Monday, December 24, 2012


Children sleeping, snow is softly falling
Dreams are calling like bells in the distance
We were dreamers not so long ago
But one by one we all had to grow up
When it seems the magic's slipped away
We find it all again on Christmas day...

                Yesterday at church a lady teasingly asked me if Santa was coming to see me. I told her of course-since I’m married to Santa! She replied that she is married to the Grinch. I hope this is not true. I know how blessed I am to be married to a guy who loves Christmas at least as much as Clark Griswold does and maybe more, a guy who has a  lot of George Bailey and the Old Man from A Christmas Story in him. A man who, like me, has never really outgrown the magic. Whatever our circumstances may be-and some years have been better than others, financially and in other ways-we always seek to make Christmas special. Last year’s great and shining moment was, of course, presenting Raina with her horse. This year, we took a day trip to Montgomery to see the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s fine production of A Christmas Carol. It was our big family gift to each other, and it did not disappoint. We had been before, several times, but it had been about five years and so it all seemed new again-and besides, that is a story that never ever grows old.

                In the book The Polar Express, there is a bell that can only be heard by children-children who Believe. As they grow up ,the sound of the bell fades away. “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” Personally, I hope to be one of the ones for whom the bell continues to ring. I do not ever want to lose my sense of wonder nor my idealism to the bitter cynicism that at times threatens to crowd out my joy and steal it from me. I do not want to be one who says that the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s reclamation is only fantasy, that people never change, that Scrooge’s newfound salvation would have ultimately been shallow and fake, a mere emotional response.

                I know that Love is real. If I look closely for signs of it, I see it everywhere. I see goodness and truth in the everyday, the mundane, the ordinary-if I am actually seeking it, if I want to see it. We really can choose to See. And so I decided prior to our Montgomery trip that I was not going to let anything that happened spoil the joy of that day, and that, furthermore, I was going to try to notice things, because our days on this earth are short at best. It was indeed a blessed trip, the worst thing that happened being some spilled hot chocolate on Alyssa’s dress-but even that did not occur until we were almost home. There was no fighting. There were no car problems. We were afraid we were running late, but it turned out that we actually had time to spare, so we were able to thoroughly enjoy our dinner and then peruse the gift shop at our leisure.

                Before we went to dinner, we strolled down to the park area to watch the ducks and geese on the pond. In the fading light, I gazed at my children and realized that they are now all three almost the same height. I remembered the last time we went to the play, when Alyssa was seven and Raina was ten and Tony thirteen. They were so small. Where did the time go? My vision blurred as I tried to fill up my eyes and heart with the sight of them standing there by the water. Then I glanced to my right and saw another family-a young couple, an older man, a boy of about four, and a big chocolate Lab. The grandpa was pointing upward and I saw that he was showing the little boy a small flock of Canada geese flying overhead. The boy, perched on his grandpa’s shoulders, laughed with delight. The family slowly made its way across the park, tossing a ball for the dog who would chase it eagerly and bring it back, a huge doggy grin on his lovable face. They were happy and relaxed. The boy was obviously thrilled to be with his grandpa, and the parents were holding hands and smiling. It was Real.

                After dinner, which was Cornish hen and other delightful things, we purchased some small items in the gift shop and then sat in the lobby and waited. I watched the people coming in, families who, like us, had obviously been looking forward to this special outing. One little girl who looked to be five or six was wearing a pink dress and pink boots. I saw her tug on her daddy’s sleeve and say something to him-and then they began to dance. There were people all over the lobby, smiling, talking, and laughing. The door kept opening and closing, letting in the bitter cold. But this little girl and her daddy danced together as though they were alone in the room. He twirled and spun and dipped her, and then lifted her into his arms. She giggled and put her small hands on his face and they looked deep into each other’s eyes. It was Real. I know it was, because my daddy used to dance with me like that.

                Earlier in the evening, when we first arrived at the Festival site, we had seen a dog jetting across the parking lot with its owner, a college-age girl, running in fruitless pursuit. Tony took off running, headed the dog off at the pass, and returned her to her grateful and tearful owner. “Thank you, thank you so much,“ she kept saying. ‘I don’t know how she slipped out of her harness.” I wonder if this girl lives on her own. The dog may be all she has. It was a mixed-breed dog, exceptionally ordinary in appearance. Yet the love the girl has for her dog is Real. I could hear it in the panicked voice .We were in the right place at the right time, and my son is very quick on his feet and he knows how he would feel if he lost his very ordinary-looking dog. His simple act of kindness may have made all the difference for this one young lady.

                Everyone knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, of course. We own nearly every movie version ever made and we watch several of them every Christmas, my personal favorite being the George C.Scott version while my family likes the Patrick Stewart one just a bit better. We can recite the dialogue word for word. When I teach the book to my English classes they are amazed at how I can go on for several sentences without glancing down at the text. It is not surprising, since some of my earliest Christmas memories involve hearing A Christmas Carol read aloud, and I have read it countless times since, and my children, too, can quote from it. Nevertheless, seeing it on the stage from our front-row seats was a dazzling experience. We laughed and we cried, and we rejoiced when Scrooge went first to his knees, and then to beg forgiveness of his nephew Fred. We lived the story once again, as did the rest of the audience. And when Bob Cratchit placed his hand over his face and sobbed, “My little, little child!” there were more than a few sobs from those watching. Perhaps they were thinking of the little murdered innocents in Connecticut. I know I was. Or perhaps some of them have children who are ill, or are in some kind of trouble. Everyone has a story, and can relate in some way to that anguished, heartfelt, and very Real cry of sorrow.

                There was a purpose, you see ,for Jesus to come as He did, not as a king, but as a helpless baby, a baby born into poverty, a baby whose mother was probably shunned and outcast and whose foster father was made a laughingstock. He came so could he know our pain, feel it for Himself and be able thusly to put His arms around us and whisper, “I know what you mean.” He lived His Story so that He could know ours in a way that is Real. Scrooge’s hard heart melted in the Hand of the One Who knows, and is, the Past, Present, and Future. I love Christmas because it reminds us of the Gift, but it should not be a thing we remember just once a year. It should be Real every day that He gives us. If we can remember that, then we will never stop hearing the sound of the bell. If we just Believe in something finer, stronger, and greater than our finite minds can comprehend, and are willing to give ourselves completely to the One who spoke Creation into being, then we can know beyond all doubt that everything will, in the end, be all right. The Story is unfolding. Choose to SEE. Choose to Believe.

                                                                Merry Christmas.

Believe in what your heart is saying
Hear the melody that's playing
There's no time to waste
There's so much to celebrate
Believe in what you feel inside
And give your dreams the wings to fly
You have everything you need
If you just believe.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

At Least I Bring You Hope

If I cannot bring you comfort
Then at least I bring you hope
For nothing is more precious
Than the time we have and so
We all must learn from small misfortune
Count the blessings that are real
Let the bells ring out for Christmas
At the closing of the year...

            Yesterday afternoon as I sat at my desk stapling papers during my planning block-stapling those last tests and exams that must be given and graded next week before school is dismissed for the holidays-I decided to check my Internet news feed to get a look at the weather forecast and see what was happening in the world. Most days I go from one class to another so quickly that I hardly have time to notice anything, and yesterday was no exception. Breaking down Julius Caesar for the tenth grade so they could prepare for Monday’s test, having a deep and serious discussion on The Screwtape Letters with the seniors, and then reading an abridged script of A Christmas Carol with the ninth graders that ended in great hilarity and delight, I was having a normal, albeit it rather noisy, school day. And then after lunch, after the usual banter with my students over chicken sandwiches and applesauce, I went back to my room to face the paperwork. Really, checking the weather was an excuse to procrastinate for five minutes. That was when I read about it-the horrible tragedy in Connecticut. A shooting at an elementary school that left 28 dead, including twenty children.

            There are no words, really, to describe how I felt. Sickened, dismayed, horrified, heartbroken-none of them seem adequate. I sent an email to my fellow teachers because, as busy as we all are, I didn’t know if any of them had heard about it yet. By the time the final bell rang an hour and a half later, many of the students had heard about it. They came by my room to talk to me and ask if I knew any details, which I didn’t. Their big question was, of course, why. Why would someone do such a horrible thing? I had no answer. I still don’t. And, while I know that this tragedy is going to open up a storm of debate about things like gun control and video games and the disintegration of the American family, all of which are valid concerns, I cannot think of much other than the human side.  

            I saw Barack Obama, admittedly not my favorite president, struggle to maintain his composure as he spoke about what had happened. He is, after all, a daddy. He loves his children. He is human .In times like these, it is our humanity that unites us .I do not know any of these families. I don’t know their names or their religious preferences or their nationalities or their political views. I don’t know if those children were well-behaved or drove their teachers crazy, whether their parents disciplined them or were permissive, whether they colored inside the lines or scribbled. I don’t know if they were rich or poor or in between, from traditional or non-traditional families, whether they had buckteeth or were chubby or wore glasses or had a penchant for stirring up a little mischief in the classroom. None of this matters, none of it matters at all. The one thing I am sure they all had in that they were loved.

            Maybe they were loved by a mom and dad who were still together and had never experienced the heartache of a broken home. Maybe they were loved by foster or adoptive parents, or struggling single moms, or grandparents who had been forced by bad circumstances to take on the raising of a grandchild. Maybe they had siblings who looked up to them if they were older, or who teased and protected them if they were younger. Maybe they had dogs and cats at home, or bunny rabbits, or hamsters. Maybe there were already lots of presents already bought for them, waiting to be placed under the tree or wrapped and sitting there tantalizingly. Or maybe Mom and Dad were waiting until another paycheck came, or hoping for a Christmas miracle if they were out of work. Perhaps some of them had new bikes and sleds and skates hidden away in a shed or garage or attic. I cannot know.

            Perhaps yesterday morning before school, some of them had to be sternly told to hurry up and finish breakfast and get dressed. Somebody probably spilled his milk and somebody probably complained about having to wear that ugly sweater and somebody probably just lost a tooth, or was about to lose one. And as they left, as they got onto the school bus or were dropped off by Mom or Dad or Grandma at the school doors, no one knew that that hasty hug, that “Have a good day; behave yourself”- that those would be the last things, the very last. Because the truth is that we never do know, that we never can know, and if we realized this every day, maybe we would be better to one another. Last night as I was grumbling about the horrible tangle of shoes and sweaters and schoolbooks thrown onto the dining room floor, I was struck by how I would feel if there was no chance of that mess being there again, ever. What if I got up in the night to look in on my children and then I remembered that those beds were now empty- carefully, perfectly made, every item in the room in place, never again to be used, worn, played with by those three irreplaceable pieces of my heart?

            Last night my girls sang so beautifully in the school choir, and I couldn’t look at them enough. This morning they are earning Christmas money by taking on the enormous task of cleaning the front room (if you could see our front room, you would understand why we consider this a task worthy of actual financial compensation).In this process, they will get mad at each other and their brother will have to put in his two cents and then they’ll get mad at him. Tomorrow we will be in a rush to get to Sunday school and I will probably yell at someone to hurry up, and at least one girl will be frustrated over her hair and I will become exasperated. But through it all we will still be a family, and we will not stay mad at each other. One of our household rules is that no one goes to bed angry or leaves the house angry .When I hear about things like yesterday’s nightmare, I am reminded of why we have that rule. I am also reminded of why those “small misfortunes” must be learned from and taken in stride. Our time is indeed precious.

            Christmas is ten days away. I pray for those families who will have an empty place at the table, presents that will never be opened by tiny eager hands, a hole in their lives now that makes the world seem a dark and empty place. In ten more days anything can happen, and I tell myself this not to be morbid or fearful, but to remind myself to be a little nicer, a little more forgiving, a little less easily frustrated. I remind myself to “count the blessings that are real” as I ask that God’s peace and comfort fill the hearts of those who have suffered a loss that I cannot fathom. I remind myself that “charity, forbearance, mercy”- all of these are “my business” and I best get on with it. And finally, I remind myself that we should always be as united in our humanity as we are when tragedy strikes-that, as a nation, even as a world created by God, we should be there to pray for and comfort one another, forgetting our differences and remembering only that we are all, at the heart of it, just people after all. Broken, hurting, needy people.

God bless the folks of Newtown, Connecticut-and God bless us all.

“We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years and each time I learn the news, I react not as a president, but as anybody else would, as a parent, and that was especially true today. I know there’s not a parent in America who doesn’t feel the same overwhelming grief that I do.”- President Barack Obama

Saturday, December 8, 2012


 “Little cars that contained a flywheel in the center. You fed in what looks like today's zip cord, then you yanked it out hard and turned the car loose. They were pretty fast; mine usually zoomed under the sofa or some other inconvenient spot.”-quote from a website about vintage toys, referring to the SST racers

"Marvel the Mustang, he's almost for real, saddle him up, with spurs on your heels. No winding! No Batteries! Marvel the Mustang, we love you.” –yes, real lyrics from the commercial!

            As a child, I think the one think even better than Christmas…was looking forward to Christmas. Perhaps because we were not children who were handed toys every time we turned around, the anticipation of receiving all the toys one could dream of was incredibly delightful. In reality, we probably received five or six toys apiece, with a couple of particularly prosperous years being the exceptions, but it always seemed like a glorious abundance. Having had our family gift exchange the night before, where we opened things like socks and underwear and sweaters and always several books (we were appropriately grateful for these things, I might add), we would dive into bed, shivering with excitement. In the morning, there would be “Santa toys” under the tree, unwrapped, ready to be played with, and stockings filled with small trinkets and pencils and crayons and always a giant chocolate Santa and an even more giant candy cane. While Mom and Dad slumbered, having been up until four A.M. assembling bikes and dollhouses and such, we played and played. When they at last came down to make breakfast, they would sit for awhile and just watch us, and I never really understood the exchange of smiles and the way they almost seemed to be crying-until my own kids came. Now I get it.

            You see, it’s not about the toys themselves. Toys get broken and lost eventually, and even those dearly cherished and carefully kept ultimately wear out. It’s not the toys- it’s the love. It’s knowing that you were able to fulfill some small, yet important wish, some little dream that your child had stored in her heart and mind and was almost afraid to utter for fear it might never come true. When I was little, my brother and I would sprawl out on the floor in front of the fireplace, heads close together, and pore over The Wish Book. Remember those? They were the Christmas catalogs sent in the mail by JC Penney and Sears, and the first section was very boring because it was all clothes, but then you got to the toy part and wow! A feast for the eyes and imagination was there in living color on those glossy pages, and you could begin hoping. We were allowed to make a list but I realize now that most of what we wrote down was disregarded, our parents focusing on the two or three things we mentioned most often and then throwing in a few surprises they knew we’d like.

            For those who might ask if the real meaning of Christmas ever got lost in all of this, the answer is a resounding no. We fully understood that we were commemorating the birth of Christ, and that the gifts we gave each other were only tokens that could never surpass the real Gift. I’m not sure if I ever really believed in Santa, but I pretended I did for a long time, just because it was fun. And then I came to understand that the spirit of Saint Nicholas is a spirit of giving , that this saint who loved children really got it, and that being Santa Claus for other people is a great source of joy. Once I had children of my own, this became even more clear and real to me.

            Two of the Christmas toys I remember best are one I wasn’t expecting and one that I obsessed over for months. The unexpected one was my SST racer, actually purchased as an afterthought by my mother who realized that it was too cool to pass up, and that if my brother got one and I didn’t, I would be sad. My brother was the closest sibling to me in age and we played cars and other boy things together a lot, which was fine with me because I wasn’t especially girly. My SST racer was red and my brother’s was blue, and in my mind their awesomeness has never faded. We had a recreation room that had once been a basement, and we would race our cars in there on rainy days and they would get stuck under the furniture. On nice days we would race them down the sloping driveway, amazed at their lightning speed. Of course they were really kind of junky, but we didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if we had.

            Then there was Marvel the Mustang. I think I was three that Christmas, or maybe four. In any case, he rode from wherever we were living at the time, either New Jersey or Indiana, all the way to Jacksonville, Florida where we were spending Christmas with our grandparents. I did not know that my noble steed was hidden under the tarp up there on top of the car. I had wanted him for so long, months and months, that I had begun to doubt I would actually get him. When I did, along with a red cowboy hat, boots, and a holster with capguns, I was stunned. I rode him all Christmas Day, my imagination taking me to a thousand places. I rode him for years afterward, even after I got real ponies and even after I got way too old and too big. Marvel traveled with us when we moved from Indiana to Texas, from Texas to Alabama, from our house in Spanish Fort to a storage building while we spent a year in a condo and finally to the house on Calverdale Circle, where he was ultimately lost in the fire. He was ridden by nieces and nephews and neighborhood kids and then set aside but never given up completely until that fateful day. It wasn’t the toy, you know. It was the memories he represented-and those can never be lost.Never.

            I remember that amid the festivities, amid the cooking baking and choir practices and singing carols around the piano and the chaos of opening gifts, there were moments of quietness where I would gaze at the star, the really ugly multicolored light-up star on top of our haphazardly decorated tree, with a sense of wonder. I would think of the first Christmas and the Baby in the manger, with all of the animals gathered around (our Nativity scene had a bunny and a fawn added by me-I figured all of Creation must have come to see Him), and I would think of how it must have been for Him to give up all His glory and come down and live like one of us, going to school and work and eating meatloaf, just so he could know what it was like to be us, to feel what we felt-and then to die for us, knowing how terrible human beings could be.

            These deep and profound thoughts didn’t come to me all at once, but over time, as Christmas after Christmas was celebrated with exceeding great joy and Daddy reading A Christmas Carol  in his best Scrooge voice and reading Luke 2 while snow fell outside, or, after we moved down South, maybe some rain was pouring down or maybe it was eighty degrees, but the magic never stopped. I thought it would, after Dad’s great heart ceased to beat and his earthly voice was stilled. I have only a vague memory of that first Christmas without him, when all I could do was wish with all my heart that he could be there, and know for certain that this wish could never be. But then, as the years passed and Christmas came just the same, I realized that he was still there, enjoying it with us. And after my kids came and I stayed up until midnight putting together two wagons and a Barbie dollhouse, I came to understand that he lives, not only just beyond that veil between us and eternity, but in me and in my children. I married a man much like my father, so much so that when he refers to “Little Fairy on the Prairie” just to bug me, or reads passages from Carol in a gruff and scary voice, I experience an odd sensation that is probably as close to time travel as one can get.

            Last year when we gave Raina her horse, something that she never thought would actually happen, I understood why my parents looked like they were almost crying on those noisy, chaotic, beautiful Christmas mornings. There is an arriving full circle when you see your kids all wrapped up in wishes fulfilled. For my kids, of course, the first wish fulfilled was us-their “real, true, forever family”. Everything after that was pretty much gravy. I felt the same. That first year, that first crazy Christmas that the big yellow house on the hill was finally full, my husband asked me what I wanted. I couldn’t think of a thing, and have no clue what I actually ended up getting. I just recall squeals and shouts and two little girls and a medium-sized boy in pajamas, with remnants of chocolate Santas on their faces, celebrating Christmas, actual Christmas, for the first time in their lives. To this day they wonder: how did we get that giant Barbie house into the bedroom without them seeing? Magic, my children. Christmas magic.

            It’s not the toys, you know.


Did my sister get her baby doll? Did my brother get his bike?
Did I get that red wagon the kind that makes you fly?
Oh I hope there'll be peace on earth
I know there's good will toward men
On account of that Baby born in Bethlehem

Mom and Daddy stayed up too late last night
Oh I guess they got carried away in the Christmas candlelight
And you gotta get up ~ you gotta get up ~ you gotta get up
It's Christmas morning! –Rich Mullins