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Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

It is a truth universally acknowledged that December in the Northeast (and at many latitudes) is dark.

We are here: two weeks from the solstice, at the beginning of winter, digging out from our first real snowstorm of the season. We’ve had some grey days, too, making natural light even harder to find. And, of course, this season comes with particular emotional challenges, for me and for a lot of folks I know.

I’m not going all out on the decor this year: for one thing, too much glitz and glitter would overwhelm my studio apartment. For another, it feels truer to look for, or create, some pinpricks of light here and there. The twinkly effect of the tree candleholders on my mantel, or my tiny Christmas tree made from coat hangers, garland and colored lights, feels gentler and more real than anything big or bright or flashy.  (It also – and this is no coincidence – feels more like Advent, the season we are in, and my favorite part of the church year.)

This week, my friend Lauryn came over to help me put up the little tree I’ve had since I lived alone as a recent college grad, and have carted around to every house since. We strung lights and listened to Christmas carols, and I pulled out a couple dozen favorite ornaments. The tree is shining softly on the fireplace, where it lights up the whole living area.

tree-fireplace-books

I’m enjoying twinkle lights around town, too: in shop windows, on bare-branched trees, in my neighbors’ living rooms, shining through the curtains. The light shines in the darkness, and it feels hopeful and cheery and brave.

Where are you finding light in this season? Please share, if you like.

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jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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cotton mural texas

The shape of our Christmas journey has changed a little over the past few years.

When we moved to Boston, J’s parents and sister were still living in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, where he grew up. My father-in-law talked for years about retiring to “the country,” but I secretly never believed they’d actually do it. Until one summer day in 2015 when they shocked us all by announcing they were moving to a tiny East Texas town we’d never heard of.

Now, instead of staying in the suburbs, we fly into DFW, pick up the rental car and drive east for about an hour, to a cluster of small towns set off the highways amid cotton fields, (mostly) defunct railroad tracks and a few smallish lakes.

lake ray Hubbard Texas

It’s still a relatively quick drive into Dallas, and we end up going in at least once while we’re there, to meet up with J’s high school choir friends and sing Christmas carols. My husband, the lifelong choir nerd, is not a fan of most pop Christmas music, but he loves – and so do I – the chance to sing a cappella arrangements of the classics.

girls caroling

It always takes us a few songs to warm up, and there’s always at least one carol we don’t quite hit (this year it was O Tannenbaum). But we find our way through the familiar sheet music, singing Hark the Herald and Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Come All Ye Faithful (with at least the first verse in Latin). We always do multiple renditions of Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Jingle Bells, and this year, Kelly had a surprise for us: actual sheet music for the absurdly complex version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wind up with a few non-Christmas classics: the alma mater (even I know all the words) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

The weather was mild this year: blue skies, brisk but not biting winds, and temps in the vicinity of 60 (!) degrees. J took advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, but I made several drives to the park we discovered last year, where, it turns out, I love to run.

park pond blue sky

At the front end of a 10-day trip filled with people, those long solo loops around the pond and the neighborhood saved my life, and helped settle me after a rough travel day.

We kept a few of the traditions we’ve established over the years: the caroling party, a trip to the local pie place to meet J’s aunt and cousins for lunch (and pie); the family gift exchange, where my niece, Annie, got more presents than all of us (also a tradition). And we tried a few new things: Korean barbecue with my sister-in-law, some Tempranillo at the local winery, my in-laws’ new church.

I struggle sometimes to savor our days in East Texas, because I’m already looking forward to what always comes after them: Christmas in my hometown with all the traditions I love, and a few crowded, love-filled days with friends in Abilene.

But this year, for whatever reason, I was (mostly) able to slow down and enjoy this first leg. I wanted to really notice the blue sky and the cotton fields and the sun-bleached buildings. I wanted to remember: there is real life out here, in this place. I wanted to pay attention.

We’re (slowly) finding our way into the new year over here. I hope you are too.

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birch bark reindeer

On Monday morning, I dropped off a thick stack of Christmas cards at the post office.

The hubs and I sat at the kitchen table the night before, listening to Christmas music, surrounded by sticky labels and the ever-changing list I print off and then mark up every year. We both reached for our phones several times to text friends for new addresses. As I said to Jaclyn, the act of virtually asking for a physical address seems to capture December in the modern world. (That might go double for Jaclyn herself: we met online, have exchanged many snail-mail letters and even met in person a few times, and are mostly keeping up via text and blogs these days.)

I only write down many of these addresses once or twice a year: my aunt and grandparents near San Antonio, my housemates from grad school in England. A cluster of houses in southwest Missouri, where my dad grew up and his family (by blood and by choice) still lives.

Some of these folks I don’t talk to all that often, and haven’t seen for years. But their addresses, and the physical act of writing them by hand, are in there. And sending Christmas cards – choosing a photo, scrambling to update the list, finding an hour to scribble notes on the back of each card to our loved ones – is one of the small but important rituals of the season.

Christmas tree snoopy

Last week, on a rare weeknight at home together, we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol over bowls of spicy carrot-ginger soup, delighting in the songs and silliness and cracking up at the asides by Rizzo and Gonzo. This weekend, we ordered takeout from our favorite Indian place and watched White Christmas. I giggled at Danny Kaye’s facial expressions, marveled at Vera-Ellen’s footwork, and welled up when the General walked down the stairs in his uniform. (Every year.)

So much (I keep saying) has changed in the last few years: my job(s), our address(es), the way we navigate so much of our daily lives. This year, Advent has felt hard and different; I’ve missed some of my usual traditions, like the church Christmas pageant and the a cappella notes of O Come O Come Emmanuel.

But some of the season’s tiny rituals remain the same. J has hung the felt mistletoe ball in the doorway between the dining and living room. The words in my Advent book are still there, sustaining and comforting and sometimes shaking me awake, as I page through them before bed. The cyclamen and poinsettias at my florist are vivid and glorious. The shop windows all over town are sparkly and festive. I’m fighting (hopefully defeating) my annual December cold, and laughing at my sister’s photos of her Elf on the Shelf, Oliver, and his antics.

poinsettias brattle square florist red flowers Cambridge

We are making travel plans, packing, doing laundry, finishing up the Christmas shopping. I am humming the familiar carols, and singing them with others, when I can. (We spent Sunday morning at a lessons and carols service that fed my soul and made my heart sing.) We bought (more) wrapping paper and Scotch tape this weekend, and the tiny coat-hanger tree I’ve had for twenty years is sparkling away on top of the microwave.

Some of our neighbors have set electric candles in their windows, and the sight warms me when I glance outside after dark. Before I go to bed, I pause in the kitchen to glance out the window at the quiet street, then in the living room to take in the glow of the Christmas tree before unplugging it for the night. So much of each day feels hurried and hectic, but just for a moment each night, there is peace.

Advent is about the waiting, the longing, the gaps between what ought to be and what has not yet come. We are waiting, we are hurting, we are tiptoeing toward Christmas. And while we wait, I am savoring every bit of joy.

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wreath old south church Boston

It’s a cold, diamond-bright December, with sharp blue skies and angled shadows that stretch long beginning in the early afternoons. I hurry along the sidewalk in my green coat and fleece-lined tights, avoiding the loose tiles and listening to the repeated entreaties from the homeless guys. I dig in my purse for the bright pink strap that holds my work ID, nod to the security guy and the construction crew in our building. Every week the work looks different: dangling wires, fresh plywood, so many cables and work boots and dust.

Katie selfie mirror post bike ride

There hasn’t been much snow so far. If I bundle up well enough, pull on a vest and two pairs of gloves and a blue fleece-lined headband, I can still hop a Blue Bike across the river from Harvard Square in the early mornings. I’ve come to enjoy skimming down Mt. Auburn St. to Mass Ave, then across the bridge by MIT, heading for the skyline, from the old neighborhood to the new.

commonwealth avenue brownstones Boston blue sky

We finished up Morning Prayers with a week of Advent hymns: Comfort, comfort ye my people. Watchman, tell us of the night. People, look east, the time is near. On Friday, after the final service of the term, we crowded into the kitchen downstairs for coffee and blueberry cake. I took my husband to the carol service on Sunday night, red poinsettias and thundering organ music and clear voices ringing out from the balcony. We stood with the congregation and sang a few of my favorites: Silent Night, Hark the Herald, Angels We Have Heard on High with its trilling Gloria.

red poinsettias flowers church

I’m thumbing through my Advent book again, reading wisdom from Sylvia Plath and Kathleen Norris, poetry and plainspoken prose, awe and wonder, longing and praise. For the first time in years, we are adrift this Advent, unmoored from a church community, except for my mornings at Mem Church. It feels strange and hard, and also this is where we are: right in the middle of more change and transition, of messy, ordinary life.

My florist’s shop is bursting with poinsettias and cyclamen, with miniature trees and tiny birch-bark reindeer. I stop in weekly, still, for roses and red tulips and a hug from Stephen. At home, we’ve finally decked our tall tree with ornaments, a colorful hodgepodge of old and new. The Christmas shopping is half done, the cards ordered and received but not sent, the packing not even thought about. We are living in the in between.

snoopy tree lights Christmas

I watch the sun rise out the kitchen window, my elbow brushing the geranium still stubbornly bursting with scarlet flowers. I sink into bed at night with a book, the glow of the Christmas tree from the living room just visible through the doorway. I take solace in a hot cup of chai, in the smile of a friend. I keep moving, because that is, as always, the only thing to do.

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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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sumac river trail

December has arrived – suddenly, it seems. My neighbors are putting up twinkle lights, and the church sanctuary is full of pine garland, poinsettias and cyclamen. We began Advent on Sunday with the aching melody of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I’m slowly setting out the Christmas decorations and turning back to the words of hope in my Advent book.

Alongside all of that, it is dark. So dark.

Not only does the sun slip below the horizon as I’m finishing my workdays, but the news out of Washington and elsewhere is (still) so disheartening. I have friends who are grieving, weary, afraid. I am struggling with heartbreak, change, loss, fear. I know so many people who are waiting: for test results or resolution or even the tiniest scrap of good news.

In the midst of the darkness (literal and metaphorical), I know there are pinpricks of light, even when I can’t see them. In an effort to remind myself of this fact, I thought it was time for another list of what’s saving my life now:

  • Laurie Sheck’s poem “The Annunciation,” where I found the phrase “honest grace.” Kathleen Norris mentions it in her essay “Annunciation,” and I finally looked it up after meaning to do so for years.
  • Seeing birds’ nests in the bare trees and thinking of Lindsey.
  • Tulips for my desk and the weekly chat with my florist, who is the dearest man.
  • Bracing, practical, sarcastic advice from a writer colleague.
  • I say this every single day: Darwin’s. The ritual of walking down there; the delicious drinks and nourishing food; the familiar rhythm of the place; and most of all, the warmth from my café people.

chai darwins red bracelets

  • Laughter with my coworkers, whenever and however it comes.
  • Morning Prayers at Mem Church, which is wrapping up for the fall: thoughtful words, lovely music, the ritual of repeating the Lord’s Prayer and singing (often sight-reading) the daily hymns.
  • Texts from a few friends who are my lifelines.
  • The return of my winter uniform: striped dress + black leggings (fleece-lined when I need them) + ankle boots + scarf + magic green coat.
  • Weekly phone calls with my parents and looking forward to Christmas together.
  • Twinkle lights wrapped around anything.
  • Susannah Conway’s lovely December Reflections project on Instagram.
  • Walking and sometimes running on the river trail: on bold blue weekend afternoons or under dark weeknight skies after work.
  • In my ears on those walks and at other times: the Wailin’ Jennys and Hamilton. An odd mix, but it’s working for me.

sunrise early winter blue gold

  • Sunrises seen from the kitchen window: fiery orange over the treetops, or blue with silver-streaked clouds.
  • Yoga on my green mat at home (even 10 minutes can help) or at Healing Tree.
  • The boot camp I’m doing on Monday nights, taught by my favorite yoga instructor. So fun and empowering.
  • Slapdash huevos rancheros after said workout, every Monday night.
  • My morning routine: snooze button + hot shower + sunrise gazing + tea in a purple travel mug + scone eaten en route to the trolley stop.
  • Takeout from our favorite Indian place and a few hilarious episodes of Modern Family with the hubs.
  • Putting the world to rights over paella and wine with a girlfriend.
  • The words that have carried me over many months.

What is saving your life these days? Please share, if you like.

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