That Little Tree

Small ceramic Christmas treeThat little tree.

I remember it in my childhood bedroom. It carried the soft glow of Christmas from the rest of the house into where I slept. My mother had crafted it carefully and lovingly, intending it to be a gift to me, in a ceramics class that was her creative release. Though not inherently worth any money, it’s a fragile little tree, and I’ve always handled it with the utmost care. The memories that it carries with it, the intention with which it was created, endow it with a value far beyond any monetary appraisal.

I have carried that little tree with me everywhere I have lived since. I pack it away with special care at the end of each season, and I unpack it again when the temperature begins to fall. Perhaps because it always had a special place in my bedroom all of those decades ago when I lived in my parents’ home, it has always lived in my bedroom since.

I remember every detail of the Christmas decorations in our home. There were flickering lights, music almost constantly, and gold garland hung with artificial apples that framed our living room. I particularly remember one circular, flickering Santa that somehow gave the softest presence to a room when it hung in the window, overlooking a snow-covered lawn. The decorations mattered less than the feeling of a solid foundation to which they contributed. My family always loved Christmas, because of the central part that it represents in the history of our faith, as well as the generosity to which it gives occasion. Of all the holidays of the year, this was the one to which we gave the most energy, and so the close of each year was a special, peaceful, even holy time. I’ve carried that into my adulthood, not only as a nostalgic recollection, but as a practice.

Or, at least I have tried.

I wonder how these same sorts of memories are being formed for our daughters, what will stand in the fronts of their minds about Christmas when they are my age. At least during the Christmases of my youth, the opportunities, it seems, for the formation of important memories were carefully crafted. I’m not sure that we accomplish that. With the number of times that we have moved over the past few years, the pace of life that is at times unmanageable despite or best efforts, I fear that this intentionality slips from our grasp, however good our intentions.

Perhaps, though, I’m mistaken. Perhaps those opportunities for memories as I grew up were not crafted at all, but are the sorts of experiences that create wonderful memories on their own, however unplanned, facilitated only by the fact that I am fortunate enough to have a stable nuclear family. Should that be the case, then the opportunities for these foundational memories are simply present for our children, and I can only hope to make them as positive as I can.

When our oldest daughter, now six, was three years old, she gazed with fascination and a certain degree of longing at that little tree. I promised her that, when she was grown, she would inherit the tree. She spoke often of that promise for a while, though she doesn’t really mention it of late. I wonder what that tree will mean when I pass it on to her?

I wonder if I can influence that meaning at all.

I’m the Guy who Ruined Christmas

Christmas tree standing in my favorite apartment from years agoYes, it was me. Through a series of unfortunate events, it was ultimately my fault that Christmas occurred only as a cobbled-together quasi-event this year instead of that magical time with family for which we all hope.

Why, yes, it does sound like there’s a story behind that, doesn’t it? And it goes a little something like this.

While I managed to stay mostly involved in traditional Christmas activities such as tree-trimming and…well, mostly tree-trimming…I found myself so busy with work and the demands of a myriad of health concerns this year that I missed most of the gift-buying. Karen sort of filled me in on what we were getting the children and family members this year, and I managed to squeak out enough time to find what I wanted to buy her on Amazon and keep an Advent-reading plan. When I realized that Christmas was only a week away, and that we had, as always, plans to travel for the week to see my side of the family, I hadn’t even booked our travel yet. My to-do list exploded. I was every stereotypical over-worked American. My head was spinning with this really cool post that I had wanted to write here on the first Sunday of Advent (obviously that never materialized), and somehow time had become stagnant around that moment that never happened. I still thought I had three weeks when I had only days.

While I haven’t written about it here, this is has been far from a banner year for my health. I fought through pneumonia in April, an event which left me with two other medical conditions that are possibly long-lasting and took most of the year to diagnose at a considerable expense. Add to that the random cold, and not one but two broken bones (I’m not even making this up), and I was hoping that, as I victoriously crossed off my final item of prep to take our trip three days before leaving, that the misfortunes were at an end and I would be healthy to keep our plans.

I really should have known that wouldn’t be the case.

The cold that the girls carried home turned into bronchitis for me. Still, I thought, we can push through. Then we had to move our travel plans one day due to unpredictable New England weather. I made the calls, changed reservations, took some medicine and kept going. The morning that we were scheduled to leave, the rental car was in the driveway and bags were (mostly) packed.

And I could barely move.

Instead of traveling to see family, I spent Christmas Eve at an urgent care. By Christmas day, we were placed under house arrest by another storm. Even though we had opened our Christmas gifts early in anticipation of leaving, we awoke (me fever-stricken) on Christmas morning right here, in our apartment, having kept only the stockings that “Father Christmas” packed for our daughters as the only surprise. Instead of spending Christmas with their grandparents in person, the girls spent Christmas with them over video. At this point, we considered leaving the next day. Surely I would have been well enough by then (I wasn’t, incidentally), but that plan, too, had to be abandoned as a shifting forecast on the other end of the week would have placed us in the likely scenario of being at our destination for only one day before needing to turn homeward.

We returned the rental car, cancelled the hotel reservations, and called it a loss.

Now, obviously none of this could have been helped. Even if I had managed to somehow have kept myself healthy (given the year I’ve had, I would say that my best efforts would have fallen flat), any modality of travel that we had chosen would have been halted by the weather we experienced. Still, my parents haven’t seen their grandchildren in person in over a year now, and the level of guilt that I’m carrying for being the cause of that this year is a weighty burden. This says nothing of the fact that I really wanted to have some conversations about specific things with my father in person, and to just enjoy spending holiday time with family. While my condition (or at least the one that prevented us from traveling) has mostly resolved as I write this, I have spent every day this week (whenever I wasn’t running the snow-blower, that is) thinking wistfully of the laughter and warmth that we would have had with family had things gone according to plan.

In doing so, I’m reminded of exactly how blessed I am that there was family waiting, even though that waiting went unrequited this year. Many cannot say that. The loneliness that many face in this season I cannot fathom, and I attempt to assuage my conscience for having no time to confront this by giving to charities and church outreaches.

Still, after our power came back on from the first storm, I spontaneously ran around the room with my soon-to-be two-year-old on my back, as she bounced and giggled in my ear, and I realized that, despite the inevitable outcome of our best-laid plans, the most important things were here, easily within reach, if just a bit messier than I would have liked. The Incarnation that we celebrate over these next days has breathed life into our moments in the most common, and most miraculous, of ways.

I hope that your Christmas was peaceful.

Quote

Continuing the Christmas Season

“Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all his love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands for you?”

-Madeleine L’Engle

Holiday Retrospective

Somewhere around the second year of our marriage, Karen and I decided that we should have a family computer. We had both been Mac users for a long time, and we each brought our grad school laptops to the marriage, which were beginning to become dated and underperform basic tasks. So, we purchased a desktop Mac into which we consolidated both of our old laptops. All of the things from grad school and earlier transferred into users on the new machine, and life moved forward.

That computer lasted us until only months ago, at which point we upgraded. The users on our old computer? Transferred right over, meaning that everything from grad school and earlier is still there. The end result of this is that my email application has a habit of storing “archive” messages from forever ago. When it does so, it stores everything in the email conversation…the original email, the replies, every part of the thread. Entire conversations that I had long forgotten about there at your fingertips when you find yourself wasting time (as I was a few weeks ago), and wanting to browse through the past.

Karen and I were part of the same theatre group for some time, and there are a lot of conversations with other members preserved in these records. Conversations with members of our old faith community about the things that were going on in our lives. I miss those friends, with all too many of whom I’ve fallen out of touch.

I love the opportunity to live in different places. You never know when you move to a new place if you’re going to like it or not…sometimes it’s a wonderful experience, sometimes a terrible one, but always an experience from which one grows. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking that I’ve only one or two big moves left in me. Partly this is because I’m starting to feel old, but I think that this falling out of touch is a large part of the problem. After moving back to the South recently, we’ve had the chance to re-connect with many old friends that now live only a few minutes or hours away instead of all the way down the East coast. I’ve cherished those opportunities, but I’ve discovered, as well, just how dynamic all of our lives are.

I mean, that works out well in theory…we know we’re not static, that our experiences and relationships are always altering the way we navigate through this journey called life…but it’s much more striking in practice. As we’ve re-connected with old friends, I’ve noticed profound differences at times, even to the point that I’m not certain friendships would have formed between some of us had we met now. I’ve also heard the stories of what has transpired in their lives since last we were in regular contact, and I understand, at some basic level, why these changes have happened. I’m only left wondering how it is that I’ve changed, how different I must seem to these old friends.

Advent is winding down, and Christmas in mere days away. I’ve lived long enough, and traveled around enough, to have friends in many places. Most of them I won’t speak to before Christmas aside from cursory greetings on cards, but there are days when I carry them all with me heavily through the day.

It’s frighteningly difficult to remember at times how interconnected our lives are. Today, we are interconnected despite geographical distances. I hope we can all slow down this week and remember each other, because that’s a part of what the Holiday Season is about.