Courage: Advent 2019, Week 2

It’s getting to that time of year when I’m reflecting a lot and trying to figure out if people really can change. Every December I feel like I get to a mental state similar to any seeded sports tournament: survive and advance. And in the midst of the surviving and advancing, my brain spends time planning the future, and how I might be able to be just a millimeter better in the coming year.

Today I arrived at church a little earlier than usual so I could sit and listen to the organist and write, and see if my mind would start to figure out what and how I could change for 2020. And then I saw the title of the sermon: courage.

It takes a great deal of courage to change, and I really do feel like I’m careening toward a crossroads in every possible aspect of my life. I am skittish about changes I can control, and terrified about changes I cannot. And it would be so easy to just put my head down, maintain the status quo, and hope nothing changes at all.

I’m finding it hard to write about advent this week, probably because early in the service one of the pastors today paraphrased a passage from Winnie-the-Pooh: “you are braver than you believe, and you are stronger than you seem.”

She related it to Mary and Joseph, and how much courage it took for both of them to embark on the parenting journey that was asked of them. But it stopped me in my tracks and I didn’t think about much else the rest of the service, or the rest of the day, really.

Change is scary, and I don’t think there’s any hierarchy to it–one kind of change isn’t scarier than any other. But we can be brave, and we can be strong, and some changes will be painful and others joyful. And the best part of Advent is a renewed focus that through it all, Jesus is constant.

Hope: Advent 2019, Week 1

One of my favorite ornaments my sister Deanne made for me years ago.

It’s been a few years since I actively celebrated Advent or even decorated for Christmas, and given the past four months and the general emotional upheaval I’ve felt, I wasn’t sure I was going to do much this year to celebrate.

The gingerbread festival that has, for the past 20 years, been a stake of stability in my efforts to feel any yuletide spirit has been discontinued, I’m no longer teaching piano lessons where I spend December playing fun Christmas duets with my students, I’m not playing the primo part of a 4-hand accompaniment in the school Christmas concert.

And since I’m taking a sabbatical from my church right now, I’m not singing in any Christmas concerts or programs or playing the piano for any soloists.

All the usual pulls toward celebrating Christmas are gone this year.

I wasn’t raised with a liturgical Advent, but in recent years, I’ve felt drawn to it, so I observed it as best I could, using resources I found online. But I went to a church today, one I’ve been attending off and on for the past few months, to see what it would be like to observe the first Sunday of Advent with others.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I left the service with two commissions from the pastors.

Commission one: “May our hearts be open to the unexpected places where we encounter the sacred light of God that leads us toward hope.”

How many unexpected places might I encounter God’s light this month? I will spend hours at school teaching, working basketball games, supervising newspaper deadline, helping with musical auditions. I will spend time with friends and family and see movies and read books. The commission to be open to God’s light reminds me that I can find it in so many places, and will have opportunities to be that light to others.

Commission two: “May we see every Christmas tree as a symbol of hope.”

I’ve never thought of a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope. Instead, I’ve seen it as a symbol of what I don’t have. As I’ve often said to friends when they ask if I’m decorating for Christmas, “Why should I put up a tree when there’s nothing to put under it?”

But shifting my Christmas paradigm a bit to see a Christmas tree as a symbol of hope feels revolutionary, subversive even. I think of the ornaments I’ve collected over the years—gifts from students, tokens from places I’ve traveled, heirlooms from family members—and my Christmas tree morphs into a symbol of a life well-lived.

Hope, as our culture has come to define it, can be hard. When coupled with faith, we tend to equate it with wishing for things: an illness to heal, a child to love, a spouse to care for. Or maybe we hope-wish for a better home, an air fryer, or the latest tech gadget. And when those hope-wishes don’t materialize, it can feel like hope is futile and faith is weak.

But what if the biblical definition of hope points us to something else entirely, something unrelated to dipping our toes in the prosperity gospel pool?

Looking at the Greek base, the word hope is more closely related to anticipate, usually with pleasure; expectation or confidence.

Those words as synonyms for hope carry a purer meaning for this first week of Advent—the expectation that Christ will come, the confidence of what His coming means for the entire world in terms of peace and salvation.

Reframing my definition of hope is vital to observing Advent and celebrating Christmas, because I do expect Christ to come, and I expect that with confidence. A biblical hope isn’t reliant on medicine or biology or another person’s choices or how much money is in my bank account. A biblical hope is simply expecting Jesus to come, to teach, to save.

So despite my usual feeling that putting up a tree and other Christmas decorations is a general waste of my time, this year I’m going to pull out the tubs of ornaments and nativities and try to remember that what they all truly represent is hope.

A Return to Self.

During an appointment with my therapist in early October, I lamented that for two straight months, I hadn’t accomplished anything. Yes, starting a new school year is stressful. Yes, I was managing significant personal turmoil. But wasn’t goal-setting supposed to help me through that? Give me something to focus on, to work toward? Why was I failing?

Her advice: don’t set any goals in October. Just exist. Do the necessary things on a day to day basis, but use October to stop putting pressure on myself to always be working toward something.

I’m a planner, a goal-driven person. So it seemed counter-intuitive. But after a week, I noticed I felt more relaxed. Like I could breathe. So I took October off from the self-imposed expectations, and it really was quite wonderful.

So here it is, November 1, and I’m feeling restored. I feel like I can return to my planning, goal-driven self. Including…

NANOWRIMO!

Wish me luck. I will definitely need it this time around.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I don’t usually watch sad movies during the school year, because the stress and exhaustion from work coupled with a sad film can derail my mental health quickly.

But Sunday I was feeling more anchored and less sad than I have in months, so I pulled out the good ol’ Warner Brothers collection and when I saw the next movie on the list was “The Best Years of our Lives,” I thought, why not?

Plot: Three men catch a hop to their hometown after the end of World War II. They didn’t know each other before the war, but are bonded by their separate experiences in the war and the long trip home. The next three (yes, three!) hours chronicle their adjustment back to civilian life.

Best moment: Homer, who has lost both of his arms, invites his would-be fiancé up to his bedroom to get a glimpse of what her life would be like should they marry. He shows her what it takes for him to get ready for bed, and openly shares his emotional vulnerability about what kind of husband he thinks he’ll be, dependent as he is. It’s so raw and touching, and I applaud Robert Sherwood’s writing and William Wyler’s direction for taking such an intimate moment and showing that vulnerability, while scary, most often brings us closer to each other.

Worst moment: In terms of quality, there’s not really a “worst moment,” but in terms of discomfort, there were several moments that could be labeled “worst,” only because they were awfully difficult for the characters. Reentry to civilian life can’t be easy, and everyone involved in this film confronted that head-on, not shying away from or sugar coating the realities of post-war life. This means that some scenes were really hard to watch.

Fun fact: William Wyler, who directed the film, was one of five big-name Hollywood directors who filmed documentaries from the front lines during World War II. I highly recommend Mark Harris’ book “Five Came Back,” and the Netflix documentary of the same name to learn more about those directors who risked their lives to show Americans what war was really like.

Recommendation: I watched this film in 2005, and perhaps age has mellowed me a bit, but I rather enjoyed watching it this time around. I wasn’t bored at all watching. If you have a lazy afternoon, it’s definitely worth your time.

A Note about Heartbreak

I told a friend recently that writing and being vulnerable is sometimes like having food poisoning–you know that once you puke you’ll feel better, but you also don’t want to puke. So consider this post as me having a touch of food poisoning. But also, I’m hoping this might be a survival guide for someone else.

Anytime I have my heart broken, I turn to past relationships and try to figure out how long it took for me to no longer be sad, because I just want to stop being sad. But I never do find a conclusive time span, so this time, I tried something different.

I’ve always believed that my heart never fully repairs from being broken; that little shards of my heart will always belong to men I’ve loved. As a visual exercise inspired by Mari Andrew, I realized that’s not fully true. Behold: sketches of my heart from 1991-2019:

This one wasn’t in my book, FYI.
This one took a good three years to heal.
1998-2000 was ROUGH.
This guy.
Look at who isn’t here anymore…

Every time I drew a new version of my heart, I reflected on how much of my heart truly still belonged to these people. I was actually surprised by my 2019 heart–that really, of all my relationships, there’s only two that still hold space in my heart, and that somehow my heart regenerated over the scars of the other breaks.

The other piece that struck me was how much of my heart I still had to give after every heartbreak. When I’m in the middle of it, when I can’t see more than the next tissue before the next tear falls, when I feel actual real pain despite not having any visible bruises or scratches or breaks, I forget that there is still space in my heart to love the people who are still in my corner.

And boy, did those people show up last month.

It’s time for me to get up off the mat. I have big goals for September that I’ll write about another time, maybe. But for now, I’ll just leave this here, and maybe a heartbroken someone will stumble across this someday, and draw iterations of her heart, and realize she will heal and she still has plenty of love to give.