A Little Christmas Love

25 12 2014

 

“The children were nestled, all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads…”

My visions were not of sugarplums, but of meaningful, plummy words which would capture that special feeling: the best and deepest of Christmas spirit.

It was not meant to be. Each evening that I set aside time to write this post found me overtired, overwrought, or just plain over it for the day. So there I would sit, staring blankly at a blank screen. Fingers poised above the keyboard but not moving.

My few moments of inspiration happened elsewhere, far from the computer. At one a.m. on a mist shrouded highway with two hours of driving yet to do. In the coffee kiosk at work, an unexpected gift from a customer in my hands. During a play, as the actors beautifully portrayed the Christmas Eve truce of World War I.

And as so often happens, the holiday was upon me before I realized it. Time to load my things in the car and head out of town, knowing I hadn’t accomplished everything I had planned but hoping I had done enough to at least minimally express seasonal spirit. No idea how, or even whether, a Christmas post would get written.

As children, we just accepted that we would spend Christmas with family – including some extended family we might not be overjoyed to see. Still, the choice wasn’t ours. Now, I would choose to spend the holiday with my family, but that is the one choice not available to me due to time and finances. Instead, this year I had arranged for three nights away, each night in a different home. As I drove through the mist, fog and occasional snow I felt torn. Mike, who has become family to me, was staying in Minneapolis and part of me was drawn to thoughts of a quiet day at home punctuated by some time with him. Part of me was just sad that I wasn’t in New Mexico with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. And part of my heart was singing along with the Christmas radio station, anticipating hugs and laughter with loved ones in Iowa.

My car felt like a space capsule, hurtling through unknown reaches, my internal ambivalence perfectly cocooned in the weather that shrouded familiar landmarks and softened the edges of every structure and tree. As I arrived at my first destination, early darkness and low-lying mist caused me to almost miss the turn to Molly’s house. Grateful for the lights lining her long driveway, I pulled up to the house and parked.

I rang the bell, and took a deep breath, preparing myself to project a happy face. The front door flew open and I was enveloped in a strong hug, followed immediately by a small human hurtling at me from two feet away and yelling my name in her sweet voice. Any lingering ambivalence on my part evaporated. In the space of a nanosecond I had gone from projecting happy to being happy.

My plan to stay in three different homes over three days, to see as many people as possible in that small span of time, has worked more beautifully than I could have anticipated. There have been hugs, the happy squeals of tiny tots, much laughter and a few tears shared between friends.

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Home is where the heart is”. What I’ve been learning is that we carry our hearts with us – wherever I go, for good or ill, my heart goes too. It seems more apropos to say that “Home is where we have an open heart”. Whether with family or friends, if our hearts are open to love we are home.

So, from the very bottom of my very full and open heart, I wish you love this Christmas. And I pray that, like me, wherever you are you have found home.

 

 

 

 





A Little Holiday Music…

18 12 2014

Music was always an important part of the life of my family. I missed out on the musical talent gene, but my siblings are all pretty good. And since 6 of the 8 of us could carry a decent tune, and the other two of us sang anyway (right, Dad?), music – especially singing – was woven into the fabric of our family life with unbreakable threads.

We listened to music and sang together all of the time. I remember many evenings in the kitchen on Wilbur Lane in Dubuque, a radio request show blasting through the house and out the open windows in summer. We called in, then sang along to “Which Way You Going, Billy?” or “Mama’s Got a Squeezebox”. When I was in junior high, Sundays saw us in the Cottage Grove Pizza Hut after mass. Often, we were the only customers there, playing jukebox classics like “Little Willy Willy” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, singing along for the amusement of the waitstaff.

Many were the melancholic and highly dramatic performances we kids forced our parents to admire. I mean, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” each have so many nuanced emotions to explore!

We sang in the car. At church. At home. While doing the dishes, going for walks, reminiscing. So it should come as no surprise that we adored Christmas music. We weren’t allowed to listen to it except during the period from the day after Thanksgiving (it wasn’t called Black Friday back then) until the day after Christmas – coincidentally, the same period during which we enjoyed the sight of our annual Christmas tree.

While I can’t speak for my siblings, I still love Christmas music. I am not one of those who listen to all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations. For the most part, I maintain the same restricted season I was held to in childhood, except that I have extended it through January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the celebration of the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus and the official end of the Christmas season – at least, that’s what I tell myself as I happily listen to my iTunes Christmas mix into the new year.

There are many Christmas songs, carols, and hymns I love. So I thought that this week, in honor of the season, I would share a few of my favorites – along with brief stories to illustrate why I love them. There is no hierarchy to this list, and on another day it might vary quite a bit. I have not listed a particular version or performer for all of the songs – but those that I have are, indeed, considered by me to be the definitive versions!

  • There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, by Perry Como.    Back in the day, gas stations and cereals used recordings of holiday singles as promotional items. I’m fairly certain that’s where we first came across this gem. We loved singing along as the slow opening lines, suffused with longing for home, give way to jazzy syncopation. Only Como’s version captures this sublime timing – and continues to inspire such histrionics in the Hansons. We don’t sing this song, we perform it – and we attempt to out-ham each other shamelessly.
  • Angels We Have Heard on High. This carol calls for harmony. When we got it right, we could do 6-part harmony and sound angelic. When we got it wrong, it was hilariously awful. A win-win if there ever was one. I love it now, not only for the memories it captures, but also for the sheer joy of praising something larger than myself.
  • Oh, Holy Night. I don’t really remember this hymn being on my child-radar until I was in fifth grade. We had just transferred schools after moving across town when my parents bought their first house. We started at St. Anthony’s around Halloween, and for Christmas mass that year, my sister Chris was selected from among her new classmates for the first of MANY solo performances. Quite a coup for the new kid! Her solo was a difficult one: “Oh, Holy Night”. Despite my jealousy over the attention she received AND her ability to actually sing on key, I’ll never forget hearing her clear soprano ringing from the choir loft. It was truly beautiful. These days, I’m partial to tenor versions so I can sort-of sing along. Honestly, though, every year I wish we had a recording of Chris’ sixth grade solo.
  • Adeste Fideles. Because Latin, yo!
  • Up on the Housetop, by Jack Hanson. At some point, our family acquired a piano. While Chris (though perhaps Jeff, too, eventually) was the only one to take piano lessons, we all picked out a tune here and there. One year, we decided that each member of the family would prepare a song to play for caroling on Christmas Eve. My dad painstakingly practiced a one-finger piano version of this song. He hit the exact same clunker note every. single. time. Attempting to sing along with his accompaniment led to some of the most sustained, most wholesome family laughter ever heard!
  • White Christmas, by Bing Crosby. If you prefer a different version of this song, I respectfully request that you shut your pie-hole. If you persist in touting your preference, you will be dead to me.
  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Judy Garland. 

I always liked this song. However, it wasn’t until I saw “Meet Me In St. Louis” that the song, specifically Garland’s rendition, took on cult status for me. Talk about identifying with a character and a moment – truly movie magic in my book.

  • Mele Kalikimaka, by Bing Crosby. Since the Bing Crosby “White Christmas” album is, in fact, the quintessential Christmas album, most of the tracks could have made this list. This song is here, however, because it’s unique combination of smooth vocals (by Crosby and the Andrews sisters) and odd-ball Hawaiian theme were irresistible to the Hanson children. Also, somewhere there exists video footage of Matt, Anne and me performing a lip-synch version one Christmas in the late 1980s. My hipster brother’s ukelele-playing Crosby impersonation would make Bing himself laugh uncontrollably.
  • Honorable Mentions: 

In case you have the impression that I only love Christmas music because of its association with memories and past events, I can assure you that is not the case. It has only been within the last five years, for example, that “In the Bleak Midwinter” has become a personal favorite. The polar vortex last year may have cemented my emotional connection with that one!

Also, a couple of weeks ago, I attended the Augsburg College Advent Vespers service at Central Lutheran Church here in Minneapolis. It was my second year attending this lovely event*, which includes performances by  several choirs and interesting readings (both scriptural and otherwise). Both years, I’ve heard new music that touched my heart. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the event, though, is that it includes several opportunities for all of those congregated in the cathedral-like church to sing together. “Silent Night”, accompanied by harp and voiced by over 1200 people in a candlelit church with huge vaulted ceilings induced goosebumps. Tears, however, flowed freely when we all joined voice to sing “Angels We Have Heard On High”. Talk about harmony!

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Please share your own favorites in the comments – I’m very interested in others’ choices. I’m also, of course, open to knowing your thoughts on my list! I hope you will each, in your own way, join me in taking the time to enjoy the spirit of the holiday season through song.

*A heartfelt thanks to Joe White for inviting me to participate in his annual Advent Vespers attendance and dinner. Both years the entire evening has been beautiful and soul-nourishing!

 





I Should Dance

11 12 2014

“I know nothing,

except what everyone knows —

if there when Grace dances,

I should dance.”

— W. H. Auden

 

I danced at two nieces weddings this past summer.

I danced with my goddaughter, Kate, reciting singsong verses then tossing her high to bounce in gleeful giggles on her parents’ bed.

I danced with wind and rain and heat waves, my bike and I racing through woods and on trails, practicing our bunny-hop.

Most of the time, though, I don’t dance. I forget how in my self-consciousness; I consider it wasteful in my busy-ness; I don’t think of it as an option in my unhappinesses.

“…if there when Grace dances”…

The trick is to notice those moments. To be aware of the presence first, then feel the gait and sway of Grace dancing into your day. To absorb Grace through your pores, take it in deep enough that you can’t help but begin to move with Grace: giving your whole self to it, burning your energies. Bending, swooping, twirling.

Delighting.

And eventually dropping exhausted onto the grass (or simply arriving at the end of the day) knowing you have been fully alive in the Great Dance. Understanding, now, that the beating in your heart, which you had thought was mere biomechanics, is really blood singing this prayer:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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Gooseberry Falls, Minnesota. Photo by Mike Beck

 

 





I Forgot to Remember

4 12 2014

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I spent Thanksgiving in a house filled with friends. I was warm on the coldest Thanksgiving Day in 27 years. I was well-fed. I was welcomed into a family not my own by nature, but made mine by nurture.

Yet I was sad and lonely. I felt the pressing weight of all the perceived failures of my life. I felt I’d let myself down, let everyone else down. I missed my folks and my siblings. In short, I had worked up a whole mess of self-pity. It sat like a lump of congealed stuffing in my throat. I had trouble breathing around it.

Putting it into words like this just points out the stark contrast between my objective reality and my emotional reality. After returning home that night, I reflected on this dichotomy, and gave myself a stern talking-to. When I awoke on Black Friday, I was determined to shift my emotional reality by taking a firm hold on my thoughts. I resolved to be grateful – to put into practice the thanksgiving for which the previous day’s holiday was named.

It went pretty well, for a while. I worked, then went back to the home of my friends. This time I relaxed into the warmth of their family and the love they shared with me. Hugs and laughter filled my evening. I was truly infused with gratitude.

When I returned home, there was no heat in my apartment.

After an uncomfortable and essentially sleepless night, I went to work. And promptly gave myself a fat lip in an altercation with a milk crate. My feet hurt. I couldn’t find my earmuffs. The “Check engine soon” light came on in my car. And I got a notice from the bank that my checking account was empty.

“I defy ANYONE to focus on gratitude in these circumstances,” I shouted in my head while driving. I shook a mental fist at the sky.

The universe definitely has a twisted sense of humor. Or perhaps it isn’t humor so much as a type of tough love. “You say you’re committed to gratitude,” it asks? “Let’s see how committed.” In the face of this test, I looked for inner resources or wisdom to help me through. I found none. So I did what has often worked for me in the past – I went and stood in front of my bookcase, wondering if anything there could arrest my downward spiral.

I reached out and my hand came back holding a book I’ve owned for years. One I’d tried reading on several occasions but found lacking. I opened to a random page and read the heading: “Step 7: Remember What You Love”.  Those four words struck me the way a deep, sonic thunderclap does during an electrical storm; I felt it boom in my chest. Intuitively, I knew that this was important.

Further down the page, the following passage leaped out at me:

The most important part of naming what you love…is that you return to self. You develop the habit of remembering your Spirit, and you stay more true to it.

In this blog, and in my daily life, I try to stay positive, to marshall my thinking in order to prevent a slide into anxiety and depression. I’ve alluded to the fact that things have not gone as I hoped since I moved here, and sometimes I’ve bemoaned how hard it has been. I’m sure many of you have picked up on the truth I’ve danced around: this year has been among the hardest and loneliest of my life. (Not only these things, not unredeemed by beauty, but pretty darn hard.)

I’ve tried to always end on an up-note – both for my own benefit and to protect those who love me from concern for my well-being. In order to avoid giving in to despair, I’ve closed myself off from things that gave me joy in the past, as if shutting down until I’ve “settled in” is a proactive choice. Neither of these choices has been authentic. Life doesn’t always end on an up note, and avoidance is rarely genuinely proactive.

The holidays are a perfect example of what I’ve been doing on so many fronts. Last year, I announced that I was going to pretend that Christmas (my life-long favorite holiday and season) just wasn’t happening. I ignored it. I avoided holiday music; I didn’t have a television so I was spared seeing any holiday movies or specials; I bought no gifts and exchanged very few merry greetings. Christmas came and went in the midst of an unremittingly cold season – like Narnia in the grip of the White Witch, in my heart it was always winter but never Christmas.

I spent this past weekend, when I wasn’t at work, binge-reading the book I picked off the shelf. (The Answer Is Simple…Love Yourself, Live Your Spirit by Sonia Choquette) On Monday, my day off, I finally got to the chapter on remembering what you love. I read it early in the morning, wrapped in a down comforter, a hot cup of coffee in my hand and three space heaters going in my (still) unheated apartment. I read:

…simply remember, and announce, what you love. Talk about it often, to yourself and with others. Doing so effects a course correction, bringing you back to the real you. It feeds you. It fuels you. Ind it instills joy in you, which is one of the most self-loving things there is.

The day was bitterly cold, with wind chills clocking in at -25. But I put the book down, and set about reminding myself of the things I love. I dressed warmly, drawing on an old cashmere sweater that I’ve loved for years – a robins-egg blue and softer than anything else I’ve ever worn. I laced up my new -25 rated boots. I drove to Gigi’s Cafe, where I love a cup of the silky-smooth potato-cauliflower soup with a slice of fresh bread and an Americano in a large glass tumbler.

I love my friends, so I randomly texted several of them to say so. I love my family, so I finally got the Christmas gift-giving cycle settled with my siblings and nieces/nephews. I texted my sister, Annie, whom I love wholeheartedly, and asked when she could talk (later, I called her). I love being outdoors, the crystalline clarity of light on very cold days, crunching through snow in my boots. I love decorating my apartment for Christmas, so I began that process (it may not be finished any time soon, but that’s part of the fun) by scavenging in the woods for a couple of branches which I plan to turn into a decorated tree. I love Minneapolis, so I took photos of things I saw in my travels about town all afternoon.

When I returned home, after an afternoon of recalling and acting on the things I love, my whole body was buzzing with energy. Although I’d spent the day alone, I felt connected. Though no huge, momentous event had occurred, something inside had shifted, making it easier to breathe.

And in a twist of the universe’s quixotic sense of humor, when I walked in, the heat was on in my apartment. After three days (and nights) of remaining cruelly cold, the radiator hummed with heat. I called my landlady, who confirmed that the boiler repairman had not been there. “My daughter claims there’s a ghost in that system,” she said. But I suspected something else – namely, that the universe wanted me to pay attention.

When we choose to cut ourselves off from the things we love, from the small joys in life, in order to protect ourselves from the hurts, disappointments and difficulties that daily living entails, we end up cutting ourselves off from the very things that offer us warmth and meaning. I may be alone a lot of the time, but I don’t have to be lonely – connection is a text or phone call away. It may be sad to experience Christmas without my family, but that sadness is part of the larger context of living fully and authentically. The good and the bad are both part of the same whole – trying to inhabit the narrow margin where they meet means living in an awfully cramped emotional space. As it turns out, I had forgotten that I know this.

I had forgotten to inhabit my own Spirit. Remembering and connecting with the people and things I love really can serve as a trail leading me home to myself. Remembering this, I am finally, truly, in a place of gratitude. I’m not ending on a false up-note here: the externals haven’t changed, and what has been hard remains so. But my spirit, my home, is so much more expansive than I’ve been allowing it to be. It feels good to, finally, remember this.

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