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Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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book stack christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. I hope your holidays were wonderful. Mine involved our usual Texas tour: lots of family time, Tex-Mex food and twinkliness. (Then a quiet New Year’s weekend to recover.)

Here are the books I read in the second half of December – mostly on our vacation:

Ghosts of Greenglass House, Kate Milford
Milo Pine is looking forward to a quiet Christmas with his parents. But for the second year in a row, that’s not happening: the titular hotel where they live is invaded by a pair of thieves and a mysterious group of carolers (the Waits). I enjoyed this sequel to Greenglass House, though the magic got a little muddled at times.

You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins
Spanning four decades (1970s to present day), this YA novel unfolds the saga of the Das family as they move between India and the U.S., through the voices of five women. A great story of sisterhood and the push and pull between tradition, family and making your own way. I read it in one sitting on a flight.

A Casualty of War, Charles Todd
The Great War is nearly over, but for nurse Bess Crawford, there’s still much to be done for the soldiers in her care. The plight of one such soldier, a Captain Travis, sends Bess and her friend Simon Brandon to Suffolk to investigate his family history. I’ve enjoyed this series, but the previous few books have stalled a bit. This one, however, was excellent.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, Jenny Colgan
As Christmas approaches, baker Polly Waterford is struggling: she’s exhausted at work, ambivalent about her boyfriend’s marriage proposal and worried about her pregnant best friend. I like Colgan’s cheery chick lit; this one wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed seeing these characters again.

The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
I’d never read this fantasy novel, but picked it up when Robert Macfarlane (whose nonfiction I adore) announced a readalong on Twitter. I loved the story: full of beautiful lines, ancient magic and bravery, as 11-year-old Will Stanton discovers he’s part of a mysterious circle that must hold back the Dark. It’s set at midwinter/Christmastime, which felt so apt. Now I want to read the rest of the series.

Leopard at the Door, Jennifer McVeigh
I grabbed this at the (rather uninspiring) DFW airport bookstore, and spent my flight home wholly absorbed in it. Rachel Fullsmith returns home to Kenya after six miserable years in an English boarding school. Her widowed father has taken up with a cold, manipulative woman, and there is increasing unrest among the Kenyan laborers. Vivid images, gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story of those caught up in the Mau Mau uprising. (I also enjoyed McVeigh’s debut, The Fever Tree.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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tree lights bookshelf christmas

This Advent, as I said last week, has felt a bit disjointed.

Instead of quiet and hopeful (which is admittedly a stretch, given the headlines lately), I have felt hesitant, restless, even a little angry. So much has shifted, in my life and in the world, this year, and though I’m glad to see Advent come again, my usual traditions aren’t really working. Instead of reading Watch for the Light on a near-daily basis, I’ve picked it up only a few times. I’ve been diving into Star Wars novels instead of my typical Advent stack, and even the carols haven’t been quite as present.

And yet.

At the last Morning Prayers service of the fall semester, Lucy began by reading a passage from 1 Corinthians 16: Be watchful. Stand firm in your faith. Be strong. Be courageous. Let all that you do be done in love. I took those words as a charge, especially the last two sentences. And I believed her when she said, a few minutes later, “The promise of Advent is that we will be met by the One who loves us, no matter.”

Two days later, at church, Emily read aloud from Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. Centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah spoke to a people who were weary and heartbroken. He had harsh words for them, sometimes – but he also offered comfort and hope.

I’ve been thinking, as I often do in Advent, about Mary: reading Laurie Sheck’s words about the “honest grace” of her body, her inability to hide her fear, her acknowledgment that her hands are “simply empty.” She was young and untried, alone and afraid. But as Kathleen Norris says in her essay on the Annunciation, “Mary proceeds – as we must do in life – making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead.” She walked forward, with courage and love, into a new reality that must have felt uncertain, precarious, dark.

Singing carols this year feels more like an act of tenuous hope than an affirmation of faith or joy: the promise of God’s coming into our midst feels a long way off. But I am still humming O Come O Come Emmanuel, with all its aching longing. I am thinking, like my friend Claire, about the middle verses of beloved carols, which wrestle with the darkness and also seek out the spark of light. I am hearing again the voices of my dad’s friends Buddy and Clay, singing O Holy Night at our church in Dallas when I was a little girl: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. And I am humming the Magnificat, with Rachel’s words in mind.

Some days, it feels disingenuous to sing these songs: there is so much grieving, so much wrong, so much yet to be made right. But on other days it feels like an act of faith, one tiny candle flickering against the darkness. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

Amen.

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candle books snowflake peace

We are nearly halfway through Advent, the quiet, candlelit season leading to Christmas (which is often beset by the noise of daily life, on all sides). While I’m usually eager to step into Advent, this year I stood waiting at the door, so to speak, for days.

I am exhausted after the rush and press of a hectic fall, distressed by the news headlines, worried and saddened by the heaviness of the world and my own heart. As Rachel Held Evans observed recently, the usual ethos of Advent – the stillness and hope – has not felt quite right, this year.

We still showed up at church on a Saturday morning, though, to drape pine garland around doorways and ledges, to fill window boxes with cyclamen and green boxwood. That night, I finally pulled out the tiny coat-hanger tree that my friend Tiffany made for a Secret Santa exchange, twenty years ago. Every year, I hold my breath as I plug it in, hoping the colored lights will still shine. Every year, they wink out at me from the blue-green branches, the wires and foil held together by masking tape and hope.

kitchen stove kettle tree

The next day at church, we sang the hymn that encapsulates Advent’s longing for me: “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I rubbed my fingers across the pine wreaths my friend Sarah had brought, and inhaled their sharp green scent. It smelled like Advent: like the promise of something fresh and bracing, even as the world outside grows quiet and dark.

Later, I stood behind the pulpit to welcome everyone, and borrowed a line from another Sarah. As my husband lit the first purple candle, I talked about how Advent is for the ones who grieve; who long; who hope. This year, maybe more than ever, we are stumbling forward in the dark, unsure whether we will find our way. But we believe that the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

That afternoon, I took a long walk on the river trail, along paths that have grown familiar, past benches and bare trees and slender, waving reeds. The morning’s sunshine had all but disappeared: a blanket of grey clouds covered the sky. As I turned toward home, it was rapidly growing dark. Yet the edges of the clouds still held a faint glow: I knew there was light behind them, even though the day had grown dim.

We hauled the tree up out of the basement that night, and unraveled eight strands of lights while listening to the King’s College singers. It sat in the living room, unadorned, for an entire week: the ornaments waited in their boxes for an evening when we had the time and inclination to unwrap them. The tree looked a little sad to me at first, but I came to enjoy its quiet glow, its patient waiting.

christmas tree lights snoopy

Advent is about acknowledging this difficult truth: not everything is as it should be, not yet.

I keep thinking of Nichole Nordeman’s words, which I wrote about after Thanksgiving: surely you can see that we are thirsty and afraid. They mingle in my head with a line from “O Holy Night:” a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. Somehow, at the same time, both of these things are true.

We are tired and thirsty, weary and fearful; we are not sure how, or when, or even if God will come. At the same time, our hearts quicken with a hope we can’t explain or understand: a quiet undercurrent, a bubbling thrill of joy.

Advent is about these contradictions: walking forward in the darkness, clinging to the promise of the Light. It’s about acknowledging the hurt and the fear, the injustice and the gaping need, the despair that threatens to overwhelm us. And it is choosing to believe the words we read again every year: Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord your God. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Behold, I am making all things new. 

We choose hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. We sing, even when the words feel make-believe rather than true. We wait and watch, together in the darkness, lighting candles and looking for the light that hovers just behind the clouds. And we pray: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

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december books 2016 christmas tree

Happy New Year, friends. How were your holidays? I hope they were lovely.

I spent the first part of my Christmas break sick in a hotel room (ugh), but did manage to squeeze in a lot of reading, both while I was sick and after I got well. So as we head into 2017, here’s the last reading roundup of 2016:

My (Not So) Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella
Katie Brenner is living her dream life in London – and trying to rise above the non-Instagrammable parts. When she’s let go, she heads home to Somerset to help her dad launch a glamping business. Everything is fine until her high-maintenance ex-boss, Demeter, shows up. Fluffy and fun with a few deeper insights. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7).

A Study in Scarlet Women
, Sherry Thomas
When Charlotte Holmes is caught in flagrante delicto with a married man, it’s the end of her reputation – but only the beginning of her career as Sherlock Holmes. This was a clever take on the Sherlock Holmes story, with a highly entertaining “Watson.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling
Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts is chock full of adventures – the Quidditch World Cup, the Triwizard Tournament – but the shadow of Lord Voldemort draws ever closer. I’m rereading these books in tandem with a friend this time around, and it is so much fun.

Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
I reread this gentle Scottish novel every December. This year I lingered in it, sometimes reading only a few pages a day. I love this story of heartbreak, quiet hope, and the ways community saves us.

A Cast of Vultures, Judith Flanders
London book editor Sam Clair is juggling cranky colleagues, nosy consultants and an epic hangover – and that’s before she gets drawn into a mystery involving arson, missing neighbors and potential drug dealing. Witty and well plotted; better than its two predecessors. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21).

The Left-Handed Fate, Kate Milford
Lucy Bluecrowne is utterly at home on her father’s privateering vessel, the titular Left-Handed Fate. But as the Fate sails the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars, Lucy and her crew are drawn into intrigue with the French, the Americans and the mysterious citizens of Nagspeake. A great adventure story with a hint of magic. (I also loved Milford’s previous novel, Greenglass House.)

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading in this brand-new year?

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emily advent reading

So said my husband a couple of weeks ago, as he opened a church service in which both the worship leader (him) and the preacher (our friend Robert) were struggling with coughs and raspy voices. We congregants crowded into the first few rows, and moved the small podium forward between the front two pews. (It’s a difference of maybe 20 feet, but when you’re fighting to be heard, every little bit helps.) The red, foil-wrapped poinsettias, flanking the altar, cast a warm glow onto the white wood.

Emily (who did not have laryngitis) read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah: A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding. And, a few verses later, They will not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain. (That phrase always gives me chills.)

Advent is a time for listening to prophetic voices: Isaiah, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel. It is a time for acknowledging what is far from right in our world: the injustice, the sadness, the hurt and the evil that threaten to overwhelm us, threaten to quench the hope we carry around. But the words of John’s Gospel, read aloud at Morning Prayers later that week, brought sudden tears to my eyes: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. These words are no less true in such dark times.

It became a running joke this month at church: three of our preachers (we have a regular rotating cast) were struggling vocally on the days they were asked to speak. J, who leads the singing most weeks, has been coughing and sneezing intermittently for nearly a month. And I lost my voice entirely on the weekend of the church Christmas party, which meant I couldn’t participate as we sang carols in Joe and Kelly’s living room. I simply had to sit and listen. But that felt like Advent in its own way.

In the wake of the past few months – not only the election, but Orlando and Berlin and so many hard things, both public and personal – I have been bombarded by a lot of noise. We live in a loud society, a clamoring and strident world, and people are angry right now, and scared. Worried for their loved ones, anxious about the future. I know I am. The voices of the prophets – whoever they are – can be muffled, or at times silenced altogether.

As we head into Christmas week (and as I struggle to regain my physical voice), I am doing my best – since I can’t talk much – to listen.

I am rereading the words in my Advent book, from Henri Nouwen, Gail Godwin, J.B. Phillips and others, about waiting for God and (meanwhile) doing our part to bring his kingdom about in this world. I am remembering the good words I’ve heard at Morning Prayers this fall, from a variety of voices I might have never encountered otherwise. I am thinking back on conversations with a few friends, who serve as prophetic voices in my own life. And I am reading, online and off, the stories of people whose experiences are wildly different from mine. (We must – I keep saying – be of interest to each other.)

I heard, recently, an unusual meditation on Mary, the mother of Jesus: the speaker named her “desperate and fearful and running for her life, yet brave, courageous, the mother of God.” I have long loved the image of Mary from the end of Luke 2, when, overwhelmed by momentous events and new circumstances, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” In a time when I often feel desperate and fearful, and when there is so much to ponder, I am trying to be like Mary: brave and thoughtful, and willing to listen for the hope I know is there.

If you’re celebrating this week, merry Christmas, friends. And no matter what holidays you observe (or don’t), I wish you joy and peace – and the full use of your voices – as we head into the end of 2016.

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get your jingle on sign christmas

The holiday season is in full swing over here, and the reading has slowed waaaay down. But here’s what I have been reading lately, when I’ve had the chance (and the brain space):

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA, Doug Mack
What, exactly, is a U.S. territory? What rights and privileges do its residents have? Should the U.S. even have territories if it calls itself a leading democracy? Mack delves deeply into the convoluted history of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa (and travels to all of the above) to find out. Witty, thoughtful and very informative. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 14, 2017).

A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
Madeleine Maxwell (“Max”) and her crew of time-jumping historians are at it again – this time headed to Bronze Age Troy. This third book in Taylor’s series skips around wildly in history, often to confusing effect – still fun, though sometimes frustrating.

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
What is the key to a meaningful life? Smith explores four “pillars” of meaning – belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence – and shares lots of data and case studies to explore how people can seek and find meaning. Thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 10, 2017).

Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France, Thad Carhart
I adored Carhart’s first memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This book recounts the three years Carhart spent in Fontainebleau (near Paris) as a young boy in the 1950s, when his dad was a NATO officer. The memories are interspersed with reflections on the history and ongoing restoration of the Château de Fontainebleau. Charming, thoughtful and vividly described. (Bought at the gorgeous Albertine Books in NYC.)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling
This is – I’ve said it before – the book that breaks this series wide open. It all builds up to the last 70 or so pages, when suddenly everything is darker and bigger and wildly different than you thought it was. (It also introduces two of my favorite characters – Remus Lupin and Sirius Black.) LOVE.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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