Merry Christmas (Our Calendar Is Emotionally Unfair)

It occurred to me recently in my waking thoughts that our calendar is emotionally unfair. 

Summer ends, then the leaves change and the very redness of the leaves says something to me. I don’t know what. Maybe that everything has to die and that it will change continually until it does. 

Then there’s this turbulent sequence: 

  1. Daylight Savings begins. – This accentuates the shortening daylight. 
  2. Thanksgiving. – We’ve basically turned this into Christmas Light, or Christmas Pre-Game. 
  3. The Christmas season. – Loud, sometimes charming, mostly grating. Commercialism blares over all else. 
  4. Winter solstice. – The first day of winter is usually 3-4 days before Christmas. I always thought winter was half over at Christmas when I was a kid, but it’s really just starting.
  5. Christmas Eve. – The defining moment of all Christmas stories we’ve heard from birth. Emotions gather like a laser beam. The air is pregnant with expectation.
  6. Christmas Day. – The birth of those building emotions, and often heavy disappointment. Sad when it’s too long, or too short, or too chaotic, or too dull. Sometimes the family isn’t sweet. Sometimes the food is too sweet. Suddenly it’s 10:00 PM.
  7. The strange week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. – It feels like no one is working and no one knows what to do. 
  8. New Year’s Eve. – Even when I try to avoid it, at some point the thought creeps in: Oh shoot, my life is slipping away and I’m doing nothing with it.
  9. New Year’s Day. – Is this a holiday? What time is it? Why does the sun look weird? Should I be doing something productive and symbolic?
  10. Winter. – The grand finale where literally nothing happens. The dismal blue winter stretches out before you like the south pole and you spend your time hoping you don’t get the flu and now COVID. 

On top of all this, there’s a pressure from somewhere to make the holidays feel like they used to—for Christmas to be magical but not commercial, intimate but not too vulnerable, full of everything you want but not about things, not downplayed but not over-hyped.

There’s so much anticipation: emotional, relational, material, spiritual, religious. Then January 2 there’s just silence and cold and the sad realization that your body is lumpier than it was in November.

I don’t know. This cycle gets old. Can’t some holidays be stretched out to last through the winter and early spring? Because let’s face it, Valentine’s Day and St. Patricks Day are throwaways.

*

Last year I wrote with optimism about finding the Christmas spirit when you don’t feel it. I thought of reposting it, but I think it will need to wait a year. This year is unforgettable, and for a lot of reasons that feel bad. So much loss and change.

My wish for you is that you would find the joy and peace your heart craves. The only hint I know how to give is that this usually comes through simple and unassuming things. It’s not often the grandiose or eventful that makes our hearts sing. It’s when the company has gone and the day is over and your expectations are all used up and you lay down and see Forrest Gump on TV by accident. It’s not even a Christmas movie, but for some reason, as 2020 begins to close, you feel a glowing ember under the ashes of your heart, a comfort that all is okay here, a wonder at being alive.

It’s when you turn the lamp off by the nativity scene and feel the smallest wind of hope that it’s all still true. That the maker of the stars visited us in humility and somehow, in a way you could never explain, he will fix everything.

Merry Christmas.

Why Art Doesn’t Explain Itself

If art explained itself it wouldn’t be art. It would be an instruction manual.

I’ve often been irritated that I can’t discern the meaning of a lyric or the significance of a painting, yet without this tension there would be no intrigue. User manuals are the most boring literature in existence.

There’s also the tension the artist feels. Imagine laboring over a creative work and knowing that most of the meaning will be lost on those who consume the work. The temptation to over-explain is intense.

Artists have to be content with misunderstanding. Mystery enables discovery—over time our perspective changes and we see the same thing in a different light—and mystery invites interpretation. I interpret a lyric one way, you see the same one differently. If the writer said too much about it, all that juicy speculation would be over, even though part of me still wants them to.

How a Robin Helped Me Through the Pandemic

In the spring, when pandemic wave one was beginning to rage and the fear of the unknown sat upon us all, I saw a robin on my fence. We looked at each other, her red breast shining against the far leaves in the neighbor’s yard, and she flew away.

A few days later I was surprised to see her in the grass, and I knew it was her by the pattern on her wings. She hopped around, stuck her beak in the soil, looked up at me. There was grace in her motion—politeness and gratitude. She seemed kind.

When I started seeing her daily I wondered why she liked our yard so much. Then, one afternoon, she flew up to a high bough on the crabapple tree and landed on a nest I then saw for the first time. A chorus of demand and thanksgiving erupted from the young beaks that drove her labor.

It all made sense now: She was a mother. She spent her day serving. This explained her innate tenderness and the sense that if she could speak she would say something friendly to me. I started talking to her to ease her caution.

*

The world around us closed to mitigate the spread of the virus; I stayed outside with my family to mitigate our cabin fever. We shared three meals a day at the picnic table, and every meal, we looked on as Mother Robin ran food to her own table. Our boy chattered about dinosaurs; the chicks shouted through the leaves.

One day I watched as a chick chirped and Mother Robin came in response. The chick stuck his tail feathers into the air while she caught his excrement in her beak, flew it away from the nest, and dropped it on the other side of the yard. It was unsettling, but I was impressed by the cleanliness and self-sacrifice.

It struck me: we parents in the house aren’t the only ones constantly feeding, constantly cleaning, constantly being called upon for more and more.

A few more robins appeared in the lawn, smaller and speckle-chested. Wherever they landed, they sat stunned. Flying is intimidating. They let us approach until we could reach out and touch them, but we never did, except for the time I used a glove to get the little one off the fence after he had perched there for more than 6 hours. It wasn’t 2 minutes before Mother Robin landed where the chick had been, food in her beak, throwing glances at me. This was the loudest she ever spoke to me, but still she was gentle. She found him seconds later.

And one day, they were gone.

The young she bore and nurtured and fretted over had flown away to face this world on their own, to escape the feral cats, and to compete with bully grackles for food. Mother Robin apparently had no reason to stay.

*

Mother Robin, would you believe that an ache came into my heart when you left? And I am a full grown man. It humiliates me to admit that—other men derive pleasure from slaughtering elk and bears for trophies—but it’s true. I miss the peace you brought, which was so out of proportion to your size. For all I know, you thought nothing of me, or maybe you thought I was a threat to avoid.

You don’t know the light and peace you brought to me in this tumultuous year, in a time when I needed it. Your presence showed me we will survive, even if it hurts, and even if we must strain move forward.

You showed me also that we are not alone in the humble toil of caring for offspring. In my duty to bear with the cry for more from those in my nest, I am blessed.

It was not below you to spend your days tending your home while other birds around you lived more adventurously. Hawks chased field mice through the swaying grains, swans drifted across lakes in romance, starlings inked the sky with jet black murmurations—you hopped about our half-dead bermuda, feeding crying babies.

You never complained or showed disdain for your lot. You searched and ran and fed and cleaned, and you looked at me, a menace, with light in your eyes.

I hope you stay warm this coming winter. I’ll be inside doing the same.


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Feeling Far Away

It was one of those nights when you feel far away from everything, like you’re drifting through an emotional outer space every bit as dark and empty as the real one, but closer; when you’re walking around your neighborhood with your five-year-old dinosaur aficionado before bedtime and he’s using a “power stick” he found in the road to beat back a charging T. Rex and you run around the elementary school to “headquarters” where you’re safe and you wonder how it is that this kid exists. You’re five years in now. You haven’t wrapped your head around it any more now than that first night when you heard he was coming and you were elated and dizzy and you knew life was going to be different but had no idea—could never know—just how much.

It was one of those walks where you hear your shoes crunch the first fallen leaves, and in the late summer air the cicada song no longer plays but the crickets croon from weary lawns. The boy’s stick scrapes the asphalt behind him and cuts a dissonance into the calm. You realize, even with the crickets and the rocks and the leaves and the footsteps, that silence looms. It bears down upon you.

With no forethought you stop and look at him. “I want to tell you a secret that’s not so secret,” and he stops and stares back at you. The cricket sings. “It’s that I want to be close to you for the rest of my life. I want to always be buddies and friends.”

“I want that too,” he says.

And then you say something his young brain can’t follow:

“Someday, when you’re a grownup, I’m going to do things that annoy you.”

“Why?” he asks, frowning a little.

You chuckle and say, “I won’t try to. It’s just a thing that happens in life. You’ll be my age and I’ll do things that make you say ‘why does my dad do that?’ But I hope you’ll still love me and still want to be my friend.”

“I will,” he says, lifting his stick and thrusting it at an imaginary raptor.

You laugh and look both ways before leading him across the street and pretend you aren’t weeping inside from the loneliness that hangs over life like a pending autumn.

One of those nights where you wave off sad realizations like horseflies. Like that winter is coming and there’s not a thing you can do to slow it, and though you have food and shelter and warmth, you still hope you’re able to survive. We’ve conquered the elements without; the elements within still threaten. Realizations, like that your kid is changing and he doesn’t ask you to play with him at lunch anymore like he used to every day. After enough times being told no, he has learned better. Realizations, like if we stay in this house much longer I’ll be sitting at our table in the same dining room in the morning and I’ll look at the chair where he used to sit across from me and I’ll wonder why he doesn’t visit more. The quietness which is so scarce now will be ours in abundance then, and we’ll wonder how it all could have gone so fast—when day after day we heard dinosaur noises without refrain in his every waking moment and all of a sudden it’s gone. He won’t ask if he can have a graham cracker or watch more TV. He won’t stomp through the backyard, roaring until our ears hurt, whining when we say it’s time for bed. His face won’t ignite when he sees me drop to my knees to be a Triceratops. Realizations, like that the very things I find a nuisance now will be far away treasures I covet.

It was one of those nights when, lying in the den in quarantine, isolating even from your wife because you tested positive for COVID, you begin to wonder if the prolonged feeling that God isn’t there isn’t more than a feeling. You begin to realize that faith will never be to you what it once was, and that maybe that’s a good thing. This brings a comfort, but it makes you feel alone. Alone in this world with the thoughtlessness of all people. Alone with your inadequate self, feeling thirsty and unclean.

It was one of those nights.

In that space you drift, and had you gone to the moon itself, you wouldn’t be lonelier. From this cosmic distance you stare at the planet of your life and ponder that in a universe so black and severe there should be a circle of color as meaningful as this.


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