Reason for the Season

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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.

 

Make Cocoa, Not War

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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!

 

Sweater Weather

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The other day I bought a scented lotion called “Sweater Weather.” The description on the bottle promised notes of “Sun Crisp Apples, Autumn Leaves, Orchard Woods.” The weather has turned appropriately autumn-like, and I’m sitting in my warm kitchen, my feet encased in cozy socks.

Yesterday I was a shade underdressed as I went about my errands in temps that never broke above 60. I thought about the sweaters in my closet that have lain dormant, waiting for the turn of the seasons. At this time of year, my laundry basket is a hodgepodge of shorts, tank tops, leggings, jeans and long-sleeved tops. It’s the transitional period when the weather never knows what it wants to do.

I found a meme on Facebook that I love: “The weather just went from 90 to 55 like it saw a state trooper.” That perfectly expresses life in the Midwest. One moment in flip flops, the next in snow boots.

At home, I’ve embraced the change of season by making pumpkin bread and my first pot of chili for the season. I’ve stocked the fridge with apples and apple cider. I’ve started snacking on mellow creme pumpkins, those cloyingly sweet candies that no one I know besides myself loves.

Around town, the Halloween decorations are coming out. The tips of leaves are starting to match them in their oranges and deep reds. There are days when thick gray clouds loom overhead, yet never does a drop of rain fall. That is so typical of autumn here. In contrast, there are sparkling, sunny days that belie the chill in the air.

I love this time of year. Love wrapping myself in warm clothes and shuffling through the fallen leaves, smelling their burnt scent. Love resting a blanket on my legs while plowing through the stack of books I’ve gotten from the library. Love an extra cup of coffee to ward off the chill in the air.

Sweater weather.

Letting Go

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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.

Gridiron Glory

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boy_running_with_footballI’m not a big football fan. Despite the fact that my son played the sport for many years and that America gives it almost mythological significance, the three-hour spectacle generally leaves me bored.

Still, there is something in the air when football season begins each fall. For one thing, my husband starts watching sports more often than Fox News, giving me a much-needed respite from right-wing political diatribes. As preseason stories focus on new players and team predictions, the imposing men of the gridiron dominate the media.

During my son’s teen years, I watched as he and his teammates began turning themselves from average-sized young guys into massive, bulked-up behemoths. I’d never realized that football players could be made, not born, into these giants. A simple regimen of intense weight-lifting and large amounts of food was all it took to make my boy into the Incredible Hulk. My fellow mothers of linemen surely must feel as I do. Where did our little boys go?

Tonight marks the football home opener at our local high school. For weeks I’ve seen local news stories, banners and posters, and social media posts talking up the start of Red Devil season. The cheerleaders are decked out in costume, the band is tuning up, and the stadium is getting a spruce for tonight’s kickoff. Excitement is in the air.

My son will be on hand to see his Red Devil heirs take the field. It’s fun to see him still excited about high school football, which is so much less polished but more wild and woolly than college or professional ball. Although his own football days are behind him, I can easily imagine him returning here to his hometown and coaching his own boys in the youth league. Football is as much a part of him as his dark eyes and mischievous smile.

I may not take in many games myself this fall, but I’ll savor my loved ones’ enjoyment of the sport as the days turn cool and the leaves start to fall. I’ll tend to the pot of chili on the stove as College Game Day cheers emanate from the television. It’s football season. Let the games begin!

 

Summer Cold

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It started earlier this week when my husband had a runny nose and nonstop sneezing. Sure that it was his allergies, he was disappointed in the failure of Claritin D to stop the onslaught. Then that evening, I started to feel it: the telltale tickle in the back of my throat that signaled an oncoming cold. Allergies indeed.

Having a summer cold is a strange phenomenon. While everyone is out and about on a beautiful sunny day, I am stuck on the couch with a box of tissues. Colds make sense in the depth of winter when the sun hasn’t been seen for days and the air is frigid. Then it seems appealing to have a cup of hot tea with honey or a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup. But since it’s sunny and warm these days, I’ve been using cold food and beverages – mostly water, but also the occasional bowl of ice cream – to assuage my sore throat.

I had all kinds of plans for cooking my son’s favorite dishes before he returns to college in a week. But since I look and sound like a plague victim, it seems unsafe to be handling food. And I had also planned to watch my daughter play soccer on this lovely morning, rare for August in Chicago, when the temps are moderate and the humidity low. But the weight I felt on my chest this morning when I woke up told me it would be best to get some extra rest.

Summer colds are a drag – unexpected, unpleasant, and inconvenient. In the scheme of things, I guess, my little cold is no big deal. With all my downtime, I’ve been reading a novel about a virus that turns people into vampires, creatures that the futuristic characters in the book call “virals.” In comparison, my bout of sneezing and sniffles seems like a summer breeze.

 

Summer Song

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A summer morning is the best time to hear the birds. High up in the trees, they tweet and trill and shriek their secret language while I walk along, out early to beat the August heat. Summer mornings in suburbia are quiet. Many of my neighbors are off on summer vacations. Kids sleep in, and parents enjoy the unaccustomed hush. The only other sounds I hear on my morning walk are the hiss of lawn sprinklers and the occasional whoosh of a car on asphalt.

The sounds of summer are pretty much the same ones I remember from my childhood. As the day gets going, lawnmowers roar, garbage trucks squeak by, and air conditioners hum. (Well, I guess some sounds are newer. No air conditioning in my childhood!) Kids come out and play, and their laughter and chatter can be heard on the breeze, as well as their splashing at the local public pool.

One of my favorite summer sounds is the rumble of thunder in the distance as heavy clouds roll in and a storm heads our way. Of course, I only enjoy these storms when I am safe inside with a good book. But when we lived in California, thunderstorms were one of the natural phenomena I missed most. They’re so fleeting, yet so dramatic.

As the sun goes down on a late summer day, the symphony takes to the trees once again. This time the sound is the pulsing whistle of hundreds of cicadas hidden in the upper reaches of our giant maples and elms. It’s so mysterious. You seldom actually see one of these hideous creatures other than the occasional cicada carcass that falls on the ground or the shell left behind as one grows. Yet they are undoubtedly there, singing and mating and enjoying their too-short lives.

By the time darkness falls, I am usually safely ensconced indoors, away from mosquitoes and their blood-sucking ways. Inside I’m surrounded by the sounds of modern life: the drone of TV voices, the hum of the fridge, the gentle clinks and sloshes inside the dishwasher, and nowadays the occasional ping of a smartphone receiving a text.

Tomorrow there will be the same nature songs to enjoy even as summer starts to wane and my daughter heads back to school.

Thinking about the sounds of summer reminds me of an old Chad and Jeremy number titled “Summer Song.” “They say that all good things must end some day,” sing the pop duo. So let’s enjoy them while we may.