Monthly Archives: December 2012

Keepin’ the Small Town Faith

Thing1 and the Big Guy had just headed off to Hubbard Hall, our local community theater and art center, to take part in a Holiday and Christmas reading.  Thing2 and I were headed to the library in Arlington Vermont for a visit with Santa.

We had missed seeing Santa at our town’s Christmas party (it’s a village of about 300 that is sort of a bedroom community next to the bustling metropolis of Arlington, VT), and I knew Thing2  really wanted to see him this year.

 

He is six. He asks questions all the time about everything, and Santa lore is uppermost in his mind this week, as it is with every child under the age of 12 (believers and non-believers alike).  As I guided the car down the dark muddy road, he asked how did Santa’s sled fly. I knew the tried and true answer of “magic” would not suffice. He had already begun hypothesizing. Would it have jet boosters?  Did the reindeer have some sort of special feed? Then he began asking who St. Nicholas was.  Were he and Santa the same person? Where did Santa come from?  I knew what the next question was.

I’ve been down this same road with these same questions before.  It seems like only yesterday that Thing1 was asking them.  Thing1 is a born skeptic.  However, Thing2 is more than willing to look for the magic in everyday items and events, so I thought we would keep the magic of Santa going a few more years before logic and skepticism threatened it. But as I drove I wondered if this would be our last year.

Thing1 has been well aware of the fact of the myth for many years, but he was willing to play along – after all it’s in his best interest.  As he’s grown older, he has enjoyed playing Santa along with us, helping us keep the story going for Thing2 by advising us to use special wrapping paper and even what should go in the stocking.  But I am not ready to surrender Santa on behalf of Thing2 just yet. Part of me knows that with the end of that bit of make-believe goes a special part of his childhood, as well as this magical phase of our parenthood.

The questions grew increasingly challenging, and I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot at the library. The parking lot was crowded, the library was hosting Santa story hour, along with a Christmas basket lottery.

We climbed steps, and Thing2 asked, “Who’s playing Santa is here”.

“Santa, of course,”  I answered.

“No it’s not mom.”  Thing2 appeared very knowledgeable suddenly. All the Santa lore he had cleaned from years of Christmas specials on TV  briefly came to bear now as he authoritatively told me, “Santa sends his helpers.”  I didn’t know how to combat this so I listened to his theories until we got to the door and went in.

We were slightly late, and I was glad.  Santa had already arrived (no need to explain the lack of arriving reindeer – they were parked in back according to Thing2) and was getting ready to read The Night before Christmas.

Suddenly Thing2’s air of authority dissolved.  He clutched my hand pulling me closer to the front of the crowd to get a better look but was unwilling to go with his best friend to sit on the floor to hear Santa up close and personal.  Thing2 was silent through the story, his arms wrapping around my waist occasionally.  The story ended, and Santa invited the children to come sit on his lap and tell him their hearts’ desire for Christmas. Thing2 and I got in line, and he waited politely, his grip on my hand tightening as we got closer and his doubts shrinking with the line.

But this Santa was about to banish every last shred of doubt from his mind.

Thing2 watched his best friend climb on Santa’s lap. Then his little brother and little sister climbed on. Thing2 began to dance nervously.  A few more seconds and the last child in front of him was  finished attesting to their own good behavior for the year. Now it was Thing2’s turn.

Santa called Thing2 by name as he lifted him on to his lap. My first-grader appeared only mildly surprised. Then Santa told him he was sorry he hadn’t seen him at the Christmas party last weekend, and Thing2 was silent.

He stared at Santa, his list forgotten. Somewhere in his mind the acknowledgment was forming that Santa might actually see him when he’s sleeping and knows when he’s awake. Santa asked him if he been good this year.  Thing2 thought about that carefully for a moment and opened his mouth, but nothing came out.  He closed his mouth and looked at me for confirmation for the answer he wanted to give.  “He’s been very good this year,” I said.

Santa called him by his name again and said, “Well that’s wonderful to hear.   And has your brother, Thing1 been good too?”

Thing2 nodded solemnly and said,  “We’ve both been very good.”   Santa laughed, and Thing2 finally screwed up his courage and told Santa his wish list.  Then he wished Santa a Merry Christmas and hopped down.

We drove home talking about his visit and the Christmas basket we’d won for Grandma.  We talked about the kids he’d played with until we stopped to pick up some vittles at the Country store.

Thing2 bounced through the door of the establishment and immediately fixated on a toy the store’s owner had put out on one of the counters for display.  He played while I waited for the food and paid.  I picked up our bag and called to him to move along.

“I’m playing,” he responded with a mischievous smile.  Normally I would answer this type of insurrection with military efficiency and discipline (which, for some reason they don’t always take seriously), but tonight I reached into my arsenal for a new weapon.

“Remember,”  I said, “Santa’s watching.”  Thing2 instantly straightened up and walked calmly to the door, and I reminded myself to feel ashamed of my ploy once I had him buckled in.

“Is he really watching?”  Thing2 asked as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“He is in this town,” I answered.  And that was the end of the questions as we drove out of sight.

Tuning in and Acting Out

 

I often say that my two acts of faith are my garden and my kids.  Each is evidence of my somewhat unfounded belief in the likelihood of a better future.  One future begins anew each spring; the other is an ongoing, developing promise in the keeping.  Once I found any act of faith on my part completely out of sync with my very secular outlook on life, but one Christmas Eve, a few months after I became a mother, all that changed.

We were living in Germany at the time, celebrating the holidays with relatives and my visiting parents.

The Christmas season in Germany is an event to be experienced. It is not just one day; it is an entire month.  Instead of the orgy of shopping that defines much of the Advent season in the United States, however, many Germans begin the Christmas celebration early in December with Nicholas Tag (St. Nicholas Day).  This is the day that St. Nick visits children (and employees) bearing gifts, and it is the kick-off of a month-long celebration in almost every town square.  Almost every town and city has a Christmas market filled with delectable goodies and crafts. Walking through booths covered with Sherenschnitte-inspired gingerbread treats and ornaments is like stepping into winter fairytale land.  Most businesses in Frankfurt were closed on Sundays (not just at Christmas), and, even though our German family is pretty secular too, they do enjoy the traditions of the season as much as we do.  They introduced us to a wonderful one of their own  – each Sunday in Advent we met at their house to light one of the 4 candles and enjoy quiet conversation and tea and baked goodies with each week.  It was warm and cozy, and it was the perfect prelude to the most powerful spiritual experience I had ever known.

On 23 December the Christmas Markets came down, and the center of Frankfurt was briefly quiet.  Most (not all) stores were closed on Christmas Eve, and some even closed early on the 23rd.  This was not my first Christmas in Germany, but it was the first time we had gone into the city for the celebration on the twenty-fourth, and it was not until we came out of the train station that I realized why commerce was brought to a halt that day.

We had boarded the train at our usual stop – the empty end of the line at 4PM.  It was almost dark already, but there had been a surprisingly big crowd in our car.  Each stop closer to the city had added a bigger crowd, and by the time we rolled into the center of town, we had become a throng on wheels.  It was nothing compared to what awaited.  On the platform, trains from other parts of town and suburbs were arriving, spilling out their contents until a sea of humanity washed around us.

At first I was very nervous; I was holding my 4-month-old in his snugly, and I was terrified he would be crushed in the crowd.  The crowd, however, was happy but not overly boisterous.  Perfect strangers smiled at us as we all scaled the stairs up to the street.  On the street, surrounded by the massive and festively-decorated but closed retail establishments, the crowd in the subway station suddenly seemed like a small gathering.  There were tens of thousands of people flowing towards the old part of the city and to the bridges.  Frankfurt is a very cosmopolitan city, but for some reason I was still surprised to see people in muslim skullcaps and yarmulke’s,  hijabs and jeans making their way toward the ancient Domkirche (The Roman-built Dome Church) at the center of the Altstadt.

There were a few stands selling hot spiced Glühwein and potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and my Dad treated us all to a warm snack as we milled around with this mass of people.  A few people bumped us as they moved from one part of the square to the other, but without exception people were smiling.  They smiled at the baby, at each other, at their ceramic cups filled with hot spiced wine.

And then it began.

From the Domkirche came first the softest peal of a bell.  It grew louder, and the crowd around us began to quiet.  Conversations began to cease, and the Domkirche rewarded us with a louder song and more bells.  Then, across the river, another church added its voice to the growing chorus.  My aunt had explained ahead of time that each of the churches coordinated the timing of their songs so that the different rings never became dissonant, but nothing prepared me for their effect.

Within a few minutes, churches all around us were letting their bells ring, and it wasn’t dissonant, it was hypnotic.  Standing in a sea of people off all faiths and no faith, German-born and immigrants, all of whom were almost completely silent and sharing, if only for a few minutes, peace on our little piece of Earth and goodwill towards all.  It didn’t matter what path we took to get to that place.  It didn’t matter what prism we used to channel that peace, it only mattered that we felt it and felt it together.

I think of that moment every Christmas.  For me, the reason for the season is that feeling of peace and goodwill and it is a feeling I search for throughout the year.  The events of this last year have made it harder to find, and the event in Newtown, CT made me wonder if it would appear anytime soon again.  I even began to wonder if some part of humanity was trying to fulfill part the prophesied Mayan apocalypse.

But then someone mentioned that the apocalypse wasn’t really an apocalypse.  According to this person, the Mayans foretold that the world would not end, but would restart.  It would be like pressing a giant reset button. I wasn’t sure if this person (possibly on the radio) was an authority on Mayan Apocalypse Gospel, but the idea of resetting seemed appealing, and I began planning my own reset.

A few years ago, when we were scrambling for food and fuel, an anonymous friend stuffed a trio of gift cards in our mailbox, and I decided my reset would be to pay that forward.  As I was making my own plan, I stumbled across a similar, grander idea authored by Ann Curry on NBC.

Ms. Curry had tweeted a very simple idea.  Do one act of kindness for each person killed at the Newtown school.  Everyone.  Do twenty-six random acts of kindness.

To me, this missive was like the first peal of that bell from the Domkirche.   Even if we don’t get to all 26 (or if we do 27 or 28 not just a memorial but an antidote to despair), each act is another ring of a bell, a joining of another sea of humanity.  Each random act of kindness represents a small act of faith that the better nature that that exists within us will triumph. I cling to it as the hope that people of all faiths and no faith will use these deeds to weave a stronger common thread to bind us together.  To work for this, I think, is a supreme act of faith, and, while it is founded primarily on hope this morning, it is one I am more willing to adopt.

Three AM

It’s 3 AM, and outside the wind is howling. Inside my alarm set for 5 AM. I am exhausted but sleep is nowhere in sight.  Through my consciousness march words and images of Newtown, CT and worries about a grand bargain happening miles away that will undoubtedly leave those of us on the ground out in the cold.

I know this is one of those moments those accepting the things I cannot change moments, but the anesthetic of serenity escapes me right now.

I am the queen of worry. Writing is reflection. It is retreat and rally at the same time. But sometimes I wonder if my rally is just the circus and if the retreat is just a distraction from the real things in my own life that need real solutions.

The New Normal

Twenty years ago I was on the receiving end of an armed home invasion at the home of an acquaintance I never should have made.  It ended with a group of us lying on the floor, our noses in a smelly mustard and gold shag carpet as we wondered if our assailants were about to leave us or leave us dead.  When they were gone, we began cycling through all of the stages of grief until the police came and an emergency locksmith could make new keys for our cars, allowing us to escape back to our old lives.  What I didn’t realize in that first hour was that my old life was over forever.

It wasn’t a great life before the robbery, but it was not a life lived in fear (or caution, but that’s another story).  I had lived in ‘bad’ neighborhoods before the incident and no part of the city really frightened me.  After the incident I was afraid to go anywhere, and when I had to be in public places or unsecured locations, I made every effort to be invisible.  I watched doors.  I sized up people.  Fear embalmed me.

It took years and a lot of love from the Big Guy to crack that sarcophagus.  However, even now, when an incident like the one in Newtown, CT is reported, I realize, part of my soul will always be wrapped in those bandages (as I suspect the survivors of this and other senseless massacres will be).  I felt it yesterday as we sat at our son’s basketball practice and every opening of the door knotted my stomach a bit more.  I know this sensation – it’s part of the new old normal that began twenty years ago.

We had already planned a weekend of holiday activities with just the four of us, and, wanting to avoid the glare of the malls, we opted for a visit to the Vermont Country Store in Weston.  We did our weekly breakfast at Bob’s Diner in Manchester and headed up the Bromley mountain on the way to Weston.  For the two of us, the gloriously cold and sunny day seemed out of joint with what has been in our hearts since Friday morning.

In the back seat Thing1 and Thing2 were already beginning their road trip antics that I swear are designed to grow grey hair on my head.  The Big Guy reprimanded them as the volume reached earthquake level, but as we switched on the radio and all of us marveled at the passing mountainous landscape we’ve seen a hundred times before, I reminded myself that this, too, is part of my New Normal.  Right now, it is enough.

Mountains

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if the simplest things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.

Eleanora Duse