On Beauty in Sadness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We spend much of our time pursuing happiness, joy, contentment. Peaceful bliss. But what of the experience that sadness brings? When grief descends upon us, enveloping with a haze of memories and emotions, do we try to escape its embrace? Do we turn our hearts from pain? Shelter our feelings from any knowledge of the unpleasant?

The sun blazes down. It is a scorcher of a day- 30 degrees in the city, where we find ourselves looking for one particular church. We are headed for a celebration of fifty years of married life, an occasion designed to praise the commitment two people made to forge a  jointly-lived life complete with its joys and sorrows. Complete with its highs and lows. But for today, of course, perspective is largely focused on the bliss. Attention is given to the delight found in exquisite beauty cultivated from meshing two lives into one.

These are for them the golden years. Just like the song says.

But there is something about the lyrics so sweetly sung by a daughter and her father that make me turn my eyes away. I find tears would come quickly- too easily, but for my attempt to re-focus my attention on the people around me. I scan the room while the duo at the front bring their song to a close. This music- it ignites within memories and feelings that are particularly tender and vulnerable today, a day marking another kind of anniversary. An anniversary within an anniversary.

Two months. Fifty-two years.

It suffices to say: it has been a beautiful day; but it has also been a difficult day.

I hear myself offering a word and the possibility for quenching the dark cloud: “I don’t want you to feel sad” I say to the one I love. But I wonder within the moment if this is truly wise. We must feel the melancholy that searing sadness and pain can bring. For grief is what helps us heal; it is what enables us to feel better. It is what enables us to find joy again. Rejecting those early feelings of seeming despondency so as to only accept the forced happiness we crave is to reject the necessary emotion that enables us to mend our broken hearts. Sadness serves a purpose that joy cannot: it is there to bridge the gap from one joyful moment to the next. Without the sadness, we are often stuck in stagnation. We are immobilized and halted.

We need to let ourselves feel.

Jonathan Safran Foer contends that “You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” If we are to experience a life rich with emotion, we must allow our hearts to burst with joy when the moment decrees, and then break with sadness when we experience loss and pain. This is all part of being and becoming human. Allowing ourselves to be in the moment who we must be and yet enabling ourselves to become who we are meant to authentically be in response to what is happening in our lives.

This poetic Biblical passage says with eloquence what I am feeling tonight:

A Time for Everything

3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes Chapter 3: 1-9, NIV)

Everything is beautiful…in its time. Beauty in sorrow. Beauty in delight.

He has made both joy and sadness beautiful in their time.

For All Those Who Cannot Face Mother’s Day

When my mother turned 65, my sisters and I had pre-planned a quiet celebration for her at a local café called Samuel’s.  We met on a dreary Sunday afternoon for chai lattes, specialty coffees and cheesecake, while rain misted the windows and sidewalks outside the old heritage building housing the restaurant.  Upon leaving, we huddled together in the parking lot for a picture of this momentous occasion, quietly celebrated between three sisters, one sister-in-law and our beloved mother.  Shortly thereafter, we left and went our separate ways- unaware of what was to transpire just mere hours later.

That evening, my mother received a phone call from the manor where her sister and mother both resided, living side-by-side in adjacent rooms.  Her one and only remaining sibling, her sole (soul) sister, was physically very low.  Would she please come?  There were no guarantees of how much time was remaining.  My mom gathered up her belongings and left the next morning for Fredericton, and for the remaining two weeks prior to her sister’s home-going to Heaven, my mother stayed by her side.  Holding her hand.  Rubbing lotion into her soft skin. Adjusting pillows and uttering soft words of comfort.  Loving her sister the best way she knew how.

Little did my mama know that not even one year later- this time again just weeks prior to her 66th birthday, she would again make the trek to that same New Brunswick manor.  This time in the hopes that she would arrive in time to bid a tearful goodbye to her mother who had sadly fallen ill over the winter months and rather quickly took a turn for the worse mid-March.  Sorrowfully, Mom was not to be there for this quiet home-going.  She arrived to a closed door shut on an empty room, no welcoming smile to greet her.

All was silent.

I can’t imagine what that must have felt like to have seen the door shut like that.  To have realized that behind that closed door was no longer that comfort of the living. No tender smile or warm touch.  To my mom, there was the realizing that this chapter of her life- life lived with the constancy of family and heritage: it was now over.  Every one of her immediate family members- the ones she grew up with, lived with and loved- were now gone.  And all that awaited her upon arriving at the residence she had visited for so many years was the shell of the one she had forever before known as MOTHER.

This Sunday will be her first ever Mother’s Day lived without her mom.  I really can’t yet even imagine what this must be like.

There are so many people grieving the loss of a loved one in these difficult days leading up to Mother’s day.  There are children wondering how they will navigate the days leading up to this hugely celebrated holiday with its focus on cards, crafts and trinkets all made for mothers.  There are teenagers trying to process their feelings about what this all means and young adults trying to be there for their siblings in ways that a mother would, even though that is not entirely their burden to carry.  There are grown women who still crave their mother’s words of wisdom on the other end of the phone line or who yearn for the physical presence of their mother at the kitchen table; and there are husbands who are faced with being both mother and father to their Littles and Bigs, in the wake of their chosen partner in life’s passing to the Great Beyond.

How do we as people do these hard things?

Jason Tippetts, husband to Kara Tippetts of the beautiful blog Mundane Faithfulness wrote transparently these raw and beautiful words about life and its ebb and flow for those left behind:

“These are the events that I dread. I remember asking Kara to help me plan this year of firsts. I assumed a long and hard conversation, I would take notes and then feel better about the plan. But instead Kara’s answer was, “You will be great. You will know what to do!” Not the answer I wanted but it was the answer I needed. I needed to know that I could fumble through this, that I would do okay. That I could process through decisions without her input. I needed to know that whatever we as a family decided to do was okay. I so appreciate that freedom she gave me.”

To all those who are hurting right now and who dread this upcoming Sunday of celebration for one reason or another, know that whatever you decide to do (so as to pass the day, celebrate the day, commemorate the day or skip the day entirely for this year) it is all okay.

There is no right or wrong way to work through the pain of these difficult years of firsts.  You will know what to do when the day comes.  Do it and feel no guilt for your decision.

I know that there is no way to compensate for the loss of a loved one- no one human being can ever take the place of another precious soul.  But may we all be cognizant that there is much pain and heartache around us.  Sometimes the most beautiful of holidays can evoke the deepest anguish.

To all those out there who are hurting this Mother’s Day, may you find peace and strength and comfort from Above.

Love and light and hope to your and yours.

When We Are At Our Worst

2015-02-03 16.59.13

“To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention and tenderness.  To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention.” – Jean Vanier

I stand over her, feeling helpless. Hopeless. Maybe even a bit heart-less right now. It goes without saying, really: I am finding it hard to love right now. Finding it really hard to emotionally connect, even as I realize I MUST.  A full temper tantrum has ensued- complete with refusals, stubbornness, crying and whining: a perfect storm.  And she is fixed in front of me, un-moving- immobile, with a sulky frown permeating her features.  Anger is so unbecoming. And this anger- it is reaching inside me, threatening to pull me under.  Tentacles wrapped around my fragile patience. Causing me to find it difficult to keep the calm, cool collected-ness deemed so necessary in these situations.  I can feel the heat rising under my collar- I just don’t know what to do.  How can I persuade her? Convince and assuage her?  Our verbal exchanges having been reduced to a power struggle, I find myself pleading, only to hear the frustrating words retorted back from her mouth:

“NO.”

What do I do with that word?  Can I force a ‘no’ to become a ‘yes’?  Should I?

It is when we are at our worst that we need most to be reminded of how much we are loved.  Of who we are in love. This truth about others and myself helps me to more deeply understand those others I interact with both at home and at work.  When we show what appears to be our “worst sides” to the individuals with whom we are interacting, might it be that we are looking for some small confirmation of our own self-worth?  Looking for a sign that we could indeed be loved even in the midst of our recurring difficulty to exhibit love first?  Vanier (2008) states that love gestures which are filled with respect are often what instigate the belief in one’s own sense of self worth, even when that belief is buried under ‘anger, hatred and madness’.

We need love to show love.

Yesterday, I arrived home with much on my plate.  There is much going on in all our lives, as we can so easily attest to, along with witness via social media, conversational exchanges, electronic messaging, body language and the like; we read via the lines and through the lines coming to the conclusion that life is hard. Life is so, so hard.  Busy, stressful, fraught with trouble and sadness- HARD.  And these words would appear to be an absolute understatement.

I felt the pressure rising and inside me an inaudible ‘NO’ rose to the surface.  I felt the surge of defiance, tasted the bitterness of wrath.  And I lost my cool.  I lost it.

I got angry.

And suddenly, I was that little girl again that stormed the house and left over supper hour.  I was that little girl who later came home and went into hiding for a while (albeit, this time in her daughter’s room).  And I was that little girl who lay silent when the calling voices inquired where she might be.

When he finally found me, I was motionless, with a hand over my face.  And his tender tone brought me to tears.

I cried.

And the ‘no’ inside me melted away- along with the anger and rage and fear and worry and anxiety and all that threatened to pull me under.

Love has that kind of way with me.

For it is when we are at our worst that we need most to be reminded of how very much we are loved.

Reaching for joy…

We stand in a circle of friendship this night of the Blood Moon, our feet planted firmly in soft sand while truant strands of pony-tales and coiffed hair-dos blow helter-skelter in autumn breezes. Earlier, we walked the hard-packed sand-floor from one point to another– me, with roving eyes on the prowl for sea glass. Others, just meandering along the jagged shoreline. I stop several times to add to the stash in my dress pant pocket so that each time I find place for the newest piece, my hand meets gathered grains of sand and other bits of ocean treasure. There is something mystical about the sea in autumn. Like a numinous, burgeoning being, it nips at our toes, crashes against the shore and then recedes as if in fear.

We hate to leave this place tonight- drawn together as we have been caused to come. Our hands and hearts are joined in love in the still of the moment even as we share one last poignant illustration of the evening to take away in our hearts. This illustration, one that calls on a memory of happiness from our recent days or years of life. Thus, the question is posed: When or where were we the happiest? Or put another way, at what time in our lives do we remember pleasure in its exquisite form? And at what point in our lives were we most joyful?

I listen as these enchanted hearts express the pleasures of the soul: births, weddings, trips, unexpected surprises. We revel in the sheer wonder of it all. How we can recall with delight the newness of the experience and the excitement of the incident in a momentary remembrance is marvellous.

And yet. It is so easy to lose the joy. To lose the innocence of celebrating pure pleasure. So easy for us to forget those emotions and feelings that call us back to time and place.

***************************************************************************************************

Later on, I casually mention to Husband that it has been a very long time since I have felt excitement for an event or happening, calling back to that aforementioned illustration I had chosen to share about a moment of happiness. And in truth, I forget what this raw emotion of excitement feels like. Forget what it is to be elated with surprise, with anticipation. I comment as we walk the rain-slick road that I feel dry- that I am becoming dull, my feelings lacklustre at best.

Where does joy slip away? And how?

We live in a world that calls us to the heights of fear and the throes of love. A world that demands of us a response: to be appalled, sad or ecstatic. Invigorated. Jubilant. Horrified. We watch news clips day after day after day and all the while, expected responses to sensational headlines are left hanging there suspended in midair, waiting for us to claim them. Waiting for us to accept, reject or release them. But I wonder this: how often do we FEEL anything?

What do we feel?

Do we feel horror about the atrocities in the world happening right now? The injustices? The calamity on both small-scale and far grander schematas?

Do we feel sadness when we see pain and suffering? When we see hurt and sorrow?

Do we experience joy and thrill in the revel of a promise? With the invitation to witness a miracle?

Are our hearts hardened to the all-too- common horrors and equally compelling everyday moments of feeling that lie available to us at every turn?

How often when my children are wounded that I as their mother am called upon to feel their pain.  Just the other day when Daughter was hurt, her desire was to have me identify with her in the pain.  To come alongside and feel what it is to be wounded.  I am good at feeling pain- it comes with the territory. But how does a mother feel joy and elation when the world is so full of painful things to bear?

************************************************************************************************

We walk back to the beach house. I feel the cold ground beneath my naked toes, feel the wind ripping at my corduroy jacket. I feel peaceful and content.  And that’s when I catch a glimpse of it: of joy. It is here with me- with us, in this place. It waits for me and for all of us right there on the doorstep, playfully calling our names. And I see that the answer lies within the question.

We only have to reach for it- and it will find us.

When Love Walks Among Us

I am walking tonight- solo, as the Two Youngest have a friend over and Husband is on duty back on the home front. I miss my walking partner on nights like this. Nights when it feels I am the Lonesome Isolated- walking when the rest of the world is doing more important things, living out more exciting plans than I.  When the rest of the world is organizing and doing things and gathering in places and spaces- making plans that I have not been privy to. Having fun being connected and together.  All but me: I walk alone.  And so tonight, feet slap pavement sounding loudly while hearts are feeling a tad bit blue and rather lonely.

It must be awful to feel lonely day in and day out.

I called my friend later and checked in about an activity our children are both involved in tomorrow. And after I tell her how happy I am that her daughter Zoe* has taken my own daughter under her wing, now that she has arrived a full-fledged member of intermediate school, my friend happens to mention something to me off the cuff. Something I find interesting in light of my feelings tonight.  Here’s how the conversation went down.

She asks me first if I have heard the name Charissa* come up in conversation when talking with Daughter. No, I say. Oh?  Well Charissa has been hanging out with the girls too, she says (proceeding to tell me that Charissa is new to the school this year and that the girls had noticed her alone over lunch time). She continues to tell me that her daughter Zoe*- the same one that has taken care of my own dear one- took the initiative to go over to this young adult sitting by herself in the cafeteria and invite her to sit with her and her friends, one of which is Daughter. My friend mentions the fact that Charissa has a shaved head on one side and a couple different colors of neon framing her head on the other- not someone easy to mix in a group of unfamiliar faces. Maybe some of the other kids didn’t see her as potential. But Zoe* did.  And because she did, Charissa isn’t lonely anymore.

All it takes is one rock to start an avalanche.

That’s all it takes. And in like manner, all it takes is one person to begin a cascade of love. That love and care and compassion and concern- it’s a free fall after that one encounter. Because other people notice and become caught up in the action. It’s hard not to when you realize the possibilities. In choosing to love, we lose fear. In choosing care and concern, we lose disinterest. In choosing compassion, we eliminate indifference. By choosing grace we say no to cruelty. What’s not to choose?

We all feel alone sometimes. But it makes my heart sing to know that there are human beings like Zoe out there in the world noticing the faces of people who need love. We all need love, but some of us need an infusion of love in the in-between moments of life even more than others. For me, knowing that there are Zoes in this world makes me want to join the effort, get in on the love cascade. So that love can fall like rain and the lonely can feel they are with their people.

We all are their people.

And in thinking about Zoe and Charissa and all the other lonely, isolated solitary people in this world- myself included by times: it helps to know. We are not alone. We never are.  Not when Love walks among us.  And because we know this, we can then reach out in love to others- turning their isolation into connectedness.  Turning their feelings of separation into togetherness.

Creating a love cascade from a single act of kindness.

We can do hard things…

It is hard not to succumb to the sadness. Challenging not to give in to the fear, letting it wash all over us. It would be much easier to sink deeper and deeper. Because everywhere you turn, there it is. Pain. Sorrow. Grief. Trouble. Distress.
It’s there, wherever you turn.
And days like this one, when we are reminded yet again that life is not fair, that life can seem to cheat us of what we wish to have- it’s days like these that we feel it the most. Despair. And we just would rather lie down and let it beat us than try and stand and fight it off. Fighting’s too hard sometimes. It require too much of us. For it requires planning and a vision- it requires a revelation and the hope of a promise. Fighting means believing. And believing means hope.
Sometimes it’s hard to get there- hope seems too far away. It seems elusive. Like sands in an hourglass.
But hope is what we crave- it always will be.
And I was reminded today- on a day when I woke feeling like hope was at its faintest, farthest point…I woke feeling that hope was too far out of reach. On this very day when I was at the lowest,I was reminded by someone very young, of a very great truth. That truth is this. We might be down, but we are not defeated. We might be disadvantaged, but we are not without aspiration. We might despair, but we are not left without expectation. We are able- we just need to believe it.
Because we can do hard things.

WE CAN DO HARD THINGS.

Isn’t that incredible? WE CAN. And I was reminded of this great truth today for the millionth time.  Just when I was nearly about to let go of believing. We can do this life. We can do hard things.

We can face adversity and come out stronger.
We can deal with hardship and thrive.
We can go through extreme difficulty and persevere.
We can suffer misfortune and live to tell the tale.
We can endure harsh conditions and grow tenacity.
We can look danger in the face and say the words: Love is stronger.
We can win over fear.

And we can do this- we can do these hard things because we’re able. We’ve been enabled.
My source of strength is drawn from the One Who gives limitless strength. And because He’s able, so am I. His Promises are sure: I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me. And when the words say ALL, I believe it.
I can face uncertain days, live with pain and suffering, accept the life I have been given and know for sure that this life was meant to be lived by me. This way. I can know for sure that I was meant to thrive, not survive.
And all because I believe. I BELIEVE. And because I believe in One who is able. So then am I.

I can do hard things.
And so can you.

So let’s just live it, like we know it’s really true.

All Her Days Were In His Faithful Hands

And so she passed from death into life at 4:10 Sunday morning. And now she is in Heaven. No more sadness. No more suffering. No more heartache. No more pain.

Nothing but joy. Forever.

On a December day, thirty-one years and four months ago, my eight-months pregnant aunt was driving home from her day job as a civil servant with the Government of Canada where she worked with Indian Affairs. It was snowy. She had a little car and visibility was low. The doctor said later if she had have moved her head an inch to the right she would have avoided that truck’s plow which smashed through her windshield, sliced into her head. That inch- it wasn’t meant to be. And from that time thirty years ago- when she was just about the age I am now, she has lived the life of an invalid. Unmoving, unspeaking, unable.

Until today.

And I believe that it was a jubilant, glad morning in Heaven. She woke up to Jesus.

And she met her baby boy, Jesse for the very first time.

Over these days and months and years and decades, as a family we have questioned: why? Why this? Why her? Why such prolonged suffering? Why wasn’t there any visible sign of hope over these many years? Why?

And there are some things we just won’t know this side of eternity.

But this I know.

All her days were in His faithful hands.

Her life: significant and purposed by the One who created her.

Her life was not for nothing.

And her memory will forever serve to remind me of the fragility of life.

He still moves

Thirty-one years today since that pick-up truck plowed into her little car, leaving her motionless.  The spark snuffed out.  Leaving her to sit and moan the occasional word.  Rubbing constantly at her crusted eye, still swollen shut.  Her lifeless hands and legs. No animated gestures to light up a room.  They’re nearly all but gone, but for the sudden reflexive movement.

But there are times.  When one sees it in her face- a knowing.  It’s the way she sometimes looks at you, as if she understands.  And in that knowing is found the deepest wounding – that’s where proverbial knife meets flesh and gouges.  It cuts to the heart.  And as she sits year after year after senseless year in that chair by the occasional window, I wonder.  Do thoughts of Christmas miracles ever fleetingly pass through her mind?  Does she know?  Does she ever question why?  And does God care?  Is He with even her, there in the dark recesses of her mind?

It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to know.

And sometimes what we really want, but are afraid to voice in more than merely a whisper, is a miracle.  A sign.  A sense that God does care.  That He is truly with us.  That He’s not dead.  That He’s alive.  That His voice can still be heard as if over a rocky hillside speckled with dirty sheep.  Grungy shepherds herding them along with stumped staffs.  Heard in a little Jewish town with the lone sound of a newborn’s cry, a doting mother’s gentle lullaby heard softly in the still of the frigid winter night.  As if in a dirty stable, sticky cow manure littering the floor.  A filthy manger piled high with straw, roughly hewn: given as a bed.  As if we were there.  As if I were there.  Because He was there- truly there among the people.  In the messy, complicated jumble we call living.  And that He is still here: in the present, the here and now.  It is a miracle.  For that is all we truly need to know in the stark reality of everyday living.

To know that He is with us.  Emmanuel.

Emmanuel, God with us.

It is so easy to forget that truth when faced with the pain of loss- the pain of separation.  Easy to forget in the midst of the trouble that is betrayal and rejection.  The tragedy of disease and unexpected loss of both minor and grave proportions.  Those harsh realities so peculiar and perplexing to as human beings.  All is not always well.  Life is not always easy- even at Christmas.  Especially at Christmas.

It seems that Christmas time accentuates  trouble.  For life is difficult all year round.  It is struggle.  When financial stress touches down, wreaking havoc on families and marriages, trouble is there. When an unfortunate father walks out on his child or a distressed mother slits her wrists in a cry for help.  Trouble is there yet again.  When a child gets cancer or some other terminal diagnosis and suddenly life takes a turn for the worse: it’s hard to really sense God is with us through all of that.  That He hears and He sees and He feels our pain.  That He knows.

That He is there in the midst.  Even in the midst of all that trouble and distress.

Emmanuel.

For all we really want is a miracle.  A sense of His presence.  To feel as the shepherds did the joy of knowing wonder.  To experience as did that simple innkeeper the humbling knowledge of  having room for a King.  Preparing a way for the Christ-child’s birth.  To know as did Mary and Joseph that even simple common, everyday folks can still receive the miracle of Christmas.  Because all we’re really looking for is a sign.

All I am really looking for this Christmas is a miracle.

A friend wrote me the other day.  Last year this time, her life was falling apart.  Her marriage was in shambles.  Her faith was being tested.  She was experiencing trouble on every level.  And I remember the day still when she looked me in the eye and said, “There is very little hope.”  I remember those words.  And I remember wondering myself, “Is there?  Is there really little hope?”

And then.   To receive her letter this week- knowing a Christmas miracle had occurred in her life.  That her little faith had been multiplied.  And that God had moved and increased her ‘little’ to make it filled to overflowing- that’s the miracle of Christmas.

And it can happen again and again and again.

Because God still moves in mysterious ways.

Even in the little things.  In the details.  Just this week, I lost something worth hundreds of dollars.  It was an important item to me personally.  And I searched high and low and in corners and crevices.  I called family members, having them strip-search rooms so as to find that one little lost item.  And when all seemed about lost, I had no sooner asked my mother to pray that I would find what I had lost, when God placed it right before my eyes.  Literally.  No sooner were the words spoken and I looked: it was there.  As if by miracle.  My little Christmas miracle.

And I don’t say all this to trivialize those miracles that have not yet happened, that are yet to occur- there are people in my life who are still hurting.  Who are waiting for their Christmas miracle.  Who have all but given up hope.  Who believe there could never be a way.  Whose faith seems so small.

I am here to tell you: God’s not dead.  He’s a God that’s in the details.

And He still moves.

And even within her- I know He does.  He still loves.  He still understands.  His heart breaks just as does mine.  As does all of ours.  And He’s there with her in the darkness of her room each night.  He meets her in those desolate places where loneliness threatens to steal joy.  He has not left her there alone.  And time is in His hands.

Time is in His hands.

And though I may not yet understand the mystery of His ways.  This I know for sure: He still moves.

Falling

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.

Joy Found in Teaching

I am sitting on the blue rug in my classroom with three little boys.  Guilty, they wait for the final verdict from me and if they are lucky, a pardon.  I look at one, and ask the question, “Why did you push Little Girl on the playground?”

Pause.  I can see the wheels turning in his head.

“Because,” he answers, “She roared like a lion at me and I thought she was a weel  lion.”

“Little Boy,” I say firmly, “You know she is not a real lion.  You know that, right?  There is a difference between what is real and what is not real,” I say, disbelievingly.

“No,” he insists.  “I thought she was weel.”

He looks at me insistently while the two other accomplices barely flinch.  They are working out in their own heads what creature they can devise for Little Girl to be when the time for their grilling comes down the line.

If a travelling vaudeville troupe was auditioning for casting calls in my neck of the woods, I’d be the first one to sign up.  It has been quite a day, or as we say sometimes at school, “whadda day.”  It might take a clinical psychologist to give me valuable insight on how to speak to the mind of a five-year old delinquent, adorable as he might be sitting there before me on the mat.  I hardly know where one begins unravelling the mysteries hidden inside the five-year old brain.

My own little pumpkin, now turned five herself, came home from the babysitter’s the other day.  She was playing play-doh quietly at the table when I came in the door.  I could see that her mood was a bit blue, so I asked her how her day was.

She reported to me a litany of grievances she had with a couple of children at her daycare.  I gave her a hug, and I asked her, “Why do you think they were mean to you?”

She looked at me with the most serious of expressions and then matter-of-factly replied, “Because…they’ve got sin.”

So, I guess she has them pegged.

I have just come downstairs from tucking Littlest One in bed.  She would not go to sleep alone this evening, so I lay down with her and held her tiny hand until she drifted off.  I watch her sleeping, so peaceful.  Her cheeks still full and plump, hair framing her face.  She asked me just before falling asleep, “Mama, what did you do today?”

I could not bring myself to answer.  What did I do today?  It blurs behind me like a streak of black ink poured from a fountain pen.

My days have been challenging lately, and today, a few unforeseen events seemed to be the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.  Discipline issues, work challenges, parenting dilemmas, relational breakdowns, insecurity, insensitivity, disappointment…you name it.   It all came flying at me today.  And at the end of the day, here I am wondering this:  Is there really any joy to be found?   Am I fooling myself with the pursuit of joy which cannot be found?

I almost said it today: I hate joy.  The very idea of it taunting me in the midst of my pain.  “Feel joy! Feel joy!” it laughs at me.  The pursuit of which, the bane of my existence.  The pursuit of joy: it is the search for gold at the end of the rainbow.  The elusive, the hidden.  The tunnel without a light at the end.

I hear a still, small voice remind me again and again, for I am a slow learner.  “Joy is not a voice, nor is it a feeling.  It is not a figment of my imagination.  It is a choice.”  So I will persevere until I find joy again and claim it as my own.

If there was ever a reason to feel joy, it is now.  I know this in my heart of hearts, and so I write to experience it again.   Joy.  The ability to rise above difficult circumstances and therein feel contentment.  Joy.  Gratitude winning out over Disappointment.  Joy. Inner peace that requires nothing from without but everything from within.  Joy. Contentment with who I am, where I am and what I am at this very moment in time.

Will I ever know it for sure?

Joy.  I almost felt it had slipped from grasp.  Like sand between fingers, it slips away.  How easily we confuse joy with happiness.  But the latter does not preclude the former.  I can seek out joy even when I feel anything but happy.  It begins with a choice: I choose joy today.  I refuse to be robbed of this moment, this fleeting window of time.

I choose joy.

My children, they remind me again and again of why I must soldier on: they are four precious reasons for choosing joy.  It is my legacy for them, this pursuit.  It is the example I leave for them to follow.  What more valuable of legacies could I ever leave than to instill in them a desire to pursue after and know joy?  I can think of few better gifts to give.