26: Arrival of Hope

My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house.  Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines.  Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights.  Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights.  Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.

Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her.  We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home.  Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table.  Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle.  The first week just one purple candle was lit.  The second week a second purple candle was lit.  The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple.  Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.

Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table.  Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast.  But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day.  The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.

If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.”  Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that.  I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are.  Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.

So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year.  When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life.  Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.

December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back.  The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness.  They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world.  In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.

Week 1: Hope.  Hope is a funny thing.  I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere.  My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness.  Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be.  Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it.  I have lived my life largely in desperation.  The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.

What’s the antidote?  Acceptance I suppose.  Accepting one’s powerlessness.  Giving up control.  I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has.  Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby.  There was a turning point midway through the year.  I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight.  I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen.  I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship.  We had to do things differently.  We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us.  I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.  Things feel easier.  The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine.  Physically and mentally I feel great.  Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit.  And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this.  I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful.  So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope.  My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope

I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through.  I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection.  Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet.  Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be.  Afterall, Adventus means arrival.

 

24: Gratitude

“We have a tradition at our house before a meal.”  People start looking around nervously.  You can see the thoughts scrolling through their mind.

I didn’t think they were religious.
Are we going to have to hold hands?
We are praying!?!

Then we explain that we go around the table and say something that we are grateful for.  Of course, you can opt out.  No one ever does.  When we started this about a year ago, it was just Noel and I trying this before dinner.  I had just read The Happiness Advantage by by Shawn Achor.  Simple as it sounds, the premise of the book is that we can’t wait for this or that to happen before we let ourselves be happy.  We have everything we need right here, right now to be perfectly happy.  Instead of believing we will be happy when we become successful, our happiness is what causes us to be successful.  It’s all about our mindset.  Like many self-helpy type books, The Happiness Advantage encourages people to actively seek, notice, and verbalize things they thankful for.  In fact, it is so important that he made it Happiness Habit #1.  Gratitude, he says, is one of the best starting points for retraining our brain to look for the positive, rather than the negative as most of us have become accustomed to doing. When you know you’ll need to verbalize something every day to be thankful for, you start looking for things, and then seeing them all over.

When we decided that we were not going to put our gratitude practice on hold when we had guests, but instead to ask them to join us in the practice, we just assumed most people would say something superficial to get it over with.  That’s not what happened at all. Some of the most wonderful conversations at our dinner parties stem from our gratitude practice.  Men saying incredibly kind, wonderful things about their wives that have us in tears.  People talking about difficult things that has brought profound perspective.  And, of course, people sharing exciting news of promotions, new babies, new houses and so much more.  By starting with gratitude, we watch as the small talk falls by the wayside so real connections can form.  It is one of the things we are most proud of; creating a place and a time for people (many of whom don’t know each other) to come together and connect.

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are rich.

The bloop bloop of the bubbles bursting through the white foam on the top of boiling potatoes.  The whirr of the electric knife slicing through the turkey.  The plop of the canned cranberries falling onto a salad plate.  The whisper of the sugar being poured into the whipping cream and the whizzing of the handmixer.  The muffled sound of the adult’s conversation telephoned from the basement through the vents into the first floor bathroom. The splash of milk pouring into glasses.  The hummmm of the space heater.  The squeak of the basement stairs as grown ups came down with hot creamy casseroles and jello salads.  Holding hands dutifully reciting “Come Lord Jesus…”

Deer hunting, Thanksgiving and Christmas all meld into one big memory ball because they were all so similar.  Always at Grandma and Grandpa’s.  Always with all the whole family.  Always the same food.  Never a discussion about why.

Tradition.  “The handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another” says Miriam-Webster.  For better or worse, sheer repetition creates memories and with more repetition, tradition.  The sights and smells transport us to another place and time.  For some, the memories are warm and comforting.  For others, they are painful.  Whether great or terrible, most of us don’t know the source of these traditions.  There is little storytelling.  There is little intention.  “This is how we’ve always done it,” just has to suffice.

In our family, there was much that went unspoken.  People didn’t say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “forgive me.”  And at Thanksgiving people didn’t say “I’m grateful for…”  We were taught that “thank you” was an automatic response when someone held a door, or gave you a gift, or served your food.  It wasn’t something that stood on its own, a gift in itself because it came from a place so real and true.  None of this was with ill intent.  The opposite.  I suppose people felt these things were so obvious they didn’t need to be said.  Of course I love you, look at all I do for you.  Of course I’m sorry, look how I’m trying to fix it.  Of course I’m grateful, how could you not be with this family and this food at this table we’ve shared together so many times before.  Perhaps the Acts of Service people who taught us how to say thank you were fulfilled by the satisfaction of doing for others without needing to be recognized and fussed over, so it didn’t occur to them to teach us the Words of Affirmation that others in our life need from us now.

And so we have to learn.  Learning takes practice. This Thanksgiving, I am very grateful that the practice we nervously tried last year means that this is not the first time in a year I’ve thought about all the things I’m truly grateful for.  Now I can really focus on the traditions and creating traditions of our own, because the day-to-day things I am grateful for have been at the forefront of my mind every day for the last year.

Sincerest wishes to you and yours for a happy, tasty, tradition and gratitude-filled Thanksgiving.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thanksgiving

22: Opening Day

Did you just think “Brewers?”  City folk.  I tell ya.  “Opening day” in November in Wisconsin *should* mean just one thing.  Deer hunting.

I grew up in a small Wisconsin farming town.  Deer hunting, in the heavy Midwestern accent of Brittany Murphy in Drop Dead Gorgeous, “it’s just whatchya do.”

Mid-November had a collective anticipation that I have never felt living anywhere else.  There was an energy, a buzz.  Boys in my class fresh out of hunter’s safety eagerly turning in their absence slips so they could hunt with their dad on a school day.  Taverns around town with big banners welcoming hunters.  The cool radio station playing “Da Turdy Point Buck” during prime morning time.

My dad digging his blaze orange out of the cedar closet in the basement and laying out all of his gear.  Huge, puffy orange overalls, an oversized coat and a fuzzy hat.  Sliding his deer tag into that plastic sleeve that he pinned to the back of his coat.  Those giant snow boots, often out for the first time this season.  Pulling his rifle off the gun rack above his cluttered workbench.  Taking it apart, cleaning it at the kitchen table with ESPN in the background. The soft zippered case leaned up against the refrigerator to grab on the way out of the house.

My mom, sister and I had a different ritual.  We packed our bags to make the long one-mile journey to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the weekend.  The aunts and cousins would eat blueberry waffle breakfast for dinner and then the kids would play in the basement and the upstairs bedrooms in pajamas while moms and aunts prepared sugar cookie dough in the cramped kitchen using every possible horizontal surface.  The next day Grandma and Grandpa covered the long table in the basement with a vinyl tablecloth, pulled the folding chairs from underneath the stairs, and turned on the scary hot space heater.  Moms rolled and cut out shapes from the sugar cookie dough as baked cookies went into tupperware containers.  After “hot dish” and white bread with peanut butter for lunch, kids were put to work frosting cookies.  Icing that was more food coloring than anything else slathered all over stars and santas and snowflakes with crispy brown edges.  Colored sugar glitter was immediately everywhere except on the cookies.  Inevitably one kid would hog the red hots so you could never get a Rudolph nose when you needed it.  “Oops, this one broke.  I guess I have to eat it,” meant getting sick stuffed with cookies.  And despite all the anticipation of the main event, within an hour one by one the kids would abandon our posts as this one and then that would find a toy laying on the basement floor they’d rather play with.  Sometimes the dusk hours would be interrupted by a blustery cold blast and then hunter appearing at the top of the steps to yell down into the basement that so-and-so got a deer.  Of course we all had to go out into the driveway to admire the latest kill that by now was strung up inside the garage before the hunters left us again to celebrate their masculinity, surely with beer.  By early evening everyone was gathered in the living room watching a Christmas movie on video with root beer and popcorn in our hands.  Grandpa periodically getting up from his chair to turn on the dust-buster close at hand to take care of all the kid crumbs we left on the living room floor.

I don’t remember the last year we did this.  I’m sure I didn’t know it would be the last time.  It’s funny, the things you don’t realize are becoming memories.

“Memory is a net; one finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook; but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

I suppose that is why it is important to be purposeful to create traditions and rituals.  You don’t know what fish will be caught in the net.

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