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Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

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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betsy boys presents christmas

I never quite know how to write about Christmas, once it’s over. The presents have all been opened and admired, the holiday cards (finally) sent out, the suitcases packed and repacked and finally unpacked. We’re back in the routine of work and winter and daily life, and the 10 days we spent in Texas, driving up and down I-20 to see people we love, seem very far away.

This year will go down as the year of not-quite-normal: so many of our usual family traditions were altered or skipped over altogether. My sister has two small boys and was hobbling around in a knee brace this year (see above), so we opened family presents at her house instead of at my parents’ on Christmas Eve. For the same reason, J and I drove to Christmas Eve service by ourselves, slipping into a center pew to listen to a sermon by an unfamiliar minister. My dad, despite his best efforts, could not find any eggnog, so we missed having our annual cup together. And the small-child chaos was such that we completely forgot to read Luke 2 aloud before diving into the presents.

My husband’s family moved to a new house in a new town this summer, so we spent the first weekend of our trip navigating unfamiliar territory – a string of small towns in the East Texas countryside. The weather swung wildly from unseasonably warm (73 degrees on Christmas Day) to icy sleet and snow two days later. Our favorite Mexican restaurant was closed on the day we tried to go, and I had a 24-hour bug earlier in the week that prevented me from enjoying another Tex-Mex meal with my parents. All in all, it felt – I have to say – a little weird.

And yet.

On a breezy Monday night, J and I stood in a semicircle and sang Christmas carols a cappella with a few of his choir buddies from high school. The notes of those familiar tunes – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” an absurdly complicated arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – touched something deep inside me. This was our second time at this choral reunion, and though I am technically an outsider, they welcomed me like an old friend. Afterward, we walked to a local bar for snacks and cocktails, and told stories and laughed late into the evening.

My in-laws may have changed their address, but we are always sure of a welcome there: from J’s parents, his sister, the two cats, and three-year-old Annie, who jumped on J the minute we walked in the door and hardly let go for three days. She danced around, effervescent with joy, trying out her new rocking horse while clad in a pink princess dress. “Look at me, Uncle Miah! Watch me, Aunt Katie!”

jer annie shoulders smiles

It felt odd to be at Christmas Eve service without my parents, but their church, where I grew up, is still and always my favorite place to be on that night. We found seats in front of some family friends and lit our candles during “Silent Night.” Our beloved music minister, George, led the service with his customary joie de vivre. I slipped through the crowd to give him a hug afterward. And that felt – unmistakably – like Christmas.

My grandparents drove up from their house near San Antonio, and Pop brought me a gorgeous bookcase that he’d worked on for months. Neno brought a stack of old photos for Betsy and me to look through, and we spent a happy afternoon in Betsy’s kitchen, riffling through them and laughing and telling stories while we snacked on Pop’s guacamole and took turns making dishes for Christmas dinner.

We had all our traditional favorites: smoked brisket with Neno’s barbecue sauce, sweet potato casserole, Mom’s cranberries suspended in Jell-O, peanut butter kiss cookies. We ate several meals around the table that Pop made for Betsy, with my nephews in their high chairs and all of us squeezed in elbow to elbow. We had stockings at Mom and Dad’s on Christmas morning, with Mom’s three Christmas trees twinkling, and Dad and I sneaked in our favorite parts of Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

cookie monster christmas eve telephone

“The best is being together, even if it is chaotic,” I said to Mom after Christmas, when we were discussing this year’s craziness. And it might sound cliched, but it’s true.

The best was sitting on the big sectional couch in Betsy’s living room, telling stories and cracking up at inside family jokes and hugging my nephews (when they stood still long enough). The best was catching up with multiple friends in Abilene, cramming in so many stories from the past year, sitting around a table until nearly midnight and laughing until our sides hurt. The best was chicken and dumplings around Frankie’s table, homemade pizza with Laura and Bill, cups of chai with Lisa and Mike, hugs from Shanna and Calvin and Gail.

The best, always, is heading two thousand miles south and west, knowing what’s at the end of that road: home. (And those small, wiggly cuties we love.)

jer harrison christmas

I hope your holidays were wonderful, and that 2016 is treating you right so far.

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christmas lights tree dog slippers
I was struck recently by a couple of posts on Ali Edwards’ site about making her (our) own magic.

I love Ali’s thoughtful, practical approach to life and memory-keeping, and although I am not (nearly) the scrapbooker she is, I love seeing how she captures moments and memories for herself and her family, in each season. Her December Daily project is always so lovely, and though I haven’t participated in several years, I enjoy watching it unfold.

This year, Ali’s Day 4 post included some wise words for those of us who face challenges (personal, emotional, logistical) in this season: “Magic is something we make. We don’t always get to choose what story we step into, but we get to choose how we respond to it and how we move forward from there.”

I think this is part of the work of adulthood: recognizing that we are, largely, responsible for our own internal weather. We can choose – ideally, with wisdom and grace – how to respond to, and move forward from, what happens to us. (We can also choose to be gentle with ourselves when we don’t respond well initially. We are human, after all.)

In a season like this one, which can be fraught with so many expectations (our own and other people’s), this is key. We get to choose how we respond to the delights and pressures of the season.

Sometimes, that means making the effort to create our own magic – whether it’s wrapping your front porch with pine garland, as Ali did, or unraveling ten (!) strands of Christmas lights for the tree, as I did (see above).

Sometimes, it means taking a step back from all that work, and sitting quietly (even for a few minutes) to find some peace amid the bustle.

christmas tree cloister walk

I was lucky to grow up in a house where my parents worked hard to create a magic atmosphere at Christmas. My mother loves a tall, sparkling Christmas tree, and my dad gets so excited about playing “head elf” (filling stockings, distributing presents) every year. I’m still lucky to get to participate in (and contribute to) that magic when I go home for Christmas. But if I want Christmas magic in my own apartment here in Boston (oh, and I do), then it’s up to me to make it.

On Day 8, Ali wrote,  “Part of making your own magic includes setting stuff up in order to have it actually happen.” This resonated deeply with me too, because magic often takes effort and planning. There are processes – some which have solidified into traditions – in place for our magic-making. And even though it’s a lot of work sometimes, I do it, because I know I will love the outcome.

I hang the stockings, haul the boxes of ornaments up from the basement, dig out the Christmas CDs. I buy the mint M&Ms to fill the candy dish (and some plain M&Ms, too, because my husband likes those better). I keep apple cider in the fridge. I buy wrapping paper and extra Scotch tape and order Christmas cards. My husband chips in to help, of course, but I am the chief magic-maker at our house. And it feels good. Satisfying. Magical, even.

How do you make magic for yourself in this season?

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merry and bright

christmas card 2014

From our household to yours, the happiest of holidays.

I’m taking the week off, friends. See you back here next week.

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red door wreath cambridge christmas

I love so many things about this festive season: the traditional decorations and music, the fun of buying gifts for friends and family, the Christmas cards that show up in my mailbox,  the reverent preparation of Advent.

I know Christmas is beset by commercialism these days (the sale emails are piling up in my inbox), but I confess I love a festive shop window (or outdoor display). And the streets of Harvard Square, where I work, are bursting with holiday spirit.

The Brattle Square Florist has piles of fresh-smelling greens, which spill out onto the sidewalk:

brattle square florist christmas reindeer

I love the little birch reindeer.

The barbershop down the street has Linus, Lucy, Frosty the Snowman and the whole gang from the Claymation version of Rudolph. (Yukon Cornelius! Hermey the elf!)

rudolph christmas barbershop cambridge

I spotted this deconstructed reindeer outside a landscaper’s office.

abstract reindeer cambridge christmas

The cupcake shop Sweet has gotten into the spirit:

pink christmas tree sweet cambridge

At Black Ink, the display is subtle but festive. (I could spend hundreds of dollars in here.)

christmas cards window black ink cambridge

And the Anthropologie windows, as always, are sheer magic.

anthropologie christmas window cambridge

What does this season look like in your neighborhood? Any fun window displays?

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get your jingle on sign christmas

We put up our Christmas tree last weekend, while listening to the traditional Christmas music: the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, Elvis’ Blue Christmas, and some a cappella carols by the Robert Shaw Chorale – my husband’s choice. (They take him back to his high school days, singing carols with his show choir while wearing a Dickensian suit and top hat.)

christmas tree

I always love unwrapping our funky, mismatched ornaments and reminiscing about their origins: This ruby slipper came from the Smithsonian gift shop in D.C. Jana gave me this bell when I helped assemble her kids’ teacher gifts one year. These glass balls came from my parents’ first Christmas tree.

Every year, I share a few photos of beloved ornaments and their stories. For the sixth (!) year, here they are:

songbird ornament music

Last December, when J and I met Shanna for a pre-Christmas lunch in Abilene, she handed us this lovely bird ornament – “because you guys are my songbird friends,” she said. I miss singing with Shanna at church (she used to live here in Boston, but lives in Atlanta now), but the songbird makes me smile.

gingerbread house ornament

I ordered a set of three stuffed gingerbread houses from Etsy a few years ago. I gave two of them to my friends Abi and Bethany, and kept this one for myself. We all lived in Abilene at the time; now Bethany is in Nashville and Abi and I are in Boston. I like thinking of these ornaments on each of our trees every year.

snowflake ornament sparkly

A dozen or so of my ornaments came from It’s About Time, a lovely shop in Abilene filled with antiques and housewares and all kinds of beautiful things, run by my friend Pam. This sparkly snowflake-esque one might be my favorite.

silver bell ornament

For our first Christmas as a married couple, my mom gave us a gift card to buy our Christmas tree and a few dozen ornaments from Hobby Lobby. These silver bells are from that shopping trip, and of course they evoke the Bing Crosby song.

tree ornament

My aunt Charlene – my mother’s best friend, who lives in Ohio – used to send us Christmas ornaments every year. This little tree is one of them – and as the hubs pointed out, it’s so meta. A tree on a tree.

If you celebrate, do you have a color-coordinated tree, or one with assorted ornaments, like mine? (If you have ornament stories, I’d love to hear them.)

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