This is the story of the journey of my life. Travel can be hard work. So much to see. So little time. So many missed connections. So much lost luggage. But every stop, every detour, every challenge along the way provides a lesson to be learned. Traveling mercies to us all.
We have been the proud owners of the same artificial Christmas tree for more than ten years. We bought it way back when we lived in Norwalk, Connecticut at an after-Christmas sale at one of those old fashioned hardward stores that doesn't exist anymore. Pre-lit. Eight feet tall. Or is it seven? It's taller than I am, but short enough that I can reach up and put the star on top.
Which is exactly what I did this past Saturday morning after I'd assembled and decorated the tree - alone again: I reached up - proudly, contentedly, happily, joyfully - and placed our golden- sparkly star on top of our tree. If I weren't afraid to be either electrocuted or poked in the eye by one of the indestructible plastic pine needles, I would have hugged this gorgeous tree of ours.
When I began to assemble the tree on Saturday morning, I confess that I was pissed off to be putting the tree up alone again. It seems that most years, it is a chore I end up doing all by my lonesome. But somewhere between putting the branches into the stem and plugging one layer into the other, I remembered: "This is not a chore at all. I love doing this, and like many other things in my life, I like doing it for myself and by myself."
As I assembled it with my hands, I also put it together in my mind and heart. I reassembled many memories of Christmases past, of the countless hours I sit on the big red couch, journal in hand (there's my huge journal on the right side of the table back in 2007), music on the boom box, and dream big dreams of Christmas. I fill page after page with my musings. I listen to the same cds over and over - Sarah McLachlan, Rob Mathes, Andrea Bocelli, Sandi Patti, New Song - so many songs that bring me to tears year after year. I recall waking up year after year and watching in wonder as my children discovered the tree for the first time on Christmas morning - yes, we used to wait to put up the tree on Christmas Eve night after the children went to bed. Steve put a stop to that madness ages ago...
Our worst Christmas ever... 2008.
As I put the decorations on the tree, I try to remember where each one came from and some story that makes it special. There are the volcanic glass teardrop-shaped ornaments that we bought on our honeymoon in Hawaii. There are the Disney characters purchased in Disney World in November of 1999 when Kristiana was 6 and Daniel was 3. There are the handmade ones that we created and decorated at the Norwalk library. The one I acquired in the tiny wood carver's shop in Orvieto, Italy. The ones bought for and sent to us from friends and family far away- Connecticut, Arkansas, Holland, Belgium, China, Russia, and elsewhere. Ornaments presented to us on the occasion of our first Christmas here in North Carolina. I will not tell a lie: I have been known to kiss an ornament or two as I put it on the tree. I suppose that being alone when I do that is not a bad thing.
Don't you love my big comfy couch?
Not every Christmas has been merry and bright around here. But every Christmas - at least for the past ten years - has been graced with the towering, loyal, quiet, majestic presence of this tree I have come to adore. This tree that I would gladly hug if I could...
Instead of hugging it, however, I sit and stare at it. I give thanks for its endurance and for the joy it heralds. I marvel at the fast-approaching day, the sacred day on which we celebrate the birth of the King of Kings, that impossibly large figure in human history laid to sleep in that impossibly small wooden manger in an impossibly smelly wooden stall in a tiny town so far from here. That same King, I have read and come to believe, died on a horribly distorted tree 33 short years later - that is one tree I would not want to hug.
Yup, with very few exceptions, I am a tree-hugging liberal.
Nope, I'm not ashamed of it. Not even a little bit.
What we want is never simple. We move among the things we thought we wanted: a face, a room, an open book and these things bear our names - now they want us. But what we want appears in dreams, wearing disguises. We fall past, holding out our arms and in the morning our arms ache. We don't remember the dream, but the dream remembers us. It is there all day as an animal is there under the table, as the stars are there even in full sun.
I have been having some very vivid dreams lately.
And every morning, I wake up with achy arms and an aching heart.
Realizing again, confessing again, filling my journal yet again
with lists (remarkably short lists) of the things I want.
The simply impossible things I want.
And every morning, after I write down the details from my dreams, I follow those descriptions with all the logical reasons why what I want is unattainable and impossible, why those things are not mine to have, never were and never will be. I explain to myself over and over just how selfish I am to even think these thoughts and dream those dreams - as if I can control my dreams. I scold and reprimand myself - over and over. But then when MondoBeyondo time comes around, when Journal Your Christmas comes around, when New Year's Eve comes around (and here they all come yet again) - and I spend time sitting in front of the Christmas tree, journal in hand, memories and gratitude and wishes and hopes in mind, those same impossible things that I want appear yet again at the very top of my wish list. Every single time.
What animals are lurking under the table in the kitchen of your soul, friend?
What are you dreaming of and aching for?
No need to tell me. Tell yourself. Say it out loud to yourself and for yourself.
Perhaps this next year or this next month or the next few days
the moment will arrive when you and I get some of what we want.
Impossible though it may seem from where I sit right now.
All of the photos were taken on Hilton Head three weeks ago - or is it four weeks now?!? Except for the last one, which was taken in our kitchen on the night, two weeks ago, when we celebrated Kristiana's 17th birthday. Those two beautiful women are my mother and my daughter.
During these past seven or eight days, I have spent much time in prayer. On my knees. At the kitchen sink. Driving from one place to another. Sitting still. Remembering. Wishing. Hoping. Sending out buckets and showers of love and light. Pleading for relief and peace.
I lit the pair of candles in the bottom right corner.
I never pray for myself alone. Ever.
For and and on behalf a friend and her daughter and their entire family.
For another one out on the west coast visiting family.
For another desperately seeking a job.
For another who began a new job recently, having to hand her son over to someone else to care for during the hours while she works.
For another watching her mother battle valiantly against that horrific monster of cancer.
For another who has moved back to the city of her upbringing, a place that holds both good and horrible memories.
For several sister-souls that are deciding whether or not to have children, fearful that motherhood may not be an option for them at all.
For another whose son was threatened at school - by a boy with a gun.
For another with a new granddaughter.
For another in a faraway country, still adjusting to life with a baby in her family's home.
For another whose son is entering the world of tennis, a demanding, expensive, time-ravenous world.
For another who underwent surgery yesterday.
For another whose refusal to rest and enjoy the simple pleasures in life both wearies and worries me.
And for so many others, that this list - and my time in prayer -
could, can, and often does go on for pages and hours and entire days.
I stood under this hole in the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome for a long time.
I felt the ceiling of my soul open wide as I stood there looking up.
Love and light poured in. So did sorrow and pain.
I often recall Jen Lemen's words when the sorrow feels too big:
"Something healing this way comes."
Just now, when I sat down to think about and pray for the dear ones listed here and the many others that enter my mind and heart whenever I crack my soul open even just a little bit, I looked up at the wall above my desk and an email sent to me about a year ago caught my eye. My best friend from childhood back in Brooklyn wrote it at a time when my family and I, but especially my dear daughter, was heavy in her thoughts and prayers. I trust that she won't mind if I share part of that email here with you, my dear friends, who are often in my thoughts and prayers.
She wrote: "This morning in my little prayer closet (yes, I've actually transformed a corner of my closet into a little prayer closet) you and Kris were very much on my heart. I'm thankful for the progress made so far and all the great things God has done. And I hear the Lord saying, 'Am I not about to preserve and save? Am I not able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond man's greatest, most creative and cunning thoughts? This has never been out from under my control even though at times it felt as though it was. If I can hold the world together simply by the power of My word, shall I not surely hold you together, Kris together, your family togther and bring you through to the most powerful testimony you could have ever thought possible I would give you to share? I see your tiredness and I'm aware of how you feel. My grace, my grace is ever sufficient for you. Can I not multiply it so that it is enough? Just like fish and bread, there will be extra baskets full. And you can share it with, impart it to someone else in need of that same grace.'"
She was right. We have come through to a place we couldn't have imagined at that difficult time. Our family and my daughter and I have been held together - sometimes by the thinnest and weakest of cords. Frayed cords. But we are still together.
And now I am able to share grace and strength and encouraging words and stories of our experiences, my experiences with others at times when they are desperately in need of a listening ear and a helping hand. I can hold on to hope for others who are now facing and fighting battles that feel overwhelming, challenges that feel insurmountable, and mountains that feel both immoveable and unclimbable. I pray that each one will pay the prayers and support forward, to the mothers and friends and neighbors and parents and children in their current life situations - and in the future - who need hope and tenderness and mercy and forgiveness and acceptance to be held and offered to them.
Prayer on the wall in the basement of the National Cathedral, Washington, DC.
It has been a quiet week. Tear-soaked. Prayer-woven. Hope-full.
Day after day, hour after hour, I return to the same lines, the same thoughts, the same pleas: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. All shall be well. All shall be well. All manner of thing shall be well.
Whenever I want to tickle or pinch or otherwise invade the personal space of my kids, I say that.
"My body made your body so I can do whatever I want with your body."
No, don't get up and go call the police or report me to children's services; it's just a joke.
We all laugh - and then I tickle or nuzzle or cuddle with them some more.
Last week when we were in Hilton Head, I spent a lot of time watching my children.
I watched them rollicking and rolling and falling down in the sea.
I watched them as they played happily with the animals at the petting zoo.
I stared at their hands.
I stared at their feet.
I walked with them and talked with them and ate with them and biked with them.
I spent a lot of time watching them talk and read and swim and sleep.
Watching them while they rode their rented bikes all over the resort.
Watching them while one played tennis and the other watched tennis.
I spent a lot of that time marveling that my body made their bodies. Even though I was there for every moment of my body making their bodies, it still amazes me, silences me, rocks me to my core. Every single day. The wonder of the human body. Mine and theirs. The wonder of life itself.
Have I mentioned lately that I love my children? I really do.
I'm gonna go cuddle with my daughter right now - and tickle her too.