Monday, December 17, 2018

another lucky day

My dad could be a bit of a curmudgeon.  He saw things through a lens that was, at times, quite dark:  ulterior motives, suspicion, criticisms.  Despite his ability to invoke terror in small children and powerful adults alike, he had what some might consider a surprising quality:  profound gratitude.  Its expression strengthened as time went on, although I don't doubt the feeling was always a guiding principle.  Toward the end of his life (he passed away this spring) he routinely reminisced about his somewhat humble beginnings and marveled at the relative comfort he'd achieved.  And, starting at about 4pm most days, would proclaim:  "another lucky day!"

If he had a visitor, or a delicious meal, or a pleasant outing -- even just around town or to the grocery store -- on the drive home he would begin: "another lucky day!"  I'm sure part of it was simply gratitude for life.  Every day is surely a gift.  But it was also the little things, and particularly the joy of family, that most inspired his appreciation.  A visit with his childhood rival turned brother-in-law, a chance to play puppeteer for his great grandchildren, a reading from The Hobbit by his daughter, edge-of-your-seat stories of his sons' travels, a mouthwatering home cooked meal with his beloved wife.  All lucky.

Gratitude is a gift that comes too late for some.  I believe it's best enjoyed early in life, so it can ripen into a constant companion.  The kind of companion that sits with you in your grief or loneliness.  That calls you on your excessive pride.  That stands with you as you reach out to those in need.  

Every year -- for what I'm told is over 100 years now -- we gather our extended Slocum family (which includes, of course, Hilliards, Cottinghams, Nelsons, Newtons, Johnsons, Streaters, Ortizes, Ingletons, Meehans, Harrisons, LaFerrieres, and more) to celebrate Christmas, just before the actual day.  It is an outrageous celebration of food, fun, games, and desserts.  And gifts.  Every family, and many individuals, arrive laden with gifts for each family member and their guests.  For the past few Christmases, my contribution has been a doodle of a family phrase printed onto t-shirts.  I call them "Dadisms" because these sayings, no matter their true origin, were made known to me through my dad (or his dad).  As I ride home from last night's festivities, I can't help but feel grateful for my loving, supportive, and boisterously joyous family.  And I know exactly what my father would have said:

Sunday, November 25, 2018

the coming light

Ever since my brother Michael's girlfriend Nancy gave me my first one, filled with tiny chocolates, when I was about 12, I've been a little bit obsessed with advent calendars.  I only started making them myself about six or eight years ago.  I doodled tiny holiday images (a steaming pie, a candle, a dove, a half-knitted sweater) and hid them behind the windows of a simple drawing of my church's Victorian rectory house.  I cut each window with an exacto knife and glued the cardstock pages together. The windows were numbered, so between December first and December 25th, you could open a window and see a doodled treat.

I'm not sure why I made it.

I had been shaken to my core in 2008 when Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart worker, was trampled to death by crowds of holiday bargain shoppers.  Then and there I opted out of buying Christmas gifts.  The idea of holiday shopping made me feel ill -- and somehow complicit.  It still does.  Since then, my family and friends have suffered through all manner of handmade nonsense, each item made with love, of course, and reflecting the immeasurable love I feel for each of them.  

For me, a handmade advent calendar is the antithesis of holiday commercialism.  It requires you to slow down just a tiny bit and reflect.  Even if all you're reflecting on is a bit of silliness.  One year I painted a watercolor Christmas tree and copied it onto glossy paper, with brightly colored ornaments doodled with markers.  The ornaments said words like "love" or "joy," or were just abstract patterns.  Small removable dot stickers with numbers covered them.  Very simple.  Even after some elaborate years -- with garlands of envelopes packed with snacks, songs, leather goods, and funny legal documents (!) -- a few people have said that little tree is their favorite.  There is something refreshing about simplicity around the holidays.

As an Episcopal, I know that the liturgical season of Advent neither regularly begins on Dec. 1 nor ends on Dec. 25th (it is instead marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas eve), but I think those dates make for a more universal holiday experience (and more uniform calendar production, for sure).  In the church, the season of Advent is the beginning of the church year and is a time of waiting and self-preparation for the coming of Christ, who is sometimes referred to as "a light in the darkness."

In the liturgy, there are four colored advent candles, representing (depending on who you ask) hope, peace, joy, and love, lit weekly.  And while some years I've included bible passages, hymns, or doodles of baby Jesus, for the most part my calendars are rather secular.  I'm partial to those (hopefully) universal candle themes, and that of the fifth candle, called the Christ candle: light for the world. 

My best friend Jean is an atheist and many years ago recounted to me the sweet conversation she had with her son when he asked what Christmas was.  She told him (in similar words) that all around the world, in most every culture, during the season that's darkest, people come together to celebrate light.

These calendars might be my way of providing a reminder (for others and myself) that, no matter how difficult these times may be for us, the light is coming.  It comes from above and also within.  And it can be found in strangers, acts of kindness, and steaming pies.  Darkness always exists, but, together, our light can overcome it.