Sweet Possibility and Aged Sorrow – A New Song

Quietly drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, I notice an important silence. In my swang song from church life, music was central.  Drinking in the solitude, I ponder the silence.

Music and those who share it have played a significant role in touching the tender places in my soul for most of my memory. When I fell in love with Jesus at church camp, it was the campfire songs with Mike and Heidi that beckoned.  In college I spent hours and more singing with my friend Beth while she strummed her 12-string guitar, our songs focused on the (Jesus saves version of the) spiritual quest. Church music was similarly important over the years but admittedly less compelling, most often carrying me just shy of that tender place where the soul touches the sky.  A notable exception was church music with my hero at the keyboard.

My hero was a classically trained musician. She was both gifted and practiced, but it was the twinkle in her eye more than her understanding of chord structures that made magic.  When asked, she would smile and say that her years playing in bar bands were invaluable in leading church music. Maybe so. Whatever the case, when she sat down at the keyboard, I found myself singing from that very tender spot.  And smiling. Blessed to share many years together, comfortable with the feeling of soul touching sky each Sunday morning, I grew and stretched and changed more than a little.  Some changes had push back, others catapulted me forward, but always the singing on Sunday mornings put my heart back in order.

For more years than I can count we shared a running joke about our work at church, that whether we stayed or left we did so together. But as is the case with all jokes, the humor points to a place of vulnerability. As I sit now without the music, finding contentment in a wonderland made possible by its grace but without its presence, I have to confess that I do not know where the music stopped nor why.  I remember tension and harsh words and unimaginable conflict, but I suspect that the music stopped before all of that. Only clear is that we are no longer in the same place and living life on life’s terms means doing so without a hero.

Recently I was privileged to sit in a church building and sing songs.  The experience was pleasant save the painful memory that it touched.  Awkward and slightly off-key I followed the musician, painfully aware that I was no longer at one with the sound, no longer upheld by the rhythm, no longer dancing with the wind. Rather than being at one in the moment, the moment pointed to place of loss and I wept. My instinct was to reach out for that which once was but the pathway is not open.  The gift of this yearning is not retrenchment but rather a reminder to dance with the rhythm that is now. External songs may join, inspire and strengthen but always the rhythm must be found within. Lest I miss the opportunity, I honor the gift of the instinct as I let it pass unanswered.

Taoism teaches that our pain is commensurate with that to which we cling. Given that impermanence is inescapable, true happiness is attainable only as we learn to hold with open hands allowing the bird to both land and alight at will. The beauty that graced my life as I sang with Beth in college was unsolicited gift and, as we graduated, left simply and without shame. Without the structure of planned passages, the losses that life brings sometimes get kabobbled in unhelpful ways and such was the essence of my loss of church.  The more we seek to keep things the same, the more the winds of time twist our grip and destroy what was once cherished. Such contortion is the essence of conflict, church and otherwise. Attempts to cling to the familiar drive wedges where bridges would otherwise gracefully sway. Nostalgia blinds us to the beauty of the moment as we reach into the mythic past. Today is imperfect but true, and only in this moment can we dance with the music that is our own.

This morning I watch the wind dance with a forgotten summer toy still hanging in the backyard.  The dance is unseemly but nonetheless bears witness both to yesterday’s unfinished business and to the present beauty of the breath; the contrast of emotions providing harmonic convergence. The grayness of this late December morning would be uninspiring were it not for the quietness of the day that allows the dance of the branches to be visible, a beautiful melody in minor key. In the movement to this passage of life I’ve tasted the giddy bliss of new love and the searing pain of loss, the dance of potentially conflicting emotions has become strangely comforting.  As I watch and ponder, I become aware that it is a new rhythm to which my feet now move. New and yet more primal than any that I’ve heard before, sweet with possibility and yet rich with aged sorrow, this is my song.

And it is very good.

A Holiday Junkie Confesses…

My name is Katy and I am a Holiday junkie.

It all started as a child with the wonder of Santa. The magic of Santa was utterly breathtaking and my parents were masterful at the subtle art of making a big splash one day each year. Truly I am grateful for this gift. As I young adult, I discovered the magic of singing Silent Night by candlelight with choirs in a darkened sanctuary. Rather than trading Santa, I kept them together and added the (truly unparalleled) magic of a newborn.

For more than two decades I danced through December as the minister-mom, creating magic at work and at home. I decorated the house on the first Sunday of Advent and planned social events throughout the season. I wrote pageants and Christmas liturgies and new verses to old hymns.  I sewed outfits, shopped ’til I dropped and baked cookies.  While delivering poinsettias to church members in nursing homes, I stopped at Costco for the roast-beast. Unquestionably the culmination of my holiday fervor was the first year with my beloved, sharing the magic of the lights with her on Christmas Eve and shouting “yes, yes, YES” when Christmas morning dawned with a marriage proposal. 

When I was in it, I was in it to win. I multitasked my way into holiday coma year after year, always trying to do it bigger and better. Bigger. And better. The expectation, the preparations, the expectation, the preparation, the expectation, the preparation.  At some point you discover that the growth, even when linear, is unsustainable and the weight of the expectation crushes the magic it would deliver. Now in the rearview mirror, the wave of emotions wax and wane between nostalgia, pride and even a wee bit of embarrassment.  As I dip my toes in a reflective mode, I feel no small amount of caution.

For me the magic is a drug, and no longer my drug of choice. I decorated a tree this year and bought presents for my beloved and our offspring.  I even made stockings for my children at school and shared with them a Santa-led treasure hunt. But as I shop and wrap and bake, I realize that I do so with more intention, more reserve, and less flourish.

I’ve wondered if my downsized attitude is reflective of melancholy or worse, depression.  I’ve looked as honestly as I know how at the losses that are real and tangible.  No longer a minister, now with grown children, the downsizing is inevitable and so too the grief.  The losses are real and I feel the wistfulness, the patina that is nostalgia, but beneath that thin layer is an uncanny sense of peace.  Quiet but true.  This is a season of letting go and the weightlessness that I feel at this particular juncture is unfamiliar and yet nonetheless gift.

It would be tempting to enshrine this holiday-lite trend with theological significance (read: smug self-righteousness).  Although I don’t much value the Puritan’s ban on Christmas, I have an affinity for the Quaker value of simplicity which eschews the drama of the holidays.  Yet I suspect that my experience with the dangers of holiday intoxication has less to do with theology and more to do with my addictive tendencies.  I can make almost anything into a drug, finding the bane in almost any blessing.

I held this question as I watched the children in my classroom navigate the emotional gauntlet that is a charity Christmas.  A colleague’s church had adopted our school and my wee ones were the clear winners, their desks piled high with gifts on the last morning before the holidays.  I might whine about remote control cars without batteries and white Barbie dolls, but these tiny cuts (though real) didn’t dampen the mood in the slightest. Showered with shiny plastic, the children squealed with delight.  Too I might point out that the wonder expressed was the same wonder I saw when we played with dry ice and again when we made crystal ornaments (read: Borax magic).  What was different in the wrapping paper craze is that the adults cheered while the children whirled, truly a beautiful moment that even my critical gaze couldn’t miss.

Moderation is hard to find and my instinct is to all or nothing.  My morning coffee is gone now and it is time to engage this Christmas Eve day with balance. I have a wee bit of cleaning and cooking yet to do, tasks that beckons gently. Grateful for the calmness of the morning, I give thanks for the many years of busy blessings that have made the pathway to this quiet place. The emotions are many but the balance is gratitude.

And so it is that the days begin to lengthen once again.  One day at a time.

Kindergarten Lessons: Holiday Grit

Pulling from my bag of religious education tricks, I danced through this holiday season in my elementary classroom teaching about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Christmas (with a nod to the Solstice).  My kids were pretty open but clueless as we talked about Hanukkah’s story of a weary battle and a wee bit of oil that spelled a miracle (they were most intrigued with the soldier coloring page).  Again they were open but blank slates as we talked about Kwanzaa and the importance of honoring tradition (though they made beautiful Kinara).  When we came to Christmas, every one of them had working knowledge from which to draw: Santa.

The beauty of Santa, of course, is that he comes not only with a bag of gifts but also with a list of naughty and nice.  Though none of us would wish to be found on the naughty side, we all take comfort that our nemesis will ultimately be held accountable.   This promise is a comfort to those who experience oppression and no child is without some taste of that vulnerability.

When reading about Christmas on the Arthur (pbskids.org) holiday site, however, it was the story of Jesus’ birth and not Santa that was noted and my kids were (without exception) confused.  Who is Jesus? And why is his birth important?  Without a second thought I shifted into storytelling mode and delighted in sharing with them the story of the first Christmas.  We were all reveling in the sweetness of the story when one little boy made the connection between this celebratory baby’s birth and the dude that hangs on crosses around people’s necks.  He checked for clarification.  My kids, completely unchurched but wise in the world, were curious about the connection between the baby Jesus of Christmas and the dead Jesus on the cross. When I confirmed that the identity the kids were mortified.  “But why?”

Removed from the confines of the church, aware that I was in private school teaching public school children, I was thinking fast on my feet about what would (and would not) be helpful to say.  I noted that the Romans killed Jesus, that he was a political dissident.  My little ones (ages 6-8) were clueless about the Romans, never mind dissidents political or otherwise.  As I reached for familiar Sunday School teachings, I realized that all of them smack of God-ordained suffering which is not a helpful message for trauma-recovering children.

Much of my discomfort lies in our traditional whitewashing of the Jesus narrative, a practice that is both antithetical to the story and unhelpful for my children.

As we light nativity scenes on civic lawns across our nation today, the power and passion of that story has been lost.  Set in context and viewed at least somewhat objectively, our Jesus narrative is a direct (if comical) affront to the stories of the day.  In a land where it was not uncommon for gods to cavort with humans, creating heroes in their wake, the Jesus-birth narrative is a parody.  Instead of golden nets we find a feeding trough; instead of adoring elephants, there are stupid sheep.  Neither Buddha nor Hercules, our hero is born destitute and quickly finds himself on the run from the law.  Thus our story unfolds, flaunting the dominant cultural narratives.  In its earliest incarnations the story of Jesus’ birth was quite literally an “F@*# you!” message to Roman culture.

The answer to my children’s question lies in the upside down offense of the Jesus-birth story, not the sweet little baby version.  Kissing Fish writes: “You don’t crucify people for telling others to be nice to one another, and to politely participate in the dominant culture.” The Jesus story, at least the pre-emasculated version, isn’t about being nice or polite.  The Jesus story is a retelling of the more ancient story of the prophets in which the source of life dares to care about how it is that we do (and don’t) share justice with one another.  The Jesus story is rich with the message of repentance that skips the worthless task of groveling and focuses on building lives of just compassion. The story dares to challenge the egocentric imperialism that gutted the Roman Empire and lays waste to our own.

And the cost to such truth telling is often life itself and so we edit the story to make it nice.  This same domestication has happened with all of our hero stories and was profoundly evident as the world paused this month to honor a remarkably nice Nelson Mandela.  Gone was the grit, missing was the prophecy, celebrated was the conciliatory spirit without the tough love that gave it power.

The bitter irony, of course, is that my little ones are with me precisely because they have not been nice. In the face of cruelty, they have raged.  The gritty part of the hero stories that we hide are the chapters that would give a righteously angry child a toe hold with which to connect and grow.

When my little ones dare to rage against the injustice of their lives, they are often quite literally expelled from both homes and schools.  In a culture where we place a high premium on nice, the insolence that my little ones spew is categorically unwelcome. In fairness, the rage is often misguided though well founded.  Never have I even imagined a group of young children more traumatized by adults pledged to care for them.  Add to the human failings a sprinkling of organic mental illness and it’s a pretty toxic mix.  Unfortunately the rage comes out seemingly unbidden and often directed toward those attempting to be helpful.  The language of nice is pretty lost in this context, for both student and teacher.

To be candid, I am grateful for the rage that bears witness to a spirit fighting back.  Nevertheless, I spend my days trying to teach “nice” and the emasculated version of the story would better suit my purposes as a classroom teacher.  Herein lies the dilemma: a cowed spirit is easier to manage in our American public education system but such a spirit cannot soar.

So which version of our heroes will we teach?