Tuesday, December 29, 2009

One More Blessing to Count

I still cry -- or perhaps tears have only recently come. It isn't so much the story line of the movie as it is its part in the story line of my life. At least that's all I can guess. I don't know how many times I have watched White Christmas, but knowing that it was released in 1954 and I was born in 1956, suffice it to say that I have been watching it forever. I'm not sure my brother was ever that enthralled by it, but I remember watching it with my parents year after year back in those days when it aired during prime time. Later, during a span when broadcasters apparently saw it as more quaint than relevant, I crept out of bed to watch it during the wee hours of the night long after my parents had gone to bed. I can remember stoking the still-red coals in the fireplace into fresh flame and adding a new log or two, and nestling down in front of the hearth with a pillow and a blanket, humming along while Vera Ellen and Rosemary Clooney sang about their lives as Sisters, Danny Kaye observed how The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing, Rosemary lamented how Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me, and Bing Crosby evoked snow almost by magic out of a dry Vermont Christmas Eve singing White Christmas.

I'm sure there have been years when I somehow managed to miss it -- or inexplicably neglected to make time for it -- but those years have been few. Indeed, it was the allure of this movie that that sowed the seeds of intrigue leading to my choice of Vermont for the destination of our honeymoon some 12 years ago. By now we have even managed to watch the movie in Vermont more times than one. "Snow, snow, snow, snow...it won't be long until we'll all be there with snow..."

And so it was that we set aside the time yesterday to slide in the DVD and settle in for the annual experience. It felt like a double delight since we opted to stay home this holiday season. Our own private cinematic taste of Vermont -- the holiday holy land for us far moreso than the North Pole. And true to form, as soon as the General -- against his will -- descended the steps in his uniform for the grand finale of the show, tears starting streaming down my face.

As I say, it's not so much because the show is that touching. Sure, it's warm and tender and touching in many ways, but by now I know most of the lines and the songs by heart. There is even one less desirable one that, through the gift of digital tracking, I now choose to skip right over. If it were the movie alone, its capacity to "touch" surely would have long since worn off.

No, I think the tears have more to do with the thread this single movie weaves throughout the entirety of my life. I can't think of much else -- if anything -- that has endured with me from my very beginning. Year after year, in one location or another; broadcast, videotape, and now DVD; always and reliably there, since I myself was a child on through the time when I had children of my own and now that they are grown. Bing and Danny and Vera and Rosemary have become almost family -- no, more like organs of my body --and this song something like the beat of my heart.

It is, I suppose, simple nostalgia, but it feels like more than that -- a touchstone, perhaps, somehow recalling everywhere I've been, how I peculiarly dream, and who I uniquely am. And I am grateful for it...

...One more blessing to count, in those worrisome nights when I can't sleep, instead of sheep.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

In the Bleak Midwinter

As soon as she tentatively pulled open the door, stuck her head inside and asked if we were still having a Christmas Eve service I knew I was glad we hadn't canceled. Many churches -- maybe even most -- had assessed the assembling storm and with a nod to precaution opted to remain dark. It isn't an easy choice, and my decision to move ahead had less to do with machismo than sentimental stubbornness. It's certainly true that a candlelight Christmas Eve service isn't required to celebrate Christmas, it was hard for me to imagine not having one. Moreover, I tend to rely on an individual's innate sense of self-preservation in these things. If you don't feel safe venturing out, don't. If your streets are not passable, nestle in at home without apology. Meanwhile, I hate to think that someone who has gone to the trouble to attend arrives to find the door locked. And so it was that the lights were on on Christmas Eve -- along with the heater -- the story was retold, and the candles were lit.

In reality, the 5:30 service was not a problem. Temperatures remained above freezing, and the streets were slushy but little else. A sizable crowd gathered, worshiped, and returned home with only minor challenge. It was the 11 pm service that was the issue. Snow, by early evening, was falling steadily, and temperatures were falling. How much and how low were anybody's guess, but suffice it to say that we would not have to merely dream of a "white Christmas;" we were having one. Whether, though, because of foolhardiness or tenacity or simple inertia that never made the call, the service would not be canceled.

And so it was that by 10:30 pm the staff had assembled in the narthex, preparations made, bulletins and candles readied, wondering if anyone would appear. That's when the car pulled under the portico and waited while the young woman in the passenger seat stepped inside to inquire of our plans. She was eventually joined by her husband who, upon confirmation, went on to park the car, and a handful of others -- virtually all of them strangers -- who drifted in with
the same hopeful query. "Are you still having a service?"

We were only a few who listened, then, to the scriptures and sung again the carols -- a dozen or so at most in addition to those of us obligated to be there; an intimate circle who clustered around the communion table and, with the taste of bread and wine fresh on our lips, marveled again at the wonder of the Christly light shining on inextinguishably in the darkness through the glow of our own flickering little candles, and sang -- lustily, I might say, for such a tiny little group -- of that "silent night" when all was calm, all was bright. And when the last of the verses was sung, and the closing words were spoken, we hung there in almost suspended animation -- a circle of strangers somehow bonded by the intimacy of this transfixing moment; hushed, held, warmed, awed.

"Merry Christmas," I whispered.
"Merry Christmas," they replied in an equally breathless voice.

And finally, silently, the circle slowly melted and the tiny congregation dispersed; down the aisle and out, once more, into the snowy cold. Changed. Awakened in a way that, in some profound sense, was itself incarnational.

Unplugging the Christmas trees and the balcony garlands, gathering up the offering , turning off the lights and locking the door, I crunched my way across the parking lot to the car, changed in a way myself.

And snowstorm notwithstanding, profoundly glad we hadn't called it off.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

With Monitor Lights for Candles

It's Christmas Eve, complete with holiday tunes on the iPod docked with the Bose. It's been running through the playlist I created throughout the darkened hours. Outside, the weather is blustery winter with more snow forecast for tonight. Presumably the malls will be busy today with last minute rushes; but that kind of activity is still hours away. It's early yet, though we have been stirring for hours -- all through the night in fact. Hardly an environment for restful sleep, the hospital room is a cacophonic symphony of beeps and alarms sensitive to every twist, turn, and empty bag. And the traffic! Those mall parking lots have nothing on this bedside intersection. Blood pressure, temperature, meds and lab techs. Blood has already been drawn this morning -- a visitation that doesn't invite restful sleep.

That said, it has all been something close to angel visitation. Kindnesses extended; calming voices; gentle touches, helpful responses; reassuring encouragements -- from volunteers, nurses, chaplain, nursing assistants, friends and even those dreaded lab techs. And doctors, of course. Gentle, kind, affirmational and informational; indulgent but firm. The words may not have literally been "fear not" but the implication has been the same. And if "tidings of great joy" might be stretching things a bit, "tidings of great promise" surely describe the hope for days ahead as a result of Lori's new hip.

And so it isn't the typical Christmas Eve whose sun will be rising in the next couple of hours, but one filled appreciatively with "good news". And if titanium and ceramic and plastic are not the common gifts beneath the tree, they are certainly welcomed ones this year, accompanied by dreams of hikes around the lake and through the woods -- and simply an easier time getting in and out of chairs.

"Angels We Have Heard On High" drifts out of the stereo, and as if on cue, one has returned to the bedside, keeping watch; checking monitors and tubes. Lori has drifted back to sleep. Despite the morning traffic picking up in the hallway beyond the door, I think I'll drift back that way myself.

"Sleep in heavenly peace."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whatever is boxed and wrapped

"Somehow, we've allowed the success or failure of the Christmas season to be judged by the volume of retail sales, and this looks to be another down year. We've allowed our whole economy to become 70 percent dependent on consumer spending, of which Christmas sales are the make-or-break component. Not good. An economy that is over-reliant on consumer spending is a sick economy" (Richard Doak, retired Editor of the Des Moines Register).
He said other things, of course, in his guest editorial printed in yesterday's paper, but something about those particular lines made an impact on me. Our assessment criteria
have become skewed. I understand that stores need such comparisons and calibrations. They are in business to make a profit, not make sentiment -- not that their means to making a profit can't coincide with someone else's path to creating sentiment. Someone, after all, sold the cloth that became the quilt that became the family heirloom. Someone, after all, sold the
birthstones that were set into a ring that was sold by someone else that was subsequently sold by still another to a couple of kids and their father that became the mother's prized possession.

No, the two are not mutually exclusive; it's just that neither are they necessarily synonymous in the way we have fallen into behaving. "Christmas spirit" has always had more to do with the reasons behind and
associations around a gift, than with the gift itself.

Perhaps this is all self-
protection -- inoculating myself against any possible disappointment on the part of recipients opening gifts that I have been a part of giving. It is that week, after all -- and in our family's case, it is "that night." Tonight the chairs will be
crowded around
our tree, one of the several iPod Christmas playlists will be offering background soundtrack to the festivities, and before long, the floor will be littered with paper and ribbons. And we will all, I suspect, be feeling the pressure. "Will it all
be special enough?"

If I have an ounce of sense and mental presence during all these festivities, I'll remember to look up into the tree. Amidst the miniature lights hang an enormous diversity of ornaments -- some whimsical, like the miniature jug of Vermont maple syrup, the tiny replica of Barrington and the miniature sock monkey that
reminds me of my Grandmother; some quite expensive, like the hand-blown Italian glass balls and the sterling silver reindeer. And while Lori would no doubt make a different selection, the most valuable of them all, as far as I'm concerned, is the scissored and folded Santa made out of construction paper and glued-on cotton balls that I made as a child and presented to my parents. All these years it
has hung on their Christmas tree until making its way back into my hands a Christmas or two ago. From an economic stand point it would hardly register on any scale. A penny it might be worth -- if that; which is to put in negative terms what just as well could be positive: it is priceless. Who, after all, could assess the value of their knowing how much I had labored over the cutting and the folding and the gluing
and drawing with only them in mind? And who could possibly calculate the value to me -- and according to what conceivable currency -- all these decades later to receive it back in the knowledge that they had kept it, displayed it, preserved it, and enjoyed the memories attached to it? To be sure, the Santa is a little worse for all the years and all the wire ornament hangers that have
tried to keep it on a branch; but as far as I'm concerned it could hardly be more perfect.

If I am paying attention at all tonight amidst the laughter and the chatter and the expressions of appreciation -- if I feel even a nano-second of apprehension -- I'll think to look for construction paper Santa up
among our branches and remember that what is going on right that very moment -- our very presence in each other's keeping, those voices, the memories we are making, the intentional choice to be together in the face of countless alternatives, and the implied desire to please as a reflection of deep fondness and profound love -- is the most important measure of Christmas this year.

The retailers, without doubt, will have played some part in it, and if we have helped to make their Christmas brighter, good. I'm glad we could help. But their's will be the smallest part -- akin to the part that a match plays in a 4th of July grand finale. Whatever winds up in the boxes and bags, we will be enjoying the smiles and the affections and the circumstances and the ties that bond us all together, and the mystic, perhaps inarticulate sense that it all finds its context in a love infinitely larger than our own -- the real colors and fireworks of Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Dangerous, Yet Twinkling Affirmation

Make no mistake, the wind made it dangerous. With single-digit temperatures and 50-mile-per-hour winds beating those down into the sub-zero range while sending the 15-inches of snow airborne, the day was unarguably treacherous. The air in front of your eyes was almost as white as the ground beneath your feet. I haven’t been in many blizzards since living in Iowa, but this storm surely qualified. Even Barrington, who usually loves cold temperatures and dolphining his way across snow covered lawns, was reticent to go out. We left the house only once and even then merely to walk him a bit up the cul-de-sac. Layered and bundled unrecognizably beneath polypropylene and cotton and goose-down, booted and hooded and gloved, we ventured out mid-afternoon for what turned out to be a very short expedition. Neither we nor Barrington found the effort sustainable. We retreated back indoors to the sofa in front of the fire. We weren’t alone. No newspaper was delivered, nor any mail despite the historic promise that "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." No one could blame them – nor were they alone. The roads were utterly abandoned as even the most intrepid sought refuge indoors. Make no mistake, then, the wind made it dangerous and treacherous.

But the winds also made it beautiful. The sidewalk leading to our front door looked, for all the world, like an albino Arizona – gentle layers of wind-swept desert, albeit snow instead of sand. All that was missing was a white saguaro cactus for accent. By contrast, outside our dining room window in the courtyard between townhomes, the snow was whipped up into shoulder high peaks of firm meringue. Somehow, and in apparent disregard for the laws of physics, snow accumulated atop the deck railing despite the wind, sliced into oversized muffins by the warmth of the rope lights wrapped around the wood.

And the trees. We thought all day of December in Vermont. How can evergreen boughs support such loads? How is it possible, as was true of the small potted tree on the sidewalk, for snow to completely encase the branches to the extent that branches are no longer in evidence, leaving only a general pyramidal shape perched on a pot? And how is it possible that, despite the frosty and complete coverage; despite the thick and obscuring veil, when evening came and the timer switched on, the lights on those trees still twinkled...





Perhaps it was simply to confirm to us who had huddled inside that despite the treacherous wind, despite the bitter cold, despite the blanketing snow, “the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ready and Waiting from the 8th Row

You could, I suppose, trace the story back to my mother. There was a time, back in the pre-history of my life, when I was required to take piano lessons. I recognize that I was not alone in that duress. Countless piano teachers through the years have tapped out rhythms beside and corrected notes on behalf of countless disinterested children who begrudgingly pounded out notes at their weekly lesson while a football that desperately needed throwing or a tennis racket that desperately needed swinging sat idly by in the closet. I'm told that scientific studies have revealed a microscopic, statistically insignificant number of kids who actually enjoyed the metronomic sadism, but I think that's probably an anomaly.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my teachers -- Mrs. Newman, who was a far too delightful of a woman to be subjected to the disinterest of people like me; Mr. Petty, who was nice enough to pick me up at some terrible hour of the morning before school and drive me to the studio. I won't hold it against him that he invariably expected me to actually practice in-between lessons, especially when the assignment was some "sonata" or "concertina" (you should have heard the sneer with which I could say those words!). Mrs. Newman, at least, had assigned me peppy little things like "Aqua Caliente."

No, it wasn't dislike of my teachers; nor was it, I suppose, any particular or focused distaste on the instrument, itself. Piano was abhorred more for the preferable alternatives it displaced than for its intrinsic revulsion. I'll never forget -- and indeed I make this claim quite literally -- the weekly experience of leaving track workouts early in order to get to a piano lesson. I could feel the derisive stares of my teammates burning a piano shaped hole in the back of my head.

So it was in the context of this resistance that my Mother, hoping to mitigate the damage, offered to buy me whatever music I wanted, in the prescient hope that if I liked what I was playing...I would actually play. Caldwell Music Company downtown had a great pop music section, and every now and then I would find a way to get there -- of my own free will -- and browse the racks.

I was recalling these experiences again last night as we enjoyed our way through the Jackson Browne solo acoustic concert at the Civic Center -- because Jackson Browne music was a frequent purchase. I have by now lost count of how many times I have heard him in concert -- with a band numerous times; by himself, now, a couple. He has been at it so long, and has written so many memorable songs, that who can blame him that, as he mentioned at one point early in the show, that he doesn't really make a set list; he just plays what he feels like and what people want to hear. So, he would study his rack of 16 guitars and pull out one that apparently represented a given song and pick his way into the music; or discern a single title from the assault of requests shouted out from the audience and move in that direction; or sit down at the keyboard and plunk his way into another.

And as if it were yesterday I remember pounding out most of these same songs -- actually practicing them -- in the fantasy that one day, just maybe, Jackson Browne would be passing through the area and something like a guitar case would slam on his hands rendering him unable to play, and a cry would go up to the masses, "Is there anybody out there who can possibly perform these songs." And I would be ready. I always pictured it something like the Prophet Isaiah's response to the call in the Bible: "Here I am, send me."

And I was ready last night. Sure, I would have been a little rusty, but I could have pulled it off had the need arisen. Like riding a bicycle, you never quite lose the feel of Doctor My Eyes, Running on Empty, and The Pretender. And the audience -- virtually a full house of cheering, adoring and appreciative fans -- would have had my Mother to thank.

Me, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Already Missing Monk

It feels a little like a close friend has died -- except that he actually lived. Friday night aired the final episode of the television series Monk, a show we have watched more or less reliably since its first obsessive episode; earlier, in fact, since watching the pilot episode after the fact on video. We have chuckled at his idiosyncrasies and and marveled at his Sherlock Holmes-like powers of discernment. Over the seasons -- 8 now, if I am counting correctly -- we have fallen in love with this tragically wounded, deeply flawed, and wonderfully endearing character, perhaps because those adjectives so honestly describe and remind us, to a lessor or greater extent, of just about everyone we have ever met. There is something to be said for a guy who can annoy, amuse, amaze, endear, intrigue and entertain all at the same time.

And suddenly, Friday night, in the second of a two-part final episode, and after successfully surviving yet another close brush with death that, before it was all over, managed to resolve all the unanswered mysteries that had provided much of the animating tension of the show through the years, the series faded to black. It's not, of course, like the show will actually go away. Monk will no doubt live on in perpetuity through syndication -- and in the videos of the seasons we have purchased and pop into the player from time to time. But somehow it's not the same. A bit like thumbing through old photo albums of trips you once took, it's nice but not quite the same as taking new ones.

Under the circumstances, it will have to do -- that, and noticing and enjoying the "inner Monk" coming out in friends and family, each other...

...and ourselves.

In the meantime,
"You better pay attention
Or this world we love so much
might just kill you

I could be wrong now,
but I don't think so

It's a jungle out there."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Considering the Great Beyond

It wasn't the first time I had received such a call, and though something tells me I should take it as a compliment, it nonetheless always makes me flinch. "I'm working with a family who doesn't want anything real religious," the funeral director said; "I thought of you." While it may not be the noblest epitaph for a minister -- "Clergyman to the Non-believers" -- I do believe that everyone deserves a send-off, so I suppose I am a sucker for such requests. I wrote down the name and number and promised to be in touch.

As I mentioned, it wasn't the first time I had worked with a family with these presenting issues. In those other cases, however, all the cautionary prerequisite has really turned out to mean is that the family didn't want something crammed down their throats -- an altar call or hellfire and brimstone or some similar assault of religion at its most intrusive. "But sure," they would eventually suggest, and after I had apparently alleviated their concerns, "a prayer and some scripture would be nice."

Not this time. They were hardly militant about it -- excruciatingly kind, and almost apologetic, they were simply trying to be authentic to their life perspective and experience. Religion had played no significant part in their life together thus far; it seemed to them artificial to tack on a prayer here at the end. As I say, it was a choice born not out of animosity toward religion, but out of integrity with themselves, and since I, too, have some interest in integrity, I acquiescently -- if slowly -- set myself to work.

It was, however, precisely that matter of mutual integrity that created for me some problems. What, after all, is a preacher to say in a funeral that honors theirs while not abrogating mine? There is, after all, already too much syrupy inanity dished out in the name of comfort, and I had no interest in adding to such abundance. Precious little even of that, moreover, has any relevance in a context devoid of theological referents. Exactly what, for example, would the old chestnut, "she has gone to a better place", mean to a person without a concept of heaven? What, I wondered, is the secular equivalent of "God be with you?" And then beyond the funeral, itself, what is there to say at the graveside? How does one speak comfort and completion and ultimately farewell outside the promises of faith? Even the familiar benediction -- "The Lord bless you and keep you..." -- suddenly sounded like a party crasher.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how theologically ordered I am -- how many of the framing 2 X 4's in my interpretive structure of reality are religious principle and tenet and belief. Withdrawing each one discovered in the process of writing the funeral felt, in a way, like the old game of "Pick Up Sticks" -- wondering, with every one, which would send the whole structure crashing.

An interesting and stretching challenge, then. And so it was that with no small measure of relief and apprehension I finally pressed "Print" and nervously gathered up the papers before hustling over to the funeral home where the family and a full house of guests were waiting.

Since funerals, at least by my calculation, are highly personal, very much in the present, and therefore not particularly portable, I'll spare you the details -- except to report that the family seemed happy, satisfied and appreciative that their wishes were honored and their loved one appropriately feted. One who had been less directly involved in the planning even pulled me aside afterward to clarify that in his own life he had come to a different place in his beliefs, and that he had appreciated the couple of places I had "slipped in" some references to the Divine. While it hadn't been my intent to be surreptitious, I'm glad that he, too, heard something that was helpful.

For my part, I drove away from the graveside grateful that I had been privileged to connect with another interesting family, humbled that I had managed in some way to serve them in a breathtakingly poignant moment, and appreciative of this opportunity that had stretched both them and me into more deliberate reflection and consideration on what is true in a way that is larger than ourselves; what is comforting and grounding and orienting for any circumstances, but especially such as these; and the many places where people of differing views can stand compassionately and supportively together.

For the record, though, when the time comes to plan my service, feel free to say whatever you need to say about me, but then move quickly on to read some scriptures -- maybe even sing a hymn or two -- and above all, pray, knowing that the practice would mean something to me and, more importantly according to my belief system, to the one who first sent me out and is even at that moment welcoming me home.