His Love is Light, and His Gospel is Peace

Today is November 15. The temperature has been chilly, with biting winds throughout most of the week. One radio station in town has already begun playing Christmas music non-stop. All the stores are hawking Christmas decorations and perfect gifts and useless boxes of crackers and cookies that no one wants to eat.

Christmas is bittersweet. Like most children, I relished the holiday. I sang Christmas carols loudly and off-key. I baked a plethora of goodies with my grandmother, pressing the fork to make perfect cross-hatches on the cheese straws and measuring the pecans for dozens of pies. I made sure my grandmother and mother did not decorate their trees on the same days so that I could helps with both. I insisted we drive around to all the best houses to see Christmas light displays.

Christmas lost the magic for me as an adult. Again, I’m sure that’s not an uncommon occurrence. My beloved Mama Kat passed away just before Christmas three years ago; more than anything, Christmas since then has represented fleeting memories and the knowledge that life must inevitably progress without those we love. Her birthday is November 19, just a few days from now, which will then lead into Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday. This season contains far too many reminders.

It’s also the most difficult time of the year to be single. So many parties and family gatherings to attend alone. And the close of a year and the start of a new, wondering when hopes and dreams will come to fruition.

I’ve already begun ripping off the metaphorical bandages. I’ve begun planning my Christmas gift-giving. I’m listening to my favorite Christmas music on my iPod. I’m occasionally fighting back tears in home decor stores because Bing Crosby starts playing over the speakers, and boy, did my grandmother love White Christmas.

I’m also reminding myself to look for hope in unexpected places. To find glimpses of the Kingdom in a fallen world. To celebrate the knowledge that our world is full of brokenness and pain, but that our hope is in Someone greater. Christmas, after all, is the intersection of brokenness and redemption, when heaven and earth collided, when the Word was made flesh to dwell among us. I miss my grandmother while acknowledging that she and I will worship together again one day. I feel flashes of loneliness with the assurance that God is protecting my heart for a future purpose that I can’t yet comprehend. I will celebrate with the people I love, knowing that the way I love my family and friends is a reflection of a Love far greater than what I am capable of.

Maybe I’m ready for Christmas after all.

Home for the Holidays

Last night, I arrived back in Greer after a week at my parent’s house, which is the longest amount of time I’d spent there in two years. This was one of the best Christmas breaks I can remember. It was restful, simple, and productive…everything I needed an extended break from my life to be.

Thanksgiving break was difficult, and in retrospect, I think that’s because I had planned so many activities into five days that I had no time to rest. I was still in the continuously frenzied, caffeinated mindset from this insane semester of working, teaching, and attending school, that I didn’t know how to slow down and just appreciate my few days off.

This time was different. First of all, the planned trip to Pennsylvania and New York fell apart less than 24 hours before we were supposed to leave, thanks to a freak storm front that moved across the east, dumping tons of snow on I-81, our route from the South to Pennsylvania. I spent those five days in Greer, shopping with Harvin, crocheting, watching The West Wing, baking, and thoroughly cleaning my room. It was as close to stress-free as I’ve been in months. Then I headed home for Christmas.

Highlights of my break:

1) The food. My family is a big fan of breakfast, so we either went out for breakfast or cooked delicious quiche and cinnamon rolls at home. Also, for Christmas Eve, my parents, brother, and I had Beaufort Stew and scallops. Delicious!

2) Christmas morning. The first gift I opened was the Director’s Cut of Watchmen that my brother bought for me. The DVD case is a Rorschach mask. It was seriously awesome. He did a great job. But the best part about Christmas morning was what I’d been looking forward to for months. My brother bought my dad a really awesome leather fire helmet, which is quite expensive. Berry bought himself one a few months ago, and he and Dad in all their conversations have talked about the benefits of having a leather helmet for a long time. Dad had no idea Berry was getting him one. It was something Dad had always wanted but never would have bought for himself. He cried when he opened the box. Then he wore the helmet around the house and sometimes just sat and looked at it. Berry wins big for best Christmas present ever. Buying gifts is the way my brother shows his love, and it pretty much made my dad’s year, I think.

3) My mom bought me the new Monopoly Deal card game for Christmas. On Saturday, Mom and I sat down and played for an hour or so. Then after dinner, my dad joined in, and the three of us played that game and Uno for three hours. We haven’t played games together like that since I was very young. It was a lot of fun.

4) My dad has recently taken up model railroading again. It was a hobby he really enjoyed for years before I was born, up through the time when we moved eleven years ago. For years, he’s talked about doing it again, but only when my brother moved out and Dad found a viable space to set up a layout did he dig out his old supplies. In the past few weeks, he’s built a platform around my brother’s old room, laid down foam and track to start the layout, and started putting together buildings. I’m super excited he has a hobby at home now. Every time I called him, until recently, if he was at home, he was sitting down watching TV. Now, he’s up, moving around, spending hours in the train room, or the “mancave,” as I’ve dubbed it. It’s good to see that my dad isn’t wasting time so much. He seems younger and more lighthearted now.

5) My parents are often planners who rarely follow through with plans. A year or so ago, they bought this huge steel shelving unit to put in our utility/laundry room. The intent was to give my mom a place to neatly organize all of her crafting and VBS supplies (she was the county association’s director for years and has tons of decorating and planning materials). Unfortunately, the nook where the shelving unit was to go was stacked with old boxes that have been in the corner since we moved in 11 years ago. Sunday and Monday, my parents and I thoroughly cleaned the entire room, getting rid of a ton of dust, dirt, and needless items, sorting through all the boxes, constructing the shelving unit, and organizing supplies into plastic bins. The result is that I sneezed a lot, we threw away huge bags of trash, and the room looks great. I have every intention of going home as often as possible and encouraging my mom to throw away stuff and organize. It felt really great to help my mom out.

Reading this post makes it seem like I had a super-busy week, but it was really quite peaceful and relaxed. I finished crocheting one scarf, crocheted a full one, and got a great start on a third scarf, all while watching The Big Bang Theory (a Christmas gift from my parents) and The Mentalist (my brother’s gift to Mom), so that was delightful. And I enjoyed being around our two cats, two dogs, and seven adorable, playful puppies. In fact, my apartment with its three residents seems a little strange now, having been around more animals than people over the last week. Maybe I should go buy another fish. A New Year’s gift to myself. Hmmm…I think I might do that today.

In other news, today is my two-year anniversary of being diabetic. I’m having much more fun today that I was two years ago.

Also, on Saturday, adventure will be had. Ticcoa, Harvin, Jessie, and I are heading to Savannah to see the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, and maybe go to Fort Pulaski and Tybee Island (yay lighthouses!). It’s going to be awesome. Expect an exuberant post next week.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Redbirds

I bought a Christmas ornament yesterday…a beautiful redbird made in Indonesia from pressed bamboo. I picked it up from the basket, twirled it between my fingers, and admired the beautiful, fragile piece of art that it is. Then I thought about how much my grandmother would have loved it. And so I bought it, in honor–and in memory–of her.

*****

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a child, my family lived in a large house divided into two apartments–our side and Mama Kat’s side. The beauty in this arrangement is that, at Christmas, we essentially had two houses to decorate. Twice the fun!

Mama Kat loved Christmas, as well, and held fast to traditions. Every year, the artificial green tree sat in the same place in her living room. Every year, she wound white Christmas lights around it, as I waited anxiously to place the ornaments on the tree. Every year, she lovingly unwrapped each ornament, slid an ornament hanger on, and handed it to me.

I was very particular even then. All the similar ornaments needed to be spaced far enough apart so as not to appear cluttered. The seemingly hundreds of crocheted white snowflakes needed to cover the tree. Her collection of ornaments featuring “The Night Before Christmas” must also be spaced accordingly. And the special, individual ornaments needed to be placed so everyone could admire them.

One in particular stands out. The flat, round ornament had a beautiful redbird displayed on its front. I knew how much Mama Kat loved birds of every size and shape, but redbirds seemed to be her particular favorite. I always hung that ornament in front.

When we finished decorating the tree, I sat and stared at the white lights. My parents always decorated our Christmas tree with colored lights and eclectic, homemade ornaments, as well as ornaments commemorating each Christmas my brother and I had experienced. I always thought the colored tree was the more beautiful tree, until I opened the door separating our side from Mama Kat’s. The green tree with the bright, white lights and all the white ornaments seemed to glow in a supernatural sort of way. It seemed so classy, so old-fashioned; it seemed to embody all that was Mama Kat.

Last year was my first Christmas on my own, and when Christmas approached, I searched for the perfect ornaments to hang from my very first Christmas tree. But as I stood in the store and stared at the boxes of lights, the choice between colored and white seemed like so much more than that. And when I chose the boxes of bright, white lights, I imagined Mama Kat’s tree, and I imagined myself as a little girl, sitting beneath it in a darkened living room, enraptured. I imagined that she would be pleased with even my simple choice of white Christmas lights. But even more so, I imagined that she would be pleased with the woman I’m becoming.

*****

Mama Kat will turn 88 years old in a little over a week, but she won’t realize it. She won’t celebrate it. She’s been in a nursing home for the past four years, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. I saw her about six weeks ago for the first time in ten months. She did not recognize me. I could find nothing to say to bring a familiar spark back to her dull, lifeless blue eyes. I could find no trace of the woman she once was. She is a shell, a fragment of her old self.

Tonight, at Radius, the discussion was about suffering. And my first instinct, as usual, is “Oh, no, I’m just fine.” As Stuart continued to talk, however, the image of my grandmother came to mind. And, suddenly, I was grateful for the darkened room. Thinking of her brings tears to my eyes and a stabbing pain to my heart. I can barely think of her without crying, and tonight, I wept silently as I prayed for my grandmother.

It seems that everytime I think of her, all I can ask is “Why?” Why her? And where is she? Where is that essence, that embodiment of my beloved grandmother?

After I saw her the last time, I cried on the phone with my mom. Then later, I called my dad, my grandmother’s son, and cried again. He listened to all my questions, let me cry, then confessed that he had not visited her for the same reasons. Then the conversation got significantly harder to handle, as my father told me that he’d been praying for God to be merciful and let her die.

At that moment, I told him that I was too selfish for that. I could not bear the thought of praying for that. But tonight, as I thought about suffering and Alzheimer’s and little redbirds, I finally prayed. I prayed for my grandmother’s suffering to end. I thought about how it would finally be for her, to be free from her ravaged mind, to meet Jesus and be whole again.

In the meantime, I have my cherished memories, and white Christmas lights, and my own little redbird to remind me of her.