Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Pink Candle

It’s my last writing day before school closes for break, so I’m trying to tie up the Christmas packages and the loose ends. We’re on the third candle of the advent wreath, the pink one, which means Christmas is around the bend. My husband Tom says the pink is for joy, though I heard a different interpretation in a message in Quaker meeting this Sunday.

According to the message (if I remember correctly), the first candle is for hope, and that candle is watched over by an angel. The second is for love, and that one is watched over by Mary. And the third candle is for trust, and that candle is watched over by Joseph. The speaker never got to the fourth candle because the focus of her message was Joseph and how he trusted God (and Mary) even though marrying a pregnant woman went against everything in his culture. The speaker described explaining to her son how hard it must have been for Joseph to trust in that situation and how her five-year-old son had responded, “Oh it’s the opposite of that other guy.” He then recounted how an angel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth was having a baby, and because Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, he lost his ability to speak until after the baby was born. He only regained his voice after naming the baby John, as the angel had instructed. The speaker in meeting concluded the message with the possibility that when we don’t trust God, we lose our ability to speak.

Sitting with this idea this morning, I think muteness might be a harsh metaphor, but one that does have some truth. At the very least, I think trusting God frees us to be who we’re meant to be more fully, thus making us more potent, if not more effective. If part of our work is to speak truth to power (as Quakers put it) trusting God is perhaps a prerequisite. Or to put in another way, fear and doubt can muffle our voices. Unfortunately, we can’t make ourselves let go and feel trust. Mary asked her angel a question before her famous submission, though asking a question was exactly what got Zechariah zapped into silence. As someone who has a lot of questions, this seems a bit unfair.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this except to uplift the notion of trust, especially when it’s not the culturally expected thing to do. On another note, a parent at our children’s school just published this piece on the multicultural holiday issue. I enjoyed his perspective and so pass it along.

Wishing you all the gift of peace.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


“I hate time,” said Megan this morning. I knew immediately why. She has to wait eight more days until her tenth birthday. She can’t wait to hit the double digits.

Getting older has its advantages, I realize. Eight days no longer feels like an eternity. Ten years is a chapter, not the whole book. Still, Megan’s tenth birthday marks two anniversaries—the span of her life and my journey as a mother—so, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on what I’ve learnt so far. Yesterday made me admit that I’ve improved at patience and letting go, though this is more a reflection on how ungracious I was during the baby and toddler years than on my current enlightenment. When my children were younger, I tried to squeeze my writing into cracks of time, when Megan fell asleep in the car or in the stroller mid-morning or during the odd hour I’d swap with another mom. When Luke came along, it got even harder since Megan no longer napped much, and she jealously interrupted when I tried to nurse him to sleep. There were whole years that I desperately scratched out two hours a week to write, feeling that my selfhood was being drained whenever a sick child refused to nap or a round of pink eye cancelled a play day. Although I felt clear that caring for my children was my first priority, selflessness didn’t come easily to me.

Maybe I’m just not as desperate because I get so much more time for my own work now that they’re both in school. I juggle writing and teaching, but generally I get enough writing time to keep my soul from parching. Not in the last few weeks, though. Between our Thanksgiving trip and the end of the semester grading, I haven’t had time to write anything other than this blog for three weeks. So when I entered my grades Sunday night, I was really looking forward to five days in a row of writing, enough to get back into my new book before Christmas break stalls my momentum again. Then in the early hours of Monday morning, Tom and I were woken by the sound of Megan whimpering from a fever. I knew immediately what it meant: I’d be staying home Monday with Megan.

There were many nice things about my day with Megan, but one of them was noticing that I took it in stride in a way I wouldn’t have years ago. Motherhood has been chipping away at my selfishness and giving me plenty of practice at letting go of my agenda. It’s also taught me that ten years goes quickly, so a day is not worth sweating about. As a result, I was able to just enjoy being with Megan, giving her little jobs around the house as she felt better, discussing Harry Potter and her birthday with her. She is getting more mature. It’s nice to notice that I am, too.

The other anniversary that’s coming up in a few days is my mom’s death. It’s just another reminder of the passage of time and the need for all of us to learn to let go.

Monday, December 04, 2006


The neighbors have their lights up, B101 is playing all Christmas music, and I’ve begun my annual wrestling match with what is supposedly the “Hap-happiest time of the year.”
Part of it is my ongoing struggle against consumerism—a regular theme in this blog—as well as my issues with being a cultural minority. My particular questions of the day: What does it mean to celebrate advent? And what does it mean to honor religious diversity in a culture that commercializes everything?

Traditionally, advent was the season of waiting. It was a dark quiet time of inward preparation, or at least that’s my ideal. Gradually the candles on the advent calendar increased, and then on Christmas day (or Christmas Eve, depending on your family), the tree appeared, blazing with lights, and the darkness was over. Christ was born. Hallelujah!

We’ve tried that, and here’s what it gets us, two kids whining: “Why can’t we put up our lights? All the neighbors decorated after Thanksgiving. Our house looks stupid.” Since Christmas has become a consumer holiday more than a religious one, the days before Christmas have become the focus, rather than the days of celebration afterwards. Expectant waiting is a spiritual value, not a capitalist one.

We’ve tried to explain it to our children, tried to focus on the advent wreath, but this year I’m on the verge of giving up, thinking that we could make decorating, rather than darkness, part of the expectant waiting. I ran into a friend this morning who said that’s what her family is doing, and they are having the most “integrated” advent ever. I liked that idea of integrating the commercial, cultural and spiritual aspects of the season. That’s really what’s important to me, rather than some rarefied ideal of the past.

The gap between the commercial and spiritual aspects of Christmas was evident in a story I heard this morning on CNN. Apparently Chicago’s Christmas Fest will not be airing ads for the film The Nativity Story and has dropped the filmmaker as a sponsor because a film about Jesus’ origins might be offensive to non-Christians. The city is widely being made fun of, since it is after all a Christmas festival. But the incident seems very revealing to me. Very few people seem concerned that we are forcing Jews, Muslims, and other non-Christian Americans to endure non-stop Christmas music and shopping advertisements featuring red. I supposed it’s assumed that shopping is a universal value in America. We all worship at the mall. The Chicago Christmas Fest, which is really a market featuring vendors from all over, was just an expression of the shopping religion we all presumably share. But Jesus…he’s dangerous. It reminds me of a story I heard from one of the volunteer Santas at a city zoo. Santa usually appears in December with the reindeer, but when one Santa suggested they bring in the camels to symbolize the wise men of the nativity story, the zoo said that might offend some zoo goers. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to them that Santa might offend people.

I really don’t have an easy answer here. I believe in respecting other traditions and in being sensitive, especially when you’re the majority. I’m disturbed, for example, that Wal-mart has given up having its cashiers say “Happy Holidays” and has reverted to “Merry Christmas.” There seems to be something arrogant in the assumption that it’s too politically correct to notice that we’re not all Christian. On the other hand, Chicago seems to have gotten it wrong too. It’s hypocritical to embrace the revenue of Christmas while discouraging the reverence.

Somehow this relates to advent and the idea of integrating. It makes me want to put up my Christmas lights, but inside rather than outside, as a family act rather than a public one. Perhaps if we focused a bit more on Jesus’ message, increased respect for others would be a natural consequence.

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