Advent, Music & Memories

Twelve notes. That’s all it took. Suddenly, I was 6 years old again, twirling around the living room with my father.

I took my younger son to see The Nutcracker and The Four Realms last night. I was a little shocked when the opening notes of the overture and the opening scene brought me to tears. Of all my father’s Christmas albums, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was one of my favorites. I still listen to that music every year. He read me the story of Clara and The Nutcracker more times than I could ever count. I knew the movie was a different take on the story. And yet, with those few opening notes all the innocent wonder came flooding back. It was as if I was hearing it for the first time. 

It’s funny how much music is tied to memories. The Rolling Stones and baking endless batches of chocolate chip cookies. U2 and hanging Christmas lights. Pink Floyd and writing end of term papers. And of course, it wouldn’t be Advent without O Come, O Come Emmanuel and my father’s alternate lyrics inducing church giggles.

I have so many good memories of Advent and Christmas. And yet, as I sit on this dreary first Sunday of Advent, I find myself feeling a little off. Last year, the holidays were a time of great apprehension. This year, things are more stable but there’s that part of me that constantly asks, “For how long?” Last year was the year without a Christmas. I don’t want to be so afraid of a repeat occurrence that I miss out of what good can be this year. So, I’ve tried the last couple days to listen to some of my old Christmas favorites. I mean the really old childhood favorites from my father’s collection. These are the songs I asked for over and over that have nothing but good memories attached to them. This is my attempt at being hopeful. The Holly and The Ivy, The Coventry Carol, What Child Is This?, Carol of the Bells, and The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns lead the playlist. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid with a great love of pipe organs, bells, and big choirs. 

What I’m finding is that trying to be hopeful is not really possible. Either I can cling to hope… or not. Either I can remain haunted by ghosts of unhappy Christmases past or I can let go and experience one full of joy, love, and wonder. The opening notes of the Nutcracker Overture caught me off guard in that movie theater last night because I went in not knowing what to expect. I was ready for something new, something unexpected, something wonderful and I was not disappointed.

Can I approach this season of Advent with that same kind of hopeful expectation? I suppose I shall have to wait and see.



The First Sunday of Advent: Hope

What is hope anyway?

I hope I sleep tonight. I hope she feels better tomorrow. I hope this new medication works. I hope work isn’t crazy on Monday. I hope the new U2 album doesn’t suck. I hope this new recipe turns out to be decent. I hope I didn’t forget to buy milk again. I hope we can get the Christmas tree up without drama. I hope I get the classes I want. I hope we don’t end up in another war. I hope the tax plan doesn’t ruin us.

I hope… I hope… I hope…

It seems like whenever I talk about hope what I really mean is a wish. A wish for the ways things used to be. A wish for the way things ought to be. A wish for things to be better than they are right now. Or sometimes even a wish for a different reality.

But is that really hope?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come.”

Dawn. A new day. But a new day doesn’t mean a new reality, merely a continuation of this one. Maybe things will change. Maybe they won’t. Maybe those things are beyond my control and all the wishing in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference.

But true hope is more than a wish. Hope in the dawn is understanding, as Dr. King said, “That the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.” Hope is a belief that God can and will bring good out of the realities of this life. Hope is rooted in faith. Hope grows in trust. Hope thrives in perseverance. Hope holds fast in the darkness. Hope is that which carries me when wishes no longer matter. Hope is that which sustains me when reality seems more than I can bear.

Advent reminds me to stay rooted in faith, to trust, to persevere, to hold fast in the darkness. Advent reminds me to hope for God has promised me that the dawn will come.

“The King shall come when morning dawns 
And light triumphant breaks, 
When beauty gilds the eastern hills 
And life to joy awakes.”

The King Shall Come 
By: John Brownlie


Small, Faithful Minority

candle_in_the_darkEvery man is called separately, and must follow alone. But men are frightened of solitude, and they try to protect themselves from it by merging themselves in the society of their fellow-men and in their material environment. They become suddenly aware of their responsibilities and duties, and are loathe to part with them. But all this is only a cloak to protect them from having to make a decision. They are unwilling to stand alone before Jesus and to be compelled to decide with their eyes fixed on him alone.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – “The Cost of Discipleship”

And then Jesus spoke to the disciples saying: Go forth and become the majority. Build for yourself a great nation. Create laws and ordinances to ensure that all of the nation obeys the precepts of that you, as the church, shall create. And those that do not obey or seem a threat, you shall punish, ostracize, and ban them. And I shall pour forth blessings upon that nation and they shall inherit the earth.

Wait… What?!  That’s not at all how scripture reads. Jesus came into this world 2017 years ago and we’re still fighting petty moral battles, much as the religious authorities were during biblical times. Why? Because we human beings are a damn stubborn bunch. We are also social creatures and thus, we seek safety in numbers. We prefer to be surrounded by like-minded people, with similar goals and aspirations. As American Christians, whether we admit it openly or not, we hope to secure our moral authority through attaining a majority rule. Somewhere a notion has arisen that we must establish a Christian nation. Is that really what Jesus taught? I don’t know about you but as a follower of Jesus, I don’t go to bed at night reciting the Pledge of Allegiance nor do I awake in the morning to meditate on the Bill of Rights.

Jesus told the disciples that they are salt and they are light. The kingdom of God is a tiny seed and a small bit of yeast. God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. Those who are blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who desire righteousness (note that says desire, not enforce), the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers (again, not enforcers) and the persecuted. Do any of those sound like a majority?

One uses a bit of salt to flavor the whole dish. If the whole dish were salt, it would be inedible. One lights a lamp to light a dark room. If the whole room were filled with flame, everything would be burned. Mustard seeds need room to grow into large bushes. Planted in a clump, the plants would be stunted, and likely not survive. Yeast alone cannot produce bread. It must be a tiny portion mixed into the dough.

It can be hard when the darkness becomes powerful and we begin to feel overwhelmed to remember that we were never told to subdue or conquer the darkness. Our calling is to stand against the darkness and we may fail at times. And when that minority feels impossibly small, we must remember that Jesus started, not with a conquering army, but with a wandering band of 12 average men who brought the flickering light of hope into a dark world. You can look around for the secure religious majority or you can decide with your eyes fixed solely on Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbors. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Do good to those who curse you. Defend the widow and orphan. You are light that holds back the darkness and gives hope to the people in darkness around you. Or not. Your choice.


Evening Came

I took some time, during this craziest time of my year, to make a silent retreat. It was not my first choice of weekends. Actually, it wasn’t even on my list of chosen dates. But after asking for nearly every weekend between the end of August and the end of February, the only weekend that had an opening was Halloween weekend. God’s decidedly questionable sense of humor: Come spend time with Me. How about Mischief Night?

I had four days of silence to pray, to read, to write, and mostly to listen. Except for Sunday, which was Mischief Night. God likes surprises. I hate surprises – as in with a capital H. After taking my morning tea back to my room, the last thing in the world I would have expected was a knock at the door and an order to leave the property for an undetermined length of time. Bizarre circumstances landed me and three nuns on the front porch of a home about a mile away and, by lunchtime, I was at a diner having lunch with 15 Catholic nuns of at least three different orders. My private silent retreat had given way to a lively discussion about ordaining women and the election. By the time lunch was over, we were allowed to return and I was back in the silence of my own room. Less than an hour before that knock on the door, I had been writing about the lovely energy that radiated from that same group of nuns. It spread across the dining hall like sunlight. To have ended up chatting with them over lunch under what was referred to as ‘never happened before’ circumstances was definitely God’s mischief.

The following day was Halloween and also the day I was heading home. I stood outside and watched the sun come up, soaking in the silence and watching the light explode across the water. I had my tea and then met with my director one last time before packing up to go home, carrying with me graces I had never anticipated. By nightfall, I was at the top of my little dead end street with my teenagers dressed in spooky costumes, playing creepy music, scaring some adults, and handing out candy to the neighborhood kids. The shifting of gears was little surreal but isn’t all of life about shifting gears? We juggle. We balance. We shift and shift again.

Over these last two weeks, shifting gears has taken on whole new meaning. My house has known elation as my Mom’s beloved Cubs finally won a World Series, ending her nearly 83 year wait. We saw large-scale celebratory gatherings in Chicago and wished we were there singing Go Cubs Go. A week later, we have known shock and trepidation as Donald Trump won the White House and incidents of violence and intimidation have broken out around the country. We’ve seen protest marches, some peaceful and some devolving into riots. I have friends and family who are happy with the election results and I have many friends and family who are deeply afraid of many things that an all-Republican government could bring. But most frightening of all is the sense that white supremacist groups and even racist individuals are feeling emboldened by this election. When I read that the Ku Klux Klan is throwing a victory parade because they feel this president-elect is a savior for the white race in this country, I am deeply alarmed. These are turbulent days. Evening has indeed come and we must all be on guard that, no matter which side we stand on, violence and intimidation must not become a part of our national norm. I find myself re-reading the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church must speak is that no midnight long remains. The weary traveller by midnight who asks for bread is really seeking the dawn. Our eternal message of hope is that dawn will come…Faith in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate. He can walk through the dark night with the radiant conviction that all things work together for good for those that love God. Even the most starless midnight may herald the dawn of some great fulfillment.

And so we shift gears. Baseball and Halloween are forgotten. We wait. We watch. We pray. We stand with those who are afraid. God is a God of surprises and sometimes mischief, but God is also our steadfast hope. So long as we stand for what is right and just, we will not stand alone. Evening has come. But morning will follow as it has since the very beginning of Creation.




Sandy Hook. A year later. Is that really all it’s been? One year? It feels like so much longer and yet… somehow it still feels like yesterday. My heart still skips a beat to see a police car outside either of my sons’ schools. Used to be a police car at a school meant a rather vague safety talk about not taking candy from strangers and maybe a chance to sit in the officer’s car. Now they’re there watching, on guard against nameless, faceless potential threats. Both boys have had real lockdown situations at their schools and while I find it unnerving, they take it in stride. That makes me want to scream, ‘No! No! No! This is NOT normal!’

A year has passed and I still have nightmares now and then. I skip past the month of December when I flip back through last year’s journal. It will be a very long time before I can look at some of those entries. Last year’s Christmas letter, which I was writing when the news broke, still sits unfinished, the half-formed thoughts that had been coming into focus remain scattered. The blog post I wrote in January still holds true. I find myself still very much out of answers. There is no undoing the horrible evil that was done that day. So the best I can do is to hug my kids tighter, to be quicker to tell them I love them, to do more of the silly little things that we love to do and to laugh as much as we can at the craziness life throws at us. Very simply, to bring as much good to the ones around me as I can and teach my kids to do the same.

The boys are at their father’s house for the weekend, leaving me time and quiet to reflect on this past year. There’s a new playground within sight of my backyard now, bright flamingo pink and dedicated to teacher Vicki Soto. I heard the chorus singing ‘Feliz Navidad’ when it was dedicated back in June. I could only stand and cry while over all of it a plane circled overhead pulling a banner that read: Live. Love. Laugh.

What else can we do?

I went there this morning at 9:30. It’s the first time I’ve gone to the park since the new playground was built. It’s cold today and the snow is falling. Three little pine trees have been decorated with pink and purple Christmas ornaments. I took photos but I found I couldn’t set foot beyond the paths that marked the edge of the playground. It was so perfect, so still, and somehow, I knew, it was not to be disturbed. Even the birds and squirrels, who are usually quite busy in that park, had chosen to be still. The few inches of snow covered the playground in a blanket of white and with more snow falling, there was an absolute hush in this place with the sign that reads: Where Angels Play.

As I walked back up the hill to my car, I saw a painted star nailed to one of the trees. It read simply: HOPE.

What further answer could I need?


Unfinished… A Reevaluation

Last Christmas I wrote:

Right now, I’m doing pretty well and most days it’s not too hard to be thankful but when the stuff hits the fan – and I know sooner or later it will – I want to be cheerful. I want to be appreciative.  And no matter what comes, I want to be thankful for the simple joy of cookies.

When I looked back over 2012 to see if that had been my reality this year, I looked beyond my journals to include my Facebook posts.  I post pretty much every day, all spontaneous stuff: some of it wacky and some of it quite serious, even controversial at times.  I’ve stirred up some real hornet’s nests and I’ve been called a lot of well, shall we say ‘interesting’ things this year.  I’m know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea.  I’m more like a shot of good bourbon, either you can handle me or you can’t.  

But in addition to some of the political and religious posts that riled people up, there were a lot of little moments I’d captured.  The terms Eugenism, Andrewish, Momish, and Somedoggy were born. Friends tell they can always count on my page for a lift. “Compile your posts into a book!” they tell me.  Well I don’t know that there’s enough there for a book, not yet anyway, but I was amazed at how many silly little things I’d captured over the year.  I saw how much joy I’d had over the past year, all of it in the smallest moments of everyday life.  

I had started to pull out a few of my favorite posts to include in my Christmas letter. That letter was sitting on my computer half-finished when the news of the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook broke.  Suddenly the look back over the year didn’t matter.  Only the right now mattered. I suddenly wanted my boys home with me and I wanted them home now, right that minute.  But Eugene wasn’t at school.  He was wrapping up a three-day field trip at Nature’s Classroom, 45 minutes away and wasn’t due back at school until 2:00.  Andrew was in class at his middle school and thankfully unaware of what had happened.  It took everything in me not to go the school and pull Andrew out early. I had to keep telling myself that my boys were okay.  I was the one who was a mess and I needed to pull it together before I picked them up.  It didn’t work.  I fell apart as soon as I could put my arms around them, take their faces in my hands and tell them how very much I love them.

Over this past week, I’ve tried to resurrect where I was going with that letter I’d started but I can’t.  Then I had a conversation yesterday with Eugene that gave me the perspective on what was in my way. I asked him what was his favorite part of his three days at Nature’s Classroom.

“Thursday night,” he replied without even stopping to think about it, “I saw three shooting stars on the night hike.” Then his voice changed, softened and saddened,  sounding much older than his ten years, “That was before…you know…before Friday.”

Before.  Yes, that’s what was eating at me.  Before.  And now there is nothing but After.  I want my Before back.  I want my sense of security back, however false it may be.  I want that piece of innocence back for myself and for my kids.  Dropping my boys off at school will never feel quite the same again.  But then again, picking them up will never be the same again either.  We’ve hugged tighter this week.  We’ve talked more about the good things in life, taking time to point out the goodness and kindness in people.

That now-scrapped Christmas letter had started off with the observation that our holidays had become a run-together mishmash my friend Kate dubbed ‘Hallothanksmas’.  I’d grown weary of hearing people say they just wanted the next holiday to start so they could ‘get it over with’.  But that was Before.  Now in this new After, we’re quicker with a hug, to say ‘I love you’, to say ‘I’m sorry’, to be considerate or to do some small random act of kindness and it makes me wonder, why did it take something so awful to bring out that goodness in us? 

The gifts of Advent are Peace, Hope, Joy and Love. What happened at Sandy Hook left me very shaken.  That unfinished letter ended up being a letter to myself, reminding me that Peace, Hope, Joy and Love have been very much present in my life this year but they could have been so easily overlooked.  It’s in taking the time to really see, to appreciate and to celebrate them that makes those gifts mean something.  So I will share one of those little moments with you.  This conversation could just as easily be one of my conversations with God,  myself as a child and God as the parent.

Eugene: “Why didn’t you tell me it was easier that way?!”
Mom: “I DID! You just don’t listen to me.”
Eugene: “I listen to you. I just forget to remember.”

Take time to listen.  Take time to remember.  Someday, it may matter far more than you realize.