Category Archives: Love

Merry Christmas

There is probably a word for what I experienced last night. It is similar to an epiphany, the word that James Joyce revived to describe a transformational moment, in which you suddenly experience a profound insight about yourself and your life. It can hit you unexpectedly and without warning.

Last night, after my wife cooked a delicious dinner for a small group at her parents’ house, we came home to wrap presents. The three of us each took a room, Nina in her bedroom, Sarah in her study, and I in the living room with the Christmas tree. I turned on a CD of Diana Krall singing Christmas carols, plugged in the lights on the tree, and sat on the floor to wrap stocking gifts.

When I had finished wrapping, I put away the paper, ribbons, and tape in the attic and returned to the living room to sit in a chair and listen to the music. We live on a quiet street without street lights, and the neighbors at the back were away, so outside was silent except for the steady rain.

I sat right in front of the tree and gazed from one ornament to another, lingering mostly on the hand-painted, ceramic figures that my stepdaughter’s great-grandmother sent to her, every year at Christmas, and also at the hand-made ornaments that Nina herself brought home from school as a small child.

Christmas tree ornaments have a special, evocative power over me. They appear every year for a week or two and recall other Christmas Eves and Christmas mornings, first in your own childhood and then in your children’s. They are celebratory and colorful, and the best of them are simple. These favorites of mine are tiny reminders of our family’s joy and love.

The word I am looking for describes a brief, personal experience that allows you a sweet, simple appreciation that you are who you are, that there is nothing you would change.

You might call it a blessing.

The Christmas Spirit

Until recently I was one of those people who grumbled after Thanksgiving about Christmas besieging us too early. I complained about getting the tree and wrestling it inside. I muttered while bringing boxes of decorations down from the attic, and I flew into a rage if the process of putting lights on the tree took too long (which it always did). One year, I even made my stepdaughter put ornaments on the tree without me.

What was I thinking?

This afternoon, after helping my mother put up her Christmas tree, I drove to the lot and brought ours home. It snowed this morning, the first snowfall of the year in our part of southeastern Massachusetts, and the wet snow melted onto our living room floor as I settled it into its tree stand. Nothing that three beach towels spread around it couldn’t take care of.

After it had dried off, I turned on a CD of English Christmas carols and strung the lights. The disk is called “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and it features the Cambridge University choir, with boy sopranos in nearly every track. They are mournful and quiet and evoke the early nightfall of rural England. They are perfect to listen to with a fire burning in the fireplace.

There is something about this aspect of Christmas–the part that acknowledges the onset of winter and the hardships that must have settled over the English countryside in the 17th and 18th centuries, when many of these carols were written–that makes me melancholy, but not dreadfully. The tunes always make me want to cry, though not just from sadness.

Today, alone in the house trimming the tree, I was trying to understand it. Eventually I decided that it has to do with a baby being born the child of God, arriving weak and hungry, as babies do, but bearing the hopes of shepherds, priests, and kings. Such a humble start. I kept seeing in my mind’s eye the baby, wrapped tight and laid in straw by his mother, with grown men down on their knees in front of him.

Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. It was my father’s favorite holiday, and it is mine. I think he liked it so much because it combined family, food, and church. It’s a great mix.

Yesterday, I thought about him virtually everywhere I went. We are in California for a field hockey tournament in which our child is playing with her club team. All games are played on perfectly groomed grass fields on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. They have 25 full-size fields, with games happening on all of them at once starting at 7:00 in the morning.

From the fields, which are ringed with palm trees, you see the Santa Rosa mountains in a full arc on three sides. Yesterday, during a rare day time rain storm, we saw a full rainbow and part of a double rainbow arced over the fields.

The level of play, from some of the best high school players in the country, was consistently astonishing. My father loved to watch his children play sports, and he loved to travel. He would have loved every minute.

I took a break in the middle of the morning to attend church, which was full of happy people. The children from the Sunday school acted as ushers and welcomed us all as we came through the doors. I thought of the years that dad taught the 3-year old class at our church, getting them to act out Noah loading the ark or the Nativity scene.

And my father loved to sing, how he loved it, hymns and church music especially, so when an 11-year old girl stepped forward to sing a solo, I could just feel how moved and delighted he would have been.

My dad has been gone a year and a half, but he felt close to me all day. I am very grateful.

Hiatus

Blogging has been very difficult for me this summer, following my father’s passing in May. Although much of my study and effort to address this loss spiritually and emotionally are related to the core mission of our work at Cloud 9000, I frankly felt that blogging about them would be a betrayal of my family’s privacy. Yet finding renewed joy and purpose in the face of sadness and loss has been the great work of this summer.

One of the lessons is that small gestures of sympathy and kindness from friends and acquaintances carry enormous power to comfort and uplift. I am the fortunate recipient of hundreds of these attentions, and they have delighted me again and again. I can’t thank these people enough for making the effort.

This may be the greatest lesson of all from the summer: that our efforts to serve others in even the smallest ways can make profound and lasting impressions and deep impact. Buddhists would call this effort compassion, Christians might call it charity (in the Bible it is translated from the Greek as “lovingkindess”), and I think the Hebrew term “mitzvah” describes acts of kindness like these, although there may be a better Jewish term for this act.

Whatever the name, kindness to those in need is a fundmantal principle of organized religions and is a basic human need.

I welcome any comments here that describe kind acts that have been offered to you this summer.

Dealing with hardship

What I’m finding as we deal with a loss in the family is that our personal strengths have been amplified. I am fundamentally optimistic and forward looking, and that has never been more true than now. It is the only way I know how to find the determination to press on. There is really nothing else to do.

I think that is the mental trick, or demand. I can’t afford to live with the saddest part of loss for too long at one time. For starters, I want to be part of a legacy we can all be proud of.

When I was 20, one of my friends, a talented, vivacious woman named Maryann, died in an accident. After the funeral, her father, a profoundly wise and compassionate man, gathered her friends together and said, “I want to ask you to do one thing for me. Whenever you have the chance–for the rest of your lives–to do something great, or not to, choose to do something great. Remember that Maryann won’t have the chance. If all of you do this, I will have the comfort of knowing that dozens of people are doing more than they otherwise would.”

I haven’t always lived up to that advice, but I’ve never forgotten it. That’s how I think of loss now: the best way to honor someone we love is to do the most we can to honor their life.

Who picks me up

Last week, I found myself sitting on the floor in front of the television until 1:00 in the morning eating ice cream out of the carton for several nights in a row. When I was at the office, I wanted to be at home, and when I was at home, I wanted to be in bed. I get this way sometimes when I’m wrestling with decisions about life priorities. Should I learn an instrument? Should I try to write a book? Should I train for a triathlon. The more options I consider, the more I fret about how little time I have, and then I spend what free time I do have wondering how I can get more.

This mood and behavior have now hit me often enough that I can observe and recognize the pattern, but I can’t always snap out of it. Fortunately, my wife–an immensely patient and highly persuasive woman–has mastered the art of helping me break the pattern. She doesn’t make light of my confusion, but she isn’t impressed by it either. What she did was to sit me down and ask what I really wanted to achieve and to help me make a plan to achieve it. She then pointed out, methodically and plainly, that I could easily fit those projects into my schedule if I chose to. She suggested I try it for a month and see how it went.

Thank heaven for her. There are many great benefits to being married to my wife. This is just one of them, but it makes me immensely grateful that she married me.

Letter writing

The current issue of Newswek has the fantastic My Turn piece about Rey De La Cruz and the pen pal in Finland with whom he’s had a friendship by correspondence for 35 years.

As I’ve written before, I like to be touched unexpectedly, and I almost didn’t read this column. But I’m glad I did, because the author, a special education teacher from Chicago and the Philippines, captures the joy of friendship so beautifully.

The detail that really moved me was the part where his friend, Satu, told him that she carries his pile of letters to her wherever she goes. I have a shoebox in the attic, which is filled with the letters my wife wrote me in the year before we got married. We were living in different states, and she wrote me several times a week.

If there were ever a fire, this is the one possession I would rescue first. There is something about love written in ink to hold forever that I find profoundly sweet and beautiful.