The Christmas season was approaching and she felt an overwhelming sadness. The world around her seemed sad too. Distressing news abounded- from the biggest of stories to the heart-breaking ones that few ever heard. Even the weather seemed dismal at times: cold and dreary.

One star-lit night, she found herself driving a familiar road. It was cold again and her ears were red from the sting of the frigid evening air. Her nose right down to her toes were froze. And she sighed as she turned the key in the ignition and started up the engine. Frost sparkled on the floor mat, reminding her yet again of all she was leaving behind. Warmth, light, family.

As she drove, she looked at the houses, cozy and inviting. Lights shone through curtained windows and it appeared as though all the rest of the world was tucked away for another night. All except her.

She noticed to her right a window in a smallish house where a half-hidden Christmas tree twinkled with white lights. And when she saw that tree, she felt an immediate burst of irritation rise from within. “Who would be so crazy as to put up a Christmas tree in mid-November?” she asked herself rhetorically. “Don’t they know- Christmas isn’t for another month and a half? Besides, the world is not a peaceful, happy place. The world isn’t ready for Christmas yet.”

She continued driving on in silence. And when she got home later that night, she wrote with great feeling her emotions upon viewing earlier that night the festively, decorated window scene. She wrote with an underlying sadness. For she felt empty and lonely and worn. She wrote how she was not ready for Christmas and all its abounding expectations. She wrote about how Christmas had become another chore on her endless list. And she wrote that she was trying to ready herself this year to receive Christmas- for it was time to shift the focus away from giving until one was stripped bare and ragged. Until one had nothing left to give.

It was time to receive Christmas for a change.

And she thought about this idea of receiving Christmas for many days afterwards.

A few weeks later, just hours before the Advent calendars would be placed carefully on the mantle and the Christmas candles would be dusted off and set in their seasonal positions, the girl found herself again driving. And as she drove she came into area where a light dusting of snow covered hills and valleys as if it was flour thrown from a cup to land wherever it may. It was exquisitely beautiful.

Later still that same morning, the girl found herself sitting in a room full of people waiting for her turn to speak her piece. And in the quiet moments before the calm became a storm of activity- a flurry of busyness, she noticed outside a window directly in her line of view: snow softly falling. So delicately and free. And her eyes took in that one tiny moment first before noticing everything else around her- the hubbub of happy people, the beautiful garland strung gracefully from corner to corner across ceiling beams, accented by red and silver ornaments, the wire nesting trees set carefully on a table- and all of it creating a festive, happy mood.

And she happened to see out of the corner of her eye tucked away in the farthest corner of the room- a Christmas tree, partially hidden from view because of the large screen set up for the LCD projector.
Her eyes stayed on that tree for several moments. For it was truly beautiful. And something inside that girl burst. She saw the tree for what it was, not for what it reminded her. And she realized that it no longer served as a harsh reminder of all that she was not feeling and could not express. It was just a thing of beauty in spite of everything it stood for. And the girl looked back again toward the window, taking in the intricate flurry of snowflakes swirling in mid-air, and she thought to herself: “Surround yourself with beauty. Because life is beautiful in spite of it all.”

And of course, she realized, it is: life is beautiful. And in life, there is beauty. And when one looks for the beauty, all else pales in comparison. All the complicated, messiness of life starts to fade into a blur, where edges are harder to define. Where joy and sorrow meet and shake hands and declare a truce.

Where life becomes wildly wonderful even in the midst of pain and heartache.

And as the girl watched the snow fall softly, she realized she too had found a soft place to land- a place where she could find herself safely supported even as things fell apart and unravelled around her. Because just as no two snowflakes are ever going to be the same, neither will two lives ever follow exactly the same course. And that’s okay. Life is what is made of it. And it can be beautiful.

It really can.

Even when it is falling.

The Power of Encouragement

Cool winds blow as the sun goes down on yet another work week. I grab my laptop computer from the back seat of the van- a bag full of papers, my purse and jacket, then head for the house. Stone walkway under my feet showing signs of wear. Four cats waiting on the steps.
And I sigh. I have really been discouraged lately. So many things coming at me from all directions and they all seem to culminate during the month of November. Parent-teacher interviews, report cards, committee meetings, community and church commitments, university papers due, sickness in the family. And then there’s just the regular,old day-to-day grind- running thither and yon with kids in tow while I drag bag upon bag of STUFF everywhere I go. Grocery bags, back-packs, Zuca figure skating bags. My big, black purse. It feels sometimes like I’m living out of these bags. Add to all the above- the weather is changing and I think I just might have a touch of seasonal affective disorder.

And I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on Christmas being right around the corner.

Yesterday, I spent the better half of the morning at the dentist fixing yet another broken, worn-out tooth. Gotta love root canals. And this morning, Husband woke up with what he perceived as being a piece of gravel in his eye which turned out to actually be a wood chip. He spent the morning at the hospital and now is sporting an eye patch which gives him a slight edge over Jonny Depp as my most favorite-est pirate ever.
I arrive home to find him on the couch with Youngest sprawled over the top of him like an afghan. “I’m hunnnnngry,” she whines. And so it begins. Welcome to my Friday.

I sit down at the computer to take a peek at messages and e-mails when I find it. A letter from a woman I know vaguely. Opening the letter, I am completely taken back by the words I read. And what I read was this: the most beautiful, sweetest note I have ever received about one of my children from outside the family.

The tears started to fall as soon as I realized what the letter was about. It was a note of encouragement- completely unexpected. Apparently, I have a child who has befriended a child in class who is experiencing some difficulties; and this child of mine has used every opportunity to make a special connection with this other child- so much so, that my child’s name has been coming up at home as someone very special to this other child. Particularly in light of some of the extenuating circumstances going on with the child in mention. The letter was detailed and the closing line said this:
“I just wanted you to know that you have an amazing {child’s gender} and ask if you could please thank {your child} for me. I’m sure you’re very proud of {them}.”

I couldn’t hold back the tears. Honestly. It just blew me right out of the water.

And it reminded me yet again of the strength one can find in encouragement. Encouragement: it’s such a simple concept yet so profound. We can make the choice to say words that tear down or say words that build up. And even more significant- when we think a good thought about someone, we can choose to keep that good thought to ourselves or we can choose to share it.

How many times have I thought something about someone that made that person stand out as special and unique in my mind, but then got distracted and forgot to tell them what I was thinking? Too many times to count. And I miss out on sharing how that person has touched my life- and they miss out on feeling encouraged.

After I received that note today, I got to thinking: it wouldn’t take much to write a quick note to ten different people about either something they’ve done that I noticed as unique and important- or something someone connected to them has done that just made my day better in one way or the other. It wouldn’t take much effort. But in so doing, ten people would potentially have that same overwhelming feeling of encouragement that I had when I arrived home today. Which would be so worth it. Such a little thing to do- write a note of encouragement- but so very, very profound.

So. I want to challenge the people that read this tonight: think of ten people who have touched your life in a special way. Or not. Think of ten people that you know might just need the encouragement. Maybe they are not the kinds of people that hear nice things said about them very often: those people need encouragement the most. Or think of ten children of ten friends of your’s that you know you could say something nice about. Ten co-workers. Ten neighbors. Ten random people that you vaguely know but whom you know enough about to encourage. And just do it. Encourage them. Write something really special and see what it does for both you and them.

I’ve been discouraged lately. Maybe a lot of us have been. Anybody there? Anybody with me on this one?

Here’s what I know for sure about discouragement: it flips itself on its back when faced with an encouraging word. Discouragement doesn’t stand as much of a chance when over shadowed by encouragement. That little note tonight did more to lifts my spirits than that woman could ever imagine.

What little note could you write tonight that might make all the difference?