In the beginning...

The week between Christmas and New Year's is always a little strange for me.  A little sad, perhaps, because all of the excitement and anticipation of Christmas is over (it already feels like ages ago) but there's still the expectancy of the New Year's celebration, though much smaller in comparison.  This week marks the end of something and the beginning of something else (namely, the year).  But will 2012 really be so different from 2011?  What exactly happens between December 31 and January 1?  We are caught in a cycle of years, regardless of how we mark them, so what's the big deal?  I guess maybe it's not so much the big deal as it is just the deal:  our lives are marked by rhythms, ends and beginnings.  Sunrise becomes sunset.  Sunday leads to Monday.  January moves into February.  Life, eventually and inevitably, becomes death.  I'm thankful for these rhythms, these patterns that dot our lives.  Some days, it's all I can do to make it to sunset, ever grateful that tomorrow is a new day.  And other days, weeks,  or months, are filled with such joy (like Christmas) that it is only the end of that thing that helps me retain my joy (just think if Christmas was forever - what would our joy be like then?).  

I am not one for resolutions in the classic sense - they can sound so much like rules, expectations begging to be broken and disappointments waiting to drop in.  There is too much unexpected "life" that can happen in a year for a hard and fast decision or rule to be made about it within the early stages.  But the spirit of resolutions I can appreciate - longing for something better, fuller, healthier in life, imagining that things could be different and implementing change, a fresh start, a new beginning...  

My "resolutions" look a little different, more like "hopes."  Sometimes they are fairly realistic and attainable, like taking a multivitamin.  Other times, they are less specific, like my wish to be a better listener.  So, in anticipation of this weekend's events, I dug out my journal from last year and read over my list of "Hopes for 2011." Here are a select few:

-Travel: visit Sam in Alaska (check! see September post Into the Wild)
-Don't buy unnecessary "things" and get rid of useless crap (still in progress...)
-Sell or giveaway some artwork (I sold a painting this year to some Aussie mates, gave several away, and have recently been commissioned for a large painting)
-Volunteer at Missionaries of Charity (I spent the first part of this year jobless, so I found my way back to the Sisters of M.C. here in Chicago, who have taught me the essence of humility.  I haven't been back for months but recently have been hanging out at our local food pantry.)
-Make more homemade things (My mom and I ventured a bit of laundry detergent and household cleaner, and I continue to bake breads but I have visions of much more!)
-Plant vegetables (my vegetables consisted of herbs, time and space is not in my favor)
-Learn to play the guitar (hmm...well, this one is a bummer)
-Write something: start a blog, memoir (check!!!)
-Eat vegetarian (well, fish is still in my diet, but I'm reading a book right now that is challenging even my moderate fish-eating)

I discovered a couple other notes from the end of 2010.  One documenting the news of a dear friend's miscarriage.  She had written to me, "The Lord gives and takes away, still my heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name."  Their daughter, Hazel, was born just before Christmas.  I had also scrawled a note on "the theology of place - what about this idea of praying towards a place in the kingdom, and a peace in that place, rather than a job or a school, etc."  I find myself thinking much the same as we enter a new year, and I can't help but wonder what I've been doing these last 365 days, wishing I'd been more attentive.  Last January I was also meeting regularly with a group of friends who decided we each needed to pick a "word for the year."  The last page of my journal bears "My word for the year:  holy longing?  small wonder?", a friend's address, the name of a song I liked, a recipe for Sweet Potato Souffle, and this quote from writer Molly Wizenburg:

"Well, there you go.  This is what you write about.  Exactly what's happening."

That is, essentially, what I've been doing, writing about what's happening.  I'm only sorry I've missed some of the living in between, or may have "lived" at the expense of others. Which is why I'm grateful that we can begin again.  

I'm working on this year's "hopes", with maybe a few dreams and reflections in addition. But I like to give myself the first bit of January to determine these things - we need time to think, reflect, and hope outside the confines of a holiday or the pretense of a season. I'll keep you posted.  In the mean time, enjoy these last moments of a year of plenty.


Joy in being

I've been mulling over this phrase throughout the advent season: Oh for joy.  It seems we have a tendency to attach "joy" (or is it happiness?) to certain seasons, things, events, even people.  Which is great - I think we should find joy in all of those things.  But I think there's also something to be said for the joy  that moves beyond our understanding, that joy which sits much deeper in our being.

We all have moments of discontentedness, suddenly somehow all that we have isn't quite enough.  The world has taught us that our jobs, our family, our relationships, and our treasures will never be enough.  And the world is right.  It never will  be enough.  That's not where a deep-seated joy lies.  And if all I see is down at my feet, at the little plot of ground I walk on, I can miss it.  Which is perhaps why all of creation must repeat the sounding joy.

All this joy has got me thinking about loss.  It has been a year of losses for many people. And this advent season may be harder than ever.  Yet I find freedom in the realization that all of creation resounds about a joy that is abiding.  There is a joy in this final week of advent, in the fulfillment of a promise, the hope of a nation, and the light in a world of darkness that transcends a year of loss or a year of plenty.

So, whether we lie in wait or wanting, in abundance or in blessing, in feast or famine - there is a great joy.  A joy without condition.  Beyond circumstance or situation.  And it is at hand.

There's a man who is a window washer for several local business near the patisserie I work at.  He comes early in the morning to do the windows, before the businesses he is serving are open, so he pops in the bakery for some water.  He came in this week, and chatted with another customer while I filled his bucket.  I have no idea all that they spoke of, but he left with a cup of coffee and a pound cake thanks to her kindness.  I couldn't help but smile at the exchange of joy.  The window washer called the shop later to let us know he was eating the lemon blueberry poundcake right then and it was amazing.  

Such a small, seemingly insignificant act - yet potentially an immeasurable gift of compassion.  I think of compassion as being with someone.  The Lady of Kindness at the patisserie was with the Window Washer, offering him coffee and a bit of bread.  In essence, offering him the eucharist - the bread and the cup of a table of grace.  Like Emmanuel - God with us.

PS - I discovered a lovely rendition of the Christmas story this week.  I love it for the simplicity, tenderness, and the party at the end.


The "First" Tree of Christmas

Fact #1:  I have never had a REAL tree for Christmas.  I am 25 years old and I've never had the thrill of picking out the perfect fir or filling a room with the scent of pine (my parents claim we had a 13' tree in our house in California, but I was 2 and have no memory of such a sight....therefore, this does not count).  For as long as I can remember, we unpacked and assembled our synthetic tree every year - which was fine by me, I didn't really know any other kind of Christmas tree.  But as I've grown older (and wiser), I've longed for the experience of a real tree.  If there's one word I could choose for my generation it is this:  authenticity.  This goes for trees, churches, and presidents alike. My fellow 20-somethings are all for that which is authentic, myself included.  

This brings me to Fact #2:  we have a REAL tree this year.  Something magical happened in my family this year and hearts have been transformed for the better.  And is it ever glorious!  So lovely, old-fashioned, and authentic.  

Cost has always been a factor in the whole real-tree-debacle, but with the help of a little thing called Groupon, we frequented the local tree lot this week and picked the perfect tree.  The tree man was rather incredulous to discover this was my first real tree, and for all the depravity of my childhood, he gave me a little Charlie Brown tree too.

I happened to catch the classic Charlie Brown Christmas on TV this week.  My favorite scene is when Linus gives his monologue, sharing the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke 2 by heart, concluding: 

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

It takes a Linus to remind us of our blessings.  I was at the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry last night, volunteering for the distribution shift.  I sat at one of the registration tables, checking IDs and taking down info from the 164 clients who passed through, each one with a different story.  Many of them spoke of the "hard times" everyone is in with the loss of jobs and homes and everything in between.  There was really nothing I could say or do to make it better.  I have a home and a job and I have never been forced to visit a food pantry to make ends meet.  

It made me reflect on our lives that intersected for a moment one night.  I often wonder just what the purpose is behind these times, how it might be transforming us for something better.  I daresay things may never be back to "how it used to be", and maybe that's okay, maybe our Creator knows what he's doing - teaching us to live simple, grateful and interwoven lives.  I don't think he wants to see 164 families and individuals without access to a grocery store, a home, or a job any more than I do.  But maybe he's teaching me (us) something about how I (we) should be living, and how our small adjustments to how we live just might mean life and a blessing to our hard-times-neighbors.  Maybe he's making something grand out of something seemingly small, broken, and imperfect - much like Charlie Brown's little Christmas tree.