Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas 2010

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
Star and angels gave the sign.

-Christina Rossetti

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Perspective, again

I woke this morning feeling slightly achy; I'm trying to find the "right" pillow and I'm failing, because one is too soft and flat while the other is so firm and full-bodied that it actually causes me to slide farther down on the bed's surface until my feet are smashed. To top it off, I stayed up too late—and then the boy was coughing off and on all night, so the mom in me kept waking up to a) make certain the cough never turned into "cough-before-puke" (other parents might also be familiar with such a cough) and b) to make certain that the cough eventually halted. At one point, when I went into his room with medicine, the half-awake child burst into tears and refused to swallow the stuff...

So. Not a restful night. I was just beginning to wander down the woe-is-me path when I remembered where I'd been last evening.

A hospital nearby. In the cancer section.

I have wanted, in past years, to go caroling with members of my church choir. Circumstances never allowed it until last night. I drove to one of the big hospitals just across the river and met some other folks I know (and a few I didn't) so we could sing Christmas carols in the hallways. Our first stop was a quick one: a choir member's father was in one of the rooms, waiting to go have a procedure done. He's been sick for awhile. He's getting sicker. My friend wanted to drop off dinner for her mom, and hoped that a few of us would come with her and sing for him.

We did just that. Martin (not his real name) has no voice to speak of; his throat has been damaged by the cancer. He whispered hello to us; his thin frame was barely concealed under one of those shapeless gowns. The four of us sang a few carols, mostly hymns, and for the last couple of tunes, Martin's wife joined in with her lofty soprano. Martin listened. I think he wept a little. And we joined hands and prayed for him and that family. He thanked us. His daughter, the choir member, thanked us. We hugged her mom when she walked us to the door.

Then we set off to find the larger group of singers, gathering in a separate lobby. We were all rather shaky by then.

The others had mostly arrived, and we were about 15 strong. We took our packets of lyrics and music and made our way into the hallway. Our leader, the organizer, explained that we all needed to sanitize hands, and that if anyone had indications of a cold or other illness, he should don a surgeon's masks before going into anyone's room. We all sanitized, then soberly made our way to a cul-de-sac where a couple of patient doors were partially open.

We began to sing. One woman closed her door (we saw, then, that she was on the phone—oops!) but another fellow asked his wife to open his door a bit more. He requested "Silent Night," and we flipped through pages until we found it and then set off. We found out his name, sang another couple of songs, prayed with them. He was younger than I am. There they sat, smiling with red eyes, a few days before Christmas, in a cancer ward.

We moved down the hall to a different section of the floor. Another patient stood and came to her doorway, then asked if she could sing with us. "Of course! Please!" we said. We launched into "O, Holy Night," our new friend's mouth hidden by a protective mask, her hair shorn to just a centimeter or two. She had a beautiful voice, clear as a bell; she said she missed singing and that this was the first year she hadn't been able to lend her voice to a choir—but here she was! She could still join in and sing with a group.

It's difficult to be in a place like that for an hour or two, let alone to stay there. My eyes were stinging when I left, but at least I got to leave. I wasn't being held captive in a room, or keeping watch over a loved one, or trying to extract information from a doctor or nurse.

Yet, even in that sterile, hushed place where bad news is all too common, there was joy. Many of those people were sincerely thankful, for singing and family and hope. Even in the face of horrible illness, there is always hope. I came away feeling blessed, not just because I love to sing and the patients seemed appreciative, but also because I witnessed people who, in their darkest moments, have come to grips with the truest understanding of what matters, and Who we can rely upon.

Riches come and go, romance can fade, jobs can disappear, and health can fail. This is a fallen world. Our bodies are temporary, weak vessels. But it's Christmas. We have a savior. We have hope, and salvation if we merely ask for it. We are loved and forgiven.

My prayer for you is that you would know in your heart what matters most, and Who loves you most. Those people who are facing disease and death? I'm sure there are some who are bitter, but I glimpsed others who are clinging to Hope. I'm going to think of them, and choose joy. Even when my neck aches and I'm sleepy—especially when that's all that is wrong.

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Balance in a world of agonies

I've been reading a book I borrowed from my dad: My War by Andy Rooney. Yes, the same Andy Rooney who's on 60 Minutes, or used to be—I haven't seen that show in ages so I'm uncertain as to whether Andy still offers his curmudgeonly commentaries there. Anyway, it's an interesting, sometimes funny, often brutal and upsetting account of Andy's time as a war correspondent during WWII.

A first-hand account of what someone sees during bloody wartime makes for some pretty awful stories. I wouldn't say the book is fun to read, because it's not. Parts of it are fun, parts are entertaining (his opinionated reports on George Patton and Ernest Hemingway are downright laughable), and parts of it are stomach-turning because they include factual accounts of death scenes I couldn't imagine in my worst nightmare.

Why am I reading this book? Well, I need to know more about American history, for one thing; I seem to be the member of my family most lacking in general historical knowledge. For another, I like Andy Rooney's style; I admire his succinct and sometimes caustic delivery. Lastly, I live in such an innocent little suburban bubble that I feel the need to expose myself to reality. Unpleasant, messy reality.

That sort of reality doesn't exist only in the past, as you well know. It's all around us. You can't turn on the news without hearing of death and destruction, fire and floods, murders and terrorists. Our world is a scary place. I can tune out and live in my bubble, but in order to exist in our culture, I have to expose myself to news coverage at least somewhat, especially if I want to know when the snowstorm is coming.

I guess if we want to live a balanced life, we need a little bit of both worlds: the dangerous place all around us versus the good place where most of us are blessed to be regularly. I read a book like the Andy Rooney account, and then I read an easier, happier, more escapist novel that gives me a little boost. Recently, I re-read The Secret Garden. That's a feel-good kind of story, and pretty much the antithesis of a war memoir.

I try to take the same approach to daily media consumption. Do I need to know that there are people in the world who are capable of burying a child alive? Is it necessary to hear that another drug deal went bad and someone was shot in the face? Must I be advised of a deadly dog attack, see pictures of a vandalized cemetary, or know the details of a little boy's drowning in a septic tank?

I don't know. I certainly don't want this information. Yet neither do I want to live so blissfully and ignorantly that I'm unaware of the fallen world around me. If I don't hear the bad news, perhaps the video of a soldier's homecoming won't touch me as deeply. If I'm never reminded of the evil that surrounds us, perhaps I'll forget to teach my child wariness of odd strangers or unfamiliar dogs. If I don't read the stories of tremendous casualties during combat, I might never truly appreciate a serviceman's duty done well, or the scars that service leaves.

We have to find balance. We have to be careful, because what you put in your mind stays there. If you fill it with gore, violence, and hatred, it will consume you. Likewise, if you fill it with mindlessness, with too many new cars and fashion and man-made fluff, it's probable you'll lose touch with real priorities. Lord knows it's easy to do that, with our silly, selfish, overly-comfortable lifestyles. It's important to read the comics; it's also important to read the headlines, the features stories.

I filter everything that comes into my world—books, papers, magazines, television, movies. You can't take something out once it lives in your mind. Be selective. Be perceptive. If something feels disturbing and wrong, walk away. I will forever be haunted by a taped 911 cell phone conversation I heard on a news show years ago: the last words of a woman who'd mistakenly driven off a bridge and into water, where she foolishly called 911 for help instead of getting out of the car immediately... That's a phone conversation I never wanted to hear, and it will never be out of my head.

Balance is difficult to achieve. I don't think I'll ever get it exactly right. I'm trying. Meantime, we watched It's a Wonderful Life the other night; it was nice to go there, and take a break from liberating the French countryside.

(Sorry—this is about as far from a light, Christmas-y post as you can get. But hey, Christmas is still almost two weeks away! Plenty of time left to be jolly! Now, where are those jingle bells!?)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A cold-blooded bunch

Recently, my little guy and I read aloud The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. (If you haven't yet, I highly recommend taking a couple of hours to enjoy this little book.) I'd read it years before, but while revisiting this gem, I was reminded just how amusing and unattractively truthful are the events the story details. There's the narrator's mother, trying to conduct a Christmas pageant that's always been led by another woman who unfortunately has injured herself. And there are the various "church" people who pretty much exemplify why so many folks steer clear of organized religion. By and large, though, the most entertaining characters are the story's antagonists, The Herdman kids: a band of troublemaking near-orphans who've never set foot in church until they hear about the free refreshments served therein...

One thing that stuck with me was the outrage some of the Herdman children felt when they heard that King Herod had gone unpunished for his evil (but thankfully unrealized) intentions to murder the Baby Jesus. Herod apparently died many years later of natural causes, and one Herdman kid was flummoxed and thought that the pageant should feature the hanging of King Herod instead of peaceful manger scenes.

I thought about that a lot, how we as a pop culture are fascinated by murder and murderous thoughts, and how we want justice unless it falls on our own heads. I pondered the history of men, even the Biblical history, and how often murder shows up. There's David, lusting after some babe, and he has his way with her and then has her husband killed in the front lines of battle. Yes, he was sorry, but still... And there were other murderous kings, not just Herod; many earthly kingdoms have been won and lost based on which king has been murdered. Women have been murdered because of their aspirations, or just because a younger and sexier woman came along; brothers have been murdered because they were the favorites. Children have been murdered because they were a burden, or the new girlfriend or boyfriend didn't like them.

I like to believe that we as a people are not so base, so cruel and selfish. But we are. I spoke with a friend recently who detailed how her elderly neighbor had died recently, and she explained point by point why she felt certain his children had given him an overdose of morphine. You know what? I think she's right. This wasn't an elderly man on his deathbed, or suffering from terminal illness. This was a man my friend had just visited, who'd been in good spirits, who'd received a pacemaker and was feeling quite chipper. His daughter won't let people see him, he dies suddenly, and the day after the funeral the daughter's ex-husband, which whom her father had not gotten along, suddenly shows up at the house again. Coincidence?

My own neighbor down the street a few homes? Her sister died mysteriously—drowned in the bathtub. A few months later? Her widower husband remarries. Nothing can be proven. But it surely makes you wonder, doesn't it. I don't know if any charges have followed because I'm afraid to ask the neighbor; it's not the sort of topic we feel comfortable broaching. "So, was your sister murdered?" God forbid we call it what we think it truly is; that would be so unpleasant, so morbid and sordid and all those other unattractive adjectives that we'd rather not have to use when we describe human nature.

But I suspect this sort of thing happens much more than we realize. It's not just on television. There's a great movie, one of my all-time favorites: Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's a Woody Allen film from the 80s, and yes it's a tad dated, but mostly it holds up beautifully. (Even though I think Woody is a perverted near-pedophile weirdo, I also happen to think he makes great movies.) This film is a thought-provoking piece, mostly because it twists together a series of bad, somewhat-related events, and leaves the characters (and the viewers) to decide which of those events constitute real crime—true sin in its most base form. It shows people at their very worst: evil, selfish, thoughtless, unkind, cheating, stealing, even murdering. It's a disturbing idea, but it's done so artfully that you are left feeling rather somber and disappointed—in people, generally, and that so much crime goes unpunished.

We really are a murderous bunch of cold-blooded killers, deep down. I'm very glad we have a savior, and that nothing can separate us from Him. Even David, that killer, was still a friend of God. Still, it's a pretty unflattering and humbling history to bear.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Without warning, winter

OK, tell the truth, now—was I the only one who woke up yesterday, looked out the window, and muttered, "What the—?!"

That was really pretty unfair of nature, to throw that at us after the three-plus inches of rain we'd received in the previous 24 hours.

It's funny how we all react to the first snowfall to actually stick. I know that even as I bit back the rest of the phrase above, I felt a little thrill in my chest. Now, I had an adversary again. I had a reason to allow some extra minutes—for starting cars, or walking in mincing fashion on what might be slippery slopes, or driving among throngs of panicked people who'd been forced by circumstances to climb behind the wheel that day. I had to consider, beyond comfort, which shoes to choose that day.

There's a briskness about, not just in the air when it snows at first, but in the manner of folks around this area. Suddenly, we all grasp in very concrete fashion that we Western Pennsylvanians must unite once again to withstand this foe; we must embrace our shared spirit of survival. We need to start checking on people again, just as we did when it was 90 degrees, but for entirely different reasons. We need to find the gloves and mittens, extract the scarves and toboggans from their out-of-sight, out-of-mind locations. We need to keep more gas in the tank, and a blanket in the trunk.

Shovels and salt will be unearthed once more. Spare kerosene (or fire wood) and toilet paper will take up more space than they have of late. Bed times might move back a tad (they will at our house, anyway). The Crock Pot will make more frequent appearances, and I'll spend many minutes each day organizing piles of boots that drip icy, dirty water (hopefully into the proper repository, the boot tray).

Here we go again: Suit up and stand firm, friends.