Day One

I’m embracing New Year’s more enthusiastically than usual, and not only because 2016 featured several stunning disappointments, but that might have statistical significance. We ended the year by gathering our little family together, and my heart is full.

I resolve to spend the first day of the year sitting in front of the fire that my husband started until I finish reading the book in my lap. Granted, it’s a quick read – 150 small pages, big print, little words – but still. I’m not going to wait for a nasty virus to put me down. I’m going to put my tail in this chair and let the Christmas decorations linger in the living room beyond their expiration date. I’m going to choose stillness.

I’m not especially gifted at stillness. The hum of the washing machine and the dryer betray the fact that I must have gotten up at some point to switch out the laundry. When the washing machine stops the next time, however, I do not budge from my spot in front of the fire. I read for a few more minutes, I gaze at the flames, I watch the cat curled up contentedly in his own chair. Then I finish the book. And when I’m done, I sit a little longer.

I practice more intentional stillness. I’ve been cooking nonstop since Thanksgiving, and while I’ve got the ingredients for a lovely dinner tonight, the kids all have other plans, so I decide not to prepare any of it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I make my husband’s favorite part, the apple pie, and whip up actual whipping cream, and we eat that for dinner together on this hearth.

And then I stare at the blank white pages of my 2017 calendar – not electronic pages, actual paper pages that I can write on with the ink pen in my hand. I love the promise of a new calendar. I stare at those white pages with my heart wide open and dream. I’ve got plans for one graduation in May and one July wedding, but as for the rest of the year…? I wonder what this next trip around the sun will bring. For today, I sit still and soak up the energy and possibility of a new day.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And peace.

A Moment’s Hesitation

I like Christmas. Really, I do. But I’m not feeling it. Not yet.

This approach is pretty much my process with life in general. But also with newborn babies, even the One in the manger. I’m one of those women who spent the first trimester of her pregnancies – and, in fact, the better part of the second trimester – hopelessly nauseated. As thrilled as I was for the baby to arrive, it was hard to feel excitement from my vantage point on the bathroom floor next to the toilet. There were some maternity clothes that I could not tolerate wearing the second time around, because I had thrown up in them so often the first time that the mere sight of those clothes made me nauseated and green.

I love being a mother, but I do not love the experience of pregnancy. I don’t think I need to feel guilty about this. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person – or even a bad mother. Transformation is hard. Things that never challenged me before I was pregnant became difficult, excruciating, frustrating. I never had trouble catching a full breath before I was expecting. I never experienced insomnia before I was pregnant. Never suffered from indigestion. Never had sciatica. No weird numbness, bone-crushing exhaustion or obvious brain damage. I reached the point in each of my pregnancies where I thought, “This body simply cannot handle the two of us. One of us has to go, and it’s you, baby.” But even in the midst of it all the physical discomfort, anxiety and impressive weight gain, I started to get excited. A new life is a miracle. It’s breathtaking. It’s full of hope and joy and love. The truly crazy part is that, notwithstanding all my quacking and moaning, I wanted to participate in the process another time.

There’s a reason that the angel’s first words to Mary are “Fear not.” Because the range of fear running from garden-variety anxiety to abject terror is an entirely reasonable human response to the whole situation. If we really knew what transformation would require, would we still agree? If we really knew, we would be foolish not to be afraid. It’s overwhelming. Mary’s “Yes” always amazes me. Granted, it is easier to say yes when you’re 13 and haven’t yet been assaulted by life’s many disappointments. But still. My initial response is almost always “No” (even when I was a young girl, and especially now that I’m not). Which eventually turns to “Well, maybe.” Until it finally becomes and “Ok, fine!”

Yes, already.

I don’t think this makes me a bad person – or even a bad Christian. I adore carols and Christmas tunes. Nothing makes me happier than finding the perfect gift. But I don’t love the hoopla and the tinsel and the lists. The whole holiday rigmarole makes me feel tense and overwhelmed and impoverished. I prefer the silent reverence. I love the tender, quietly inspired moments, preferably with a book and a niece in my lap. The whiff of her baby breath still hints of heaven, and as I hold her, I imagine the light that she alone brings into the world. Then I feel the spirit of the season. I love a table full of my own children, and I love drawing additional chairs to the table to include more. Their laughter fills me with joy. I love an evening decorating our tree, carefully unwrapping each of my mother’s hand-crafted needlepointed ornaments. There might be just a splash of whiskey in my glass of eggnog. Another festive family tradition.

I love Christmas. Really, I do. But I am mindful that there are those for whom this holiday season will be achingly lonely. That disappointment, fear and depression combine like a dense fog to chill and dissipate the light. There are families whose losses cast a palpable shadow on traditions that will never quite be the same again. Including my own family. And so I pause.

I do not jump headlong into this season with child-like exuberance. Instead, I keep the Thanksgiving pumpkins and chrysanthemums on the front porch for just a few more days. And then I start with stillness, and I wait for light. I approach hesitantly, hoping, expecting, and yes, trusting that the light is on its way. I ease gently into this season of imagination, wonder and hope.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And moments of stillness.

The Eye of the Storm

I do not even know what day it is.

We have a wild whirlwind going on right now – business momentum, home improvement projects, graduations and promotions, including an unexpected trip to urgent care (although with four sons, you’d think that by now I would have learned to keep a couple hours open on my calendar for that particular contingency), the usual stumbles and friction, some laughter and a few tears. We have so much good going on, but does it all have to happen simultaneously? I’m breathless.

Every time I sit down to one project, I think of a dozen others, an email I need to write to the school principal, an item I forgot at the grocery store, a form I meant to submit, a check I need to write and a phone call I should place right now. Before I start any of those, I look to the calendar and see that the day marks my in-law’s 59th wedding anniversary. I make that phone call first. After our conversation, I think about writing a note on my calendar to start planning a party for next year’s 60th anniversary, but decide I am frenzied enough with the tasks at hand. At the moment I am coordinating the logistics for our son’s college graduation. To get our family of six to and from the ceremony in Milwaukee this weekend will require two different airlines and transfers through Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Houston. Plus the trip to urgent care.

I’m dashing around between home and office and doctor, and I have this mental image of all the “hats” I’m wearing – mom, wife, writer, project manager, businesswoman, friend, PTA president, nurse and travel agent –strewn across the backseat, along with an insulated grocery bag, several empty water bottles and a 30-pound bag of dog food. I don’t know why I think I have 20 minutes to stop at church, but something tells me I don’t have time not to.

There are just a few other people here, and the chapel is quiet, except for the creaking of the pew as I sit down. I think, “All right, Jesus, I am here, but I am in a serious time crunch. Inspiration, please, and make it quick!”

My next thought: “Um… Charlotte, this might not be the preferred approach,” although I do believe that God is always pleased by any little movement in His direction. Instead of giving Jesus my litany of assignments, anxieties and hopes, I inhale and try to find silence in all of the noise. I sit still. I close my eyes and exhale. I throw out a mental Do-Not-Disturb sign to the many items on my list clamoring for my attention. Inhale, and exhale again.

Sitting in the hushed, reverent space, I find the still, silent space within. I hear this message: “Keep your eyes on Me.” I feel calmer already, and joyful, even though my to-do list hasn’t decreased and deadlines still loom. I whisper my thanks and return to my tasks, with a renewed confidence that the myriad details will fall into place.

Through the swirl of activity and celebration over the next week, I cling to this simple message and its reminder to keep my focus on the divine. There are travel glitches and delays, and we are exhausted and pressed for time. Yet, we are together and happy and grateful. We have all come a long way to enjoy this moment, and we do. A friend takes a family photograph – my personal favorite from the weekend – including cap and gown and diploma, six smiles and blue sky. In true Midwestern style, seven minutes later, the heavens open and rain pours down, but we are safely dry and warm. It is typical of how the weekend has been, eyes sparkling with joy, unaffected by the rainstorm.

***

I love flying into LAX at night, suspended in the silence, the city lights stretching unimaginably, bounded in the distance by the mountains and the ocean. As our flight descends into Los Angeles, our youngest son sleeps with his head resting on my shoulder. I kiss the top of his teenage head, and he doesn’t wince or make a face or even say anything rude. I kiss him again and breathe in this moment, because I’m going to blink and when I open my eyes, I will be flying home from his college graduation.

We hit the ground running today, our Monday travel-day puts our week off to a late start. As the pace quickens and the volume increases, I cling to that moment in the sky, all those lights shimmering in the darkness.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And quiet in the storm.

A Holiday Gift

I just need ten minutes of quiet. No voicemails or voices in my head. No ringing or pinging. No to-do lists, address lists, grocery lists or Christmas shopping lists. No kitchen appliances whooshing, humming or spinning. No screen of any kind. No teenage ‘tude. No color-coded calendar. No dog crawling into my lap, no cat sitting on my keyboard glaring at me reproachfully. No bills, emails or correspondence insisting on a response. No mother guilt weighing on my heart for all the things I haven’t done. Not even the Country Christmas internet radio soundtrack in the background. Just a few minutes of none of it.

The dryer stops, and the ensuing silence which often signals me to rouse and repeat the cycle, instead invites me to sit still.

It might be now. The kids are at school taking exams, the dog has been walked, one college boy is home but off to meet a friend for lunch. This moment might not arrive again today. Or this week. But it is here right now.

Just for 10 minutes, I promise. I set my meditation pillow outside on the porch in a patch of sunshine, away from all the noise-makers and hungry deadlines. I wrap myself in a blanket and close my eyes. There is a gentle breeze, and I realize I’m holding my breath. Exhale. I sit and listen, and settle. I catch my breath again and listen to my heart. Just sit. I push the words and lists away. I pull my eyelids back down and my shoulders away from my ears. Inhale. Grounded, supported, secure. I sway slightly to my heart’s beat. I notice the sound of freeway traffic and let them go. Right now, in this moment, my list contains only one item. Be still. Inhale, exhale. No words, no lists, no thoughts. Just this moment. Warm, steady, calm. Yes, like this.

And there in the stillness, I find her. Bubbling up in the silence. Unburdened, laughing, twirling in her favorite dress. Simply because she can. Because that’s pretty much who she is. Joy.

Exactly what I needed.

I have a cherished photo of my family, taken when I was about two almost three. My parents are holding my baby sister between them, beaming proudly at their little daughter, my mother’s hair a classic 1960’s flip, and my father sporting a moustache. I am equally delighted, perched securely on my father’s shoulders, smiling at the peeled orange in my hand. My sister and I still giggle about the fact that I was more entranced by the piece of fruit than by the baby. I suspect that California naval was offered as incentive to keep me still enough to snap the picture. Up on my father’s shoulders I am captive long enough to capture the moment on film. There are other photos from that day, and I am running and twirling in many of them, my shoes a blur of movement. Happy feet. Joy.

And now, my feet are beginning to tingle with numbness. I might have been sitting for a few more than 10 minutes. I inhale, smile and open my eyes. I want to hold on to this sense of joy in the midst of the Christmas chaos, even though I know I will likely lose it. I trust that I will find her again.

I return to the lists, demands and laundry, dryer humming with jeans and t-shirts, a rhythmic tap of the zippers sliding across the drum. Next, the coffee pot, gurgling and hissing, because those 57 unread emails are not going to answer themselves. I set a snowman mug and a Christmas spice cookie on a red, green and gold plaid cocktail napkin, and roll up my sleeves. I swing my inner little girl up to my shoulders and feel her presence, solid but not heavy, wiggling her happy feet, sticky orange juice fingers tugging playfully at my hair, and the two of us get to work.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And 10 minutes to yourself.