Reason for the Season

Standard

Jesus-in-the-manger

It feels special to me that the first Sunday of Advent has fallen on December 1, the same date on which we open the first window on our Advent calendar. When my kids were young, they would fight to be the one to open the little window and extract the toy that would hang on the Advent tree. Today at Mass, the Advent Wreath is blessed and the first candle lit. It is the start of a season of waiting in darkness for the Light of the World.

I love the month of December with its promise of Christmas. It’s true that the weather has turned cold, and there’s always the possibility of snow to slow things down. The trees are stripped bare, and nature looks stark and uninviting. Nighttime comes earlier and earlier as we head toward the winter solstice, and many nights I long to go to bed early, a bit of human hibernation.

During this season, I love to play George Winston’s aptly titled album December as I drive around doing Christmas errands or sit at the kitchen table addressing Christmas cards. The gentle piano music puts me in a meditative mood that is just right for the season of Advent.

Advent is about waiting: waiting for families to come together, waiting for healing strength, sometimes even waiting for a miracle. Contemplating the story of a poor and helpless infant being born in the dark of night, in the unsanitary conditions of a stable with a feeding trough for a bed: it’s hard to fathom the mystery of this tiny child being the salvation of the world.

It’s a joyful kind of waiting, though. Christmas is coming. Hope and love are its harbingers. The twinkling lights and jingle bells of the season break through the darkness and fill us with anticipation. Our spirits lift, and we pour out the excess on the people we encounter.

It’s easy to get lost in the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle. There is so much to do: gifts to buy and wrap, cookies to bake, travel arrangements to make, holiday meals to plan. Advent is designed to help us keep our hearts and minds on the reason for the season: the birth of the Christ child and what that means for our world.

In the stillness of the winter, we can listen to the promptings of the spirit and truly prepare ourselves to receive the greatest gift of all.

 

Attitude of Gratitude

Standard

images

The other day my husband, daughter and I were talking about materialism. A classmate of hers had written an essay about the subject, and we were debating the ability of a capitalistic society to eradicate greed and the obsession with possessions. My husband said he had recently read that 80 percent of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day.

It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have. At times I get disgusted with my unruly hair or impatient when our home technology goes on the fritz. Taking for granted my access to an abundance of food, I bemoan my inability to lose weight. I complain about being stuck in my car in heavy traffic while others are waiting out in the cold at a bus stop. I grumble about long lines at the supermarket without being grateful that I have the means to shop there in the first place.

It’s easy to take our good fortune for granted. We come to assume it as a right rather than a privilege. In a novel I recently read, the aristocratic British characters move through the world in a state of entitlement, little appreciating or understanding how most of their fellow Brits live.

During this Thanksgiving week, it’s a great time to take stock of the many blessings in our lives. Rather than lamenting the cold and blustery weather, we can appreciate having warmth and shelter from the elements. Instead of bellyaching about long to-do lists, we can be happy that our families are together and that we will have a table full of food to share.

Very early this morning, my son arrived safely in Chicago after a particularly turbulent flight through some intense storms. My husband picked him up from the airport at a time when most of the world, myself included, was fast asleep. Their voices awakened me as they entered the house, but instead of being annoyed, I was grateful to have my entire family safely under one roof together.

For the next few days, thousands of people will be traveling to be with their loved ones, break bread, and celebrate one of the least commercialized holidays in America. Let’s cultivate an attitude of gratitude for all that we have and all that we are to each other.

 

Make Cocoa, Not War

Standard

images-7

Record low temperatures in the Midwest are making it feel more like January 14 than November 14. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas? With snow and ice on the ground, my big red parka pressed into service, and recent forays into shopping malls, I am getting the Christmas spirit early this year. I may even have to start listening to the “Holiday Lite,” a local radio station playing festive tunes 24/7.

Of course, along with the peppermint mochas and the jingle bells come the inevitable complaints about the “war on Christmas.” Despite the fact that no one has ever been attacked for saying “Merry Christmas” or wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, many will have to carp publicly about the near death of an entrenched and ubiquitous holiday that shows no signs of dying out.

What these people are really upset about are efforts in the public sphere to be more inclusive of others who don’t share the tradition of celebrating Christmas. Thus the removal of creches from the county courthouse and religious hymns from the public school music program. A certain portion of our populace insists that America was founded as a Christian nation and that attempts to remove religious symbols and customs from public places is the first step toward Hell in a hand basket. Conveniently left out of this argument, of course, is that pesky First Amendment with its anti-establishment clause.

Also ignored is one of the principles that makes our democracy shine: protection of minorities. We are only free to the extent that we respect the rights of each and every American. Besides, being inclusive of people with different beliefs and customs makes life more interesting and fun.

I’ll never forget the year I volunteered to help with the winter holiday party in my son’s second grade class. In an effort to include different holiday traditions, we were having a Hanukkah station where kids learned to play the dreidel game. I was assigned to prepare and run the dreidel station, but I had no idea what to do. There was a single Jewish child in my son’s class, and the boys happened to be friends. So I called Jack’s mother and asked for her help with the dreidel game. She replied with a laugh, “I’d be happy to help. But I’m Muslim, so I don’t know anything about the game either!”

Life in the great melting pot of America is more colorful when we embrace each other’s language, foods, customs, and celebrations. That doesn’t in any way diminish our enjoyment of our own.

So by all means, wish anyone you’d like a “Merry Christmas.” I’m pretty sure that’s not an endangered expression. Meanwhile, baby, it’s cold outside!

 

Not Falling for Halloween Decor

Standard

 

U+59czClQ5WMzXrgmJiKcQ
My minimalist Halloween decor

I’ve made it clear in previous posts that I’m not a big fan of Halloween. When my kids were little, it always caused too much anxiety and excitement, sugar highs followed by colossal meltdowns.

Still, I always felt obligated to participate in the annual ritual of choosing costumes, returning costumes, choosing new costumes, buying hordes of candy, and sprucing up the house come October 1. Dutifully I’d haul up the large orange plastic boxes to the eager impatience of my children.

In our house, the sine qua non of holiday decor was the vinyl window cling. My kids had no end of fun situating these reusable stickers on our sliding glass doors and the front windows of the house. By the end of the season, the glass was covered by sticky fingerprints. I was incredibly cheap about holiday decorations, so our Halloween pumpkins, ghosts etc. didn’t exactly scream, classy. This was fortunate, though, because my children never met a decorative item that they couldn’t find a way to chip or break. We even had a headless Joseph as part of our Christmas manger scene for a while.

Nowadays, with my children grown, I’m much more understated about my Halloween decorations. It takes all of 15 minutes to put them up, and there are no complaints that my little faux trick-or-treaters standing sentinel at the front door are not scary enough. I am, however, in the minority around my neighborhood. People in my town really do it up big for Halloween: lights, inflatables, ghouls hanging from trees, you name it. One house in town is full on decorated for Dia de los Muertos, complete with two female mannequins standing in their front yard wearing festive dresses and Day of the Dead skeleton masks.

Some of the decorations my neighbors put up for Halloween are downright terrifying, and the homeowners even create their own sort of haunted house thrills on Halloween night as trick-or-treaters come by. For instance, my mild-mannered neighbor around the corner comes out from behind his house brandishing a fake chainsaw and chasing hapless candy seekers. this guy is so scary he almost caused my husband to call 911 one year when said hubby approached the house with our kids.

I love fall: the colorful leaves, the scent of woodsmoke, the taste of pumpkin treats, the crisp, cool days. But I can take or leave the Halloween hoopla. Soon it be will time to think about my favorite holiday: Christmas!

Letting Go

Standard

Unknown-12

On this day of the autumnal equinox, we welcome the season of fall. There was a bit of a chill in the air during outdoor yoga this morning as our instructor encouraged us to draw energy from the Earth on which we posed – and at the same time, emulate the autumn trees shedding their leaves by letting go.

I’ve seen this metaphor quite a bit this year, and it’s a lovely image. The trees let go of their leaves, returning them to the earth where they rejuvenate the soil and nourish the very tree itself. Likewise, our minds and hearts can practice letting go of all that is dead in us: thoughts, prejudices, worries, anxieties, anger and fear.

What a graceful release it can be to let go. In child’s pose, we curl ourselves toward the ground. With every breath we surrender control of our bodies, and in doing so give them renewed energy and peace as we sink into Mother Earth.

It can be liberating to let go. So much of our lives is spent with clenched teeth and held breath. We worry about our children, our health, our finances, the weary world. But as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:27, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

I once heard the mantra, “Let go and let God.” That simple advice has run through my head many times in days of stress and heartache. If you believe that there is a force greater than yourself, a force for good, you will be able to surrender to that force and stop trying to control everything around you.

I know. Easier said than done. Yet I’m confident that if we can let go of our burdens as the trees let go of their leaves this fall, we will be able to move forward with great joy.

Does Dad Need Some Daditude?

Standard

Unknown-7

Does your father or husband like to chuckle and/or laugh out loud occasionally? Do you need a last minute Father’s Day gift?

I’ve been listening to a wry, humorous, and heartwarming book of essays titled Daditude by Chris Erskine. Erskine is a Los Angeles Times writer whose columns are syndicated in my hometown Chicago Tribune under the title “The Middle Ages.” I’ve followed Erskine’s musings for a number of years now, and the man is great with a turn of phrase.

Erskine writes about the trials, tribulations, and joys of family, friends, and growing older. His tales about his brood of four kids and his long-suffering wife alternate with stories about a group of incorrigible drinking buddies. In Daditude, though, he has culled a selection of former columns about his family: rites of passage, holidays, childhood memories.

The tone of these essays is always one of tender bemusement. As much as he mocks some of his kids’ excesses (In one story, he claims his younger daughter renamed herself VISA, with a dollar sign for the “S.”), its clear how much he adores his kids and worships his wife, whom he affectionately calls “Posh” in his writing.

In descriptions of Christmases past and summers in LA, of dropping his oldest daughter off at college, and of shopping for the perfect valentine, Erskine notes the details – the little nuances of nature and human nature that many of us miss. For instance, he describes dressing his newborn son: “I can’t seem to thread this kid’s tiny hand through a shirt hole the size of a nostril.” Or the first cool day of fall: “The cool feels good. Like brushing your teeth. Like a snowy kiss.”

Some of the stories are even more poignant in retrospect, as the twin losses of his son and wife in the past two years had not yet happened. The book was published as Erskine’s wife was going through cancer treatment. Even in those columns that described Posh’s illness, Erskine retains some of the gentle humor and wry sense of the world that no doubt has helped him through such tragedy.

I highly recommend Daditude for fathers and mothers and anyone with a heart, really. As Erskine himself says in the foreword of the book, “I hope you devour this book shamelessly, like no one’s watching, like a big gooey pizza at midnight.”

 

Stupid Things To Do In Summer

Standard

Screen_Shot_2017_07_03_at_1.34.23_PM.0.pngWith Memorial Day around the corner, our fancy turns to all things summer. In the spirit of the upcoming season, I’m happy to provide a PSA on what NOT to do this summer. You’re welcome.

This summer, please don’t:

  1. Leave children or pets in hot cars.
  2. Take kids tubing on a lake without a spotter to watch them constantly.
  3. Go out into the woods without being covered in DEET.
  4. Go outside after dark without being covered in DEET.
  5. Leave anyone in a hot car.
  6. Go on a diet during barbecue/ice cream season.
  7. Drink and go boating.
  8. Drink and drive.
  9. Drink and slice watermelon.
  10. Leave mayonnaise-laden foods outside for long periods of time.
  11. Leave children unattended in any body of water.
  12. Play with fireworks.
  13. Go out in the sun without sunscreen.
  14. Fail to hydrate.
  15. Touch any three-leaf patterned plants.

I’m sure there are other potential hazards looking to spoil our summer fun. Lawn mowing, for instance, can be extremely dangerous, especially if you do it in flip flops. Sports related injuries also increase in the summer as the warm weather encourages weekend warriors to get out and run, bike, swim, rollerblade and play frisbee.

With a little common sense, though, we can fully enjoy the glory of long, warm summer days, balmy evenings roasting marshmallows by the fire, and time spent outdoors with family and friends.

So break out your white shorts and start summering it up this Memorial Day! (Safely, please)