I am thankful for the opportunity to share some reflections on grieving during the holidays and the healing effects of leaning into the themes of Christmas on Servants of Grace. Check it out here.
When all is said and done, will Christians be able to reach across the lines that have been drawn in the sand? I’m thankful for the opportunity to share some thoughts over at “Servants of Grace” today. Click here to read the article, “Building a Kingdom, Not a Babel.”
I think we do.
“Ode to Autumn” by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
When I was little, I wasn’t allowed to watch the “Night on Bald Mountain” portion of Fantasia. It had everything to do with my own anxious tendencies as a child and not because my parents were uptight about the holiday. Actually, my parents’ embrace of Halloween deviated from the cultural norms of the religious community we belonged to at the time, one that looked askance at anything remotely spooky, even in one instance (I wish I was making this up) expressing concern over the use of magic by one MARY POPPINS. [Pause for laughter. Or therapy. Or crying in the arms of Julie Andrews.] All that to say, thanks to my parents I grew up loving Halloween and basically everything about autumn, but I didn’t get around to seeing “Night on Bald Mountain” until I taught an interdisciplinary humanities course.
Our Halloween class was one of my favorite traditions. My co-teacher would talk about the historic origins of the holiday, and I would cover the music history side. We would listen to such favorites as Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre”, and then I would teach a little lesson on Modest Mussorgsky, and we would watch “Night on Bald Mountain.” With each viewing I found the animation weirdly moving, and the more that the tumult our current age intensifies, the more meaningful the piece is.
It takes place Halloween night where Bald Mountain opens up and a satanic looking devil-fellow summons all the ghosts and ghouls and other demons, and they have a little rumpus in the flames that he conjures. It grows increasingly frenzied and disturbing until suddenly the devil flinches, and all goes silent. He grimaces and flinches again. The demons too, wince and recoil, and a rhythmic pattern to their movement emerges. It becomes clear that what is having such an effect on them is the tolling of a bell. As the bell grows louder, they shrink back, and eventually the demons and ghosts and ghouls begin to swirl back to the realms from which they came. Even the devil-fellow wraps himself in his wings, throwing his hands up in defeat and becomes part of the mountain once more. The music grows softer and more sacred, and a line of lights appears against Gothic arches as a line of saints. The bell reveals itself to be a church bell and the lights, the torches of church-goers processing in prayer. Ultimately, a ten minute romp of wickedness was powerless against the prayers of the saints.
Obviously this is a Halloween cartoon, but in the days when turmoil, tragedy, and societal decay seem to grow with the same frenzied intensity, the idea of an evil battle swirling above our heads doesn’t seem entirely implausible. But that also makes the image of that line of lights carried by the gathering saints as well as the incapacitating power of the church bell so much sweeter. I think of the simple zoom call my church has done every Wednesday since the pandemic hit in March. On my very worst days I can listen to the faith-filled prayers of people who have lived a lot more life than I have, and my own sense of strength and hope is renewed. I picture the glowing lights carried by each saint that may feel small and insignificant on its own, but combined, sends the shadows scattering.
July is the cruelest month. That’s not exactly what T.S. Eliot said, but around this time in July, every year the flashbacks begin and the “what was I doing X years ago” starts to kick in. “This time 11 years ago I had a brother”—I can say that part the first 11 days, “this time 11 years ago he was gone.” That part comes on July 11.
Except that this year has been exponentially worse. I spent the week before my brother died watching him suffer on a ventilator, watching his oxygen saturation numbers cruelly rise only to fall again, and this year the flashbacks have been from March until July. My brother did not die of Covid obviously, but the similarities that people on the front lines report are horrifying, and my heart breaks for the lives lost and the families torn apart. Yet this national tragedy often gets reduced to numbers, statistics, and percentages, and though I don’t think it’s humanly possible to grasp the scope of suffering, these numbers bring back for me a fraction of what they represent. Instead of a number, I see desperate gasping. Instead of a number, I hear that macabre mechanical click as a machine forces air into human lungs that refuse to work. Instead of a number, I feel the confusion of witnessing pain so great I momentarily prayed for God to put an end to the suffering and then hated myself for it immediately afterwards.
Reliving through the worst day of my life would be hard enough in a country where people generally agreed this was a problem and decided to work together to put an end to it. Yet somehow, mind boggling as it is, this issue has become political. I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but speaking from the heart I will say only this: people who do not take this seriously have no idea how high the stakes are. They have not watched a loved one suffer on a ventilator. They have not experienced a Christmas morning with a fifth of the family gapingly vacant. I fear they will not know the fire they are playing with until they themselves are burned.
I went for a quick lunch break run on the trail and here is what I discovered: The burbling of the stream now mixes with the babbling of children playing outside. While parents look on, kids are balance-walking across fallen trees and jumping from log to log because obviously the ground is lava. I saw a mom and her son crouched on the bank of the stream picking out rocks, and a dad with fishing net and bucket trailed by two kids, all in rain boots. I saw prancing dogs on walks with tails aloft who can’t believe their good luck that their owners are home during the day. I know this thing is big and scary and tragic and awful, believe me. I probably sound like an asthmatic hipster when I say I have been panicking about this virus before it was cool. However, I think there is a distinct chance that good things also come from this madness. Stay safe out there.
Hymns have words when we don’t, and I’ve been living in these words lately:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure,
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing,
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above;
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.
My mom has often recalled with fondness that her grandparents took her to see the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center when she was a little girl. She has often recalled details like the magic of the Christmas tree growing before her six-year-old eyes, the snow falling from the stage ceiling as the haunting choir serenaded the snow, the lavender and pink tutus swirling together on the stage, and then the astonishing good fortune to have a Grandfather who secured a meeting on the stage afterwards with ballet and choreography legend Jacques D’Amboise.
When I went to New York one time, I visited Lincoln Center, bought her a christmas ornament in the shape of the chandeliers, which I recognized immediately from her description. She often expressed how much she wanted to take me to see it, particularly as I danced for much of my life, and even danced in the Nutcracker in middle school.
As it turns out, December 2019, is the year that “someday” crystalized into a date on the calendar, train tickets, theater tickets, and eventually a day that I will savor and relish as much as her six year old self did.
We boarded the train at 5:45 a.m. and arrived in the sunlit, holiday bedecked center of 34th Street. Christmas in New York has long been an experience that lives in Christmas movies and dreams, and the real thing did not disappoint. We wandered around Harold Square, flocked Macy’s as it opened, and then headed in a cab uptown to Lincoln Center, where we met my dear friend for brunch and a French bistro across from Lincoln Center. She arrived right as we were ordering mimosas, and she as she hurriedly declined, the news tumbled out that she was pregnant with her first child. I fell apart in the happiest tears, and we enjoyed a decadent brunch of pastries, eggs benedict, two mimosas and one water.
The ballet itself had preserved many elements of the original staging and choreography, so I got to witness many of the memories I had heard again and again growing up become my own. We also had the privilege to see Charlotte Nebras, the first black lead of the Nutcracker dazzle in the lead role of Marie, sometimes called Clara. I hope that many little girls in attendance can aspire to dream big leaping ballerina dreams having seen themselves represented so beautifully.
By the time we boarded the train home that evening, we were completely worn out, but riding high emotionally from a day of making dreams and memories become reality.
Usually sometime after the Fourth of July “back to school” signs begin to creep into stores and advertisements, and with it the slow grip of anxiety begins to tighten in the heart of every teacher. Leading up to this fall, however, my heart has skipped a little beat whenever I see it, because it has no hold on me. People ask again and again, “are you sad you’re not teaching?” or “do you miss it?” The answer, candidly is no. Not at all. I miss people. I miss certain classes of students from years gone by, certain experiences I will always treasure. But Ms. Jones, an identity I cherished for so long, is decidedly gone.
I remember the exact moment Ms. Jones was born. After months of preparation, trepidation, planning, and envisioning, she had left the early morning faculty meeting on the first day of school with a small group colleagues and one by one they had broken off into their own classrooms and she stood alone in her own classroom. She had meticulously decorated for maximum autumnal excitement, leaves the color of fire crowning the blackboard and whiteboard. Her favorite detail was a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencil of rom-com fame, tied with a shiny orange bow next to the sharpener. Students began to trickle in accompanied by their parents and one by one the names on a roster became faces on a seat. She stood in awkward, uncomfortable silence and smiling through her fears as she saw in their faces the same trepidation and questions on their first day of middle school. Then the bell rang and in an instant she realized that she was the only adult in the room. The classroom was hers, the students were hers, and Ms. Jones was born.
It wasn’t long before Ms. Jones began to take form. She sat at her desk as another class met in her classroom and one little boy, crinkled his eyes through spectacles and grinned a crooked smile with a shy wave. One by one the students expanded her heart and the ones that flew under the radar she made attempts to talk to and connect with. They read together, they discussed, they put on skits, they had inside jokes. Of course, being middle school, there were many, many tears. The first time a student cried she felt her own heart breaking. By the end of the year, had mastered the art of the reassuring shoulder pat, the subtle slip of the kleenex, and the send off down the hall to the bathroom to wash up. They left the echo of their voices and the shadow in their faces when the classroom emptied out at the end of the day. She wiped down each desk, thinking of its occupant and replaying the outlandish moments of the day. She worked late into the night, preparing for the following day, excited to return and brimming with new ideas. In conversation, her students became “my kids” and she mourned their absence on days of faculty in-service and professional development. She screamed at referees along with their mothers, and cried with their mothers at parent teacher conferences. Her desk became the watercooler at breaks and after school, she learned to nod with interest at long accounts of video games and sports. She spent class periods on gingerbread houses and Christmas tree decorating. In the spring she began to lament the year passing quickly and savored each day. By the end of the year she tried to be brave as the final bell rang and she held a cluster of crying middle school girls while the boys ran down the hallway without a backwards glance.
I remember the exact moment that Ms. Jones died. Nine years and three schools had passed, and soured in later years with the difficult parents, administrators, occasionally even a student who knew their parents would believe their complaints and the administration would believe the tuition checks that parents waved in front of them. The toxicity of a broken system had begun to take its toll in the last few years mentality, and the toxicity of a broken building, fetid with flood residue swept, literally and figuratively, under the rug lay siege to her already asthmatic body. The autonomy of a class in her subject of specialty had taken a backseat to the interdisciplinary team teaching model, meaning that she often received parental and administrative backlash for decisions she didn’t make, and had to relegate the literary works she most loved to a hurried, rushed corner of the curriculum subject to the greater agenda of the class. Backed into a corner one evening, she had no choice but to post a spark notes summary of a beloved literary work so that the students could get the historical reference, but not linger on the text. The moment she hit “post” to the class site, she knew it was over. The love had died, and the spark was extinguished, and she had to start the long process of changing course. She gathered from the shelves of her desk, her most beloved texts from college: Faber’s “Beowulf” in Old English, “the Canterbury Tales” in Middle English, and others, and took them home, safe where they belonged. Of course, at that point there was no way of knowing that by late April, the physical deterioration would have taken a toll so great that long term subs would be running the show the last 6 weeks of the year.
In those painful last years, I hated Ms. Jones for not being strong enough, not being capable enough, not being confident enough like the other teachers that can walk into a room and immediately command an audience. Now that she’s gone, I think of her more kindly. I know she tried her best. I know there were schools and eras and days where she showed up every morning invigorated and excited to share the treasures on the syllabus for that day. I know she genuinely loved her students more than anything. But I don’t think I will miss her.
My cousin Jessica and I used to plan elaborate trips abroad when we were children. We even at one point had a full itinerary of a tour of Ireland planned, down to the specific hotels. I don’t think we were even in middle school yet, let alone functioning adults with jobs, but seeing limitations is something that comes with adulthood. We still have not made it across the Atlantic Ocean, but we have made it to Canada twice, and this past weekend felt especially European in beautiful Vieux Montreal, one of my favorite cities.
The main event was attending the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival and seeing a British show, headlined by one of my very favorites, Sarah Millican. She doesn’t tour America, so this was an opportunity worth hopping the Canadian border. Jimmy Carr hosted, and I loved him in England as host of a number of silly panel shows, so hearing his iconic laugh in person was certainly a treat.
Aside from that, we didn’t have an agenda, and spent the days wandering, drinking ice wine, sitting in cafes, taking photos and looking for more places to drink ice wine. We stayed downtown, just blocks away from Notre Dame Basilica, and one of my favorite moments was when we stopped in for a tour around the same time an organ presentation took place. The cool darkness of the cathedral was a welcome respite from the heat outside, and we sat and listened to the mighty instrument fill the room with its resonance.
The weekend was short and sweet, but Montreal has the effect of feeling like you traveled a far distance and stayed a long time, even if it was just a quick plane ride in the same timezone.