from loving friends.
Eventually, the baby stopped crying (although not for a long time) and our world slowly returned to equilibrium. But the practical kindness and generosity of colleagues and parents provided a balm that helped smooth the difficult transition. Their tangible expression of love helped sooth our souls as well as feed our stomachs.
This year, as we gather for Thanksgiving, we have a delightful four-year-old who now brings a net-increase in the happiness and joy in our home. Our circumstances have improved, and we'll have all our traditional family dishes. But, I remember with such gratitude the year that thoughtful friends saved Thanksgiving.
Okay, full disclosure: to be perfectly honest, there are times when my students are unruly and squirrely and make me want to pull my hair out, slit my wrists, or become a bagger at Kroger. Not many times, but they do exist. I say that simply to balance out the glowing, gushing post that follows.
A few weeks back, I wrote a post about things that make my soul sing. As I work to become a more grateful, loving person, I'm trying to make it a point to more frequently savor and enjoy the good things about my life, so I wanted to post some more of the things that bring me such joy that my soul begins to sing. On Friday, I left work feeling this way, feeling happy and satisfied because of my students.
These quirky, wonderful little people are straddling the two worlds of childhood and adulthood. Even the oldest among them is little more than a very large child, while even the youngest are inexorably hurtling to maturity. I think it is the confluence of youth and maturity that I enjoy so much about adolescents. They are young enough to be rather sweet still, innocent, even, but they are old enough to be able to do sophisticated work, to have well-developed senses of humor and so on.
Friday, my 8th grade chorus sang "Winter Wonderland" with precise, rich harmonies and attention to dynamic detail that was simply beautiful by any standard. I've been working with them since they were in 6th grade, and so hearing them sing like that is a triumph on many levels. We then worked on "Do You Hear What I Hear?"--a challenging piece for their age. In spite of the challenges, I had chills a number of times and got teary once. In fact, I had to turn and pretend to write something on the board as I don't want them to know they can wring tears out of my stern heart of stone. They sang like young adults and it was magnificent.
They did so well that I let them have the last few minutes of class to go outside and run around on the playground. There were two other classes out there as well--a 1st and a 2nd grade class, but I wasn't worried even a bit about my kids behaving appropriately.
I watched my students in the golden light of a crisp fall afternoon, playing kickball and spinning in circles and playing tag and four-square. They ran and kicked and laughed--the childlike sides of their current developmental states becoming dominant at that moment. I hope I am never so old or dour that I cannot be moved to great joy when watching children run and play in the sunshine.
After school, we had play practice and as I put my 11-13 year old actors through their paces, I marveled at them again. I am blessed with wonderful students, and so I have the luxury of being able to be a little relaxed with them--we work hard, but we can have fun as well. I love their senses of humor. They are old enough to get irony and dry humor, but not too cool to be ashamed of laughing unabashedly, or thinking something's funny. They like to be teased at this age, and will frequently tease me back--sometimes coming up with something really witty and clever.
I basked in how hard they worked to get this play ready. Fiddler on the Roof is not an easy play, especially for kids of this age. But they are such good sports and such good workers--it makes me happy and proud to watch them. They are also growing to the point that they can do some extraordinary choreography, sing demanding passages, and really, and truly act.
They are sweet kids, smart kids, funny kids. Yes, they talk too much and sometimes they make me think that a monastery in Tibet sounds like a good idea. But the warmth and energy they bring to my life, their laughter and sincere affection, along with the quality of their work--these things make my soul sing, and make my spirit swell with gratitude to be around them. When they do good work, when I see them mature and grow, when they come back to see me years later, or, as in the case of one sweet student yesterday, very sincerely invite me to show up to a birthday party (I thought it best to decline, but still, it was a nice thought!)--well, then sings my soul!
The night before I left on my mission (which, for those who may not know is something that young men and women do in the Mormon church. Between the ages of 19-25, you leave your home and family for 2 years and go teach the gospel of Jesus Christ), there was a terrific thunderstorm. I stood out on my front porch and watched the lightning flash over the Great Salt Lake. It was a stunning display of nature's power and I remember feeling quite awed by it. I believe I sang a few verses of "How Great Thou Art" to the accompaniment of the rolling thunder as the Lord's power was displayed.
I know everyone in the world LOVES that song, and so, being the contrarian I am, I'm reluctant to say that I love it, too. But I do. Actually, I don't really like the whole song that much, but I love the line, "Then sings my soul." That is a wonderful lyric and it expresses perfectly a feeling that comes over me from time to time--a feeling of peace and well-being, a feeling of a full measure of joy that goes beyond simply being happy and infuses every bit of my soul.
One of the unique teachings of the Church is that the soul is not a synonym for the spirit, but that the soul is the spirit and the body combined. I like that idea for many reasons, but one of which is that it is different from the idea that the body is evil and needs to be loathed and mistrusted.
I love that idea because it is often through my physical senses that my spirit is taken to the heights that lead my soul to sing.
I'm sitting in the crisp, cool evening--an evening that is all you would want a September evening to be. I'm watching the sunset over the trees in the forest that abut my backyard. I'm watching my children play, accompanied by the birds singing good night and the crickets and frogs just starting their conversations.
I think of where we lived ten years ago--in a tiny apartment on a dirty, smelly street in Brooklyn. The walls of our apartment were thin and we could hear our neighbors alternating between fights and parties. I rode the bus and train for hours and hours a day to work and then to school.
It was a lot of work to get here--and it is a lot of work to stay where we are. But the Lord is good. The crickets sound crisper and the stars in the sky gleam brighter because we had to work so hard and wait so long to have a house of our own. The fact that it's small doesn't seem burdensome, it just feels good to have our own home.
My soul is singing tonight, as moved by the peace and tranquility of a sunset as I was by the tumultuous storm so many years ago. I had no idea when I left home to go on a mission, what a difficult adventure my life would be. I had no idea the storms that would crash around me. We have not been spared our trials and difficulties, and there were moments when I cried out and asked why the Lord had forsaken me.
But I also had no idea how beautiful the calm of a fall evening would be. And that is reason for my soul to sing.
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