The Summer of their Years

As we close the book on the summer, I can’t help but think that this will be The Summer. I’m sure you had a summer like that – a summer you look back to in your childhood. It stands out golden and long and joyful, and is the marker for what summer should be. My Summer was when I was 9, and it included a pond and a raft, waves of grasshoppers that would explode from every footstep I took and journeys through the wild woods behind my house.

This summer, Grey was 11 and Thane was 8. And if this summer wasn’t peak-childhood-summer, I don’t know what could be.

We did a bit of pre-season summering with our first camping trip of the year, to the Waterville Valley Campground. It was a superbly relaxing weekend. We didn’t go very far or do very much, and were contented to hang out in hammocks and read books and be together. It was a superb camping trip, and we resolved in the future to carefully plan more nothing for our camping trips.

The summit of our one hike

The summer started a bit quietly. School ended in mid June. We spent the last few weeks of June saying goodbye to our dear and beloved friends, as they prepared to move. We spent absolutely as much time together as possible, including heading up to New Hampshire together to celebrate about five of the kids’ birthdays. I armed them all with NERF for some epic neighborhood battles.

Last hurrahs

It was a strangely empty neighborhood we left for our longest camping trip of the year, the 4th of July trip, to our ancestral camping grounds at White Lake State Park. We’ve been there every summer since Thane was a 9 month old, and it never ceases to be a favorite of all of ours. You can take a hike, hang in a hammock, go down to the beach, ride bikes or forage for the sweet fern which grows nearby. In keeping with the traditions of our camping trip, there was extreme weather. In this case, we upped our game to include tornado warning, which sent us to a favorite local watering hole. In this case, the correlation between the soccer game we wanted to watch and the necessity to shelter in place was very serendipitous. We returned to a campsite that hadn’t been evacuated, but which had been clearly flash-flooded. Since we include moderate flooding in all our camping plans, this was accepted as nothing more than expected excitement.

Waiting out the storm
After the rains left

We’d only be home a few days from the camping trip when the second annual Flynn’s Fiery Feast came up. It was a particularly peripatetic adventure, since the weather was gorgeous… between storm cells. So we kept moving the people and the stuff in and out, and in and out. Everyone was remarkably good sports about the whole thing.

The very next day, it was time to drive to New Hampshire again (a theme in my summer) to drop an extremely confident eldest son off at his third (or fourth?) year at Camp Wilmot. We spent a special week at home with our littlest one, and got exactly one letter from our eldest telling us what we’d forgotten to pack him. The next Sunday found me driving that oh-so-familiar stretch of 93 to drop Thane off for his first year. He sent three letters in six days, earning the “Mailman” award at camp. When Erin and I picked up our collected progeny, Thane told me that as much as Grey loved Camp Wilmot, he (Thane) loved it more.

Week one Wilmotters
The week 2 Camp Wilmotters, minus M. whom we couldn’t find

We picked the kids up from New Hampshire on Saturday. On Sunday, we drove up to New Hampshire for a tubing trip on the Saco (rescheduled from the 4th weekend when the river was at flood stage). We had a great time throwing frisbees and floating, with the exception of the section where Thane and I managed to get totally tangled up, lose our tubes and I permanently lost my favorite hair thingy. Woe! Thane is not a huge fan of tubing after that, sadly.

How can you not love this?

They had a whole five days between that tubing trip to recover before it was time for my company summer outing at Six Flags. It rained, but that just meant that there were ZERO lines for the biggest baddest rides. Thane is now tall enough for Superman (the biggest of the Six Flags roller coasters, and a legitimately big one). They have no fear, those children. It was neat to be able to do it with friends, as well!

The rain was our friend

The day after our Six Flags adventure, we flew to Barcelona and spent a totally jetlagged day there, as well as most of a second, walking the green and joyful espalandes of Las Ramblas. Thane chased the pigeons, we ate ice cream and caught Pokemon and lost ourselves in the rambling alleys of the Gothic Quarter.

Thane and the pigeons had a special relationship
The Gothic Quarter

The next day we went up to Montjuic on the Funicular, and spent time going deep on the history of that grim fortress – first built to protect the city and then used to terrorize it. We walked in the gulleys where hundreds were executed, and watched the flags flying with philosophical questions.

Thought provoking art installation
Montjuic parapets

The next day we took the train from Barcelona to Carcassonne. As we sped through the Mediterranean countryside, the boys opened their dice bags and continued the role-playing games that have threaded through all the fun times of our journey. Carcassonne city was glorious. We stayed in the newer section (you know, like 1600) in this Roaring 20s era hotel near the train station. We’d walk through the high end shops and cross the bridge to go up to the medieval city itself. It was truly remarkable, even knowing that it had been restored a mere shmere 130 or so years ago. You could lay your hands against stones that had been placed there by the Romans as they spread across Europe. But there was this whole lack of self-consciousness of the weight of history that only the Europeans can really pull off. Even the medieval city felt lived in, as though it was home to real people.

Also, the cassoulet was unbelievable.

The city had walls connecting it to the river
The keep
The small well in the city

Our greatest highlight of the Carcassonne portion of our visit was the day we spent with James MacDonald visiting Lastour and Minerve, and coming to come to intimately know the Cathars and the Crusaders who persecuted them. Climbing up to the remarkable towers at Lastours was unbelievable. It looked like a Byronic play backdrop. Minerve seemed barely changed at all from the siege of 1220, except for the Victorian bridge that now spanned the chasms. Between them we visited a neolithic tomb. There are some days where you can feel yourself accruing the value of your life. Days where you find the very meaning that you have longed and yearned for. This day was all that – to gaze on these places and walk their worn steps. It was remarkable.

How could this possibly be real?
High above the modern era
Thousands of years ago, this was wrought by human hands
Long imagined city, visited

Adam and I passed our 17th anniversary in the warmth of Barcelona, before we headed back to the states from a truly remarkable week in the 13th century. (And a scant week before terrorists plowed through the crowds we’d just been part of in Las Ramblas.)

Barcelona cathedral

Once again, we gave the boys a gracious allowance of a week before the next thing. Although this particular week, we sent them to boating camp on Spot Pond where they spent six or so hours a day on the water honing their sailing and kayaking skills. I counted, and the children kayaked on three distinct bodies of water this summer, in three different states. I kayaked in zero bodies of water. I think this shows that my children are living more wisely than I am.

My folks departed Boston ASAP on Friday night after they finished boating camp for parts west, racing the sun across the country to be in Idaho Falls in totality to witness the complete eclipse. On the way they passed through Niagara Falls, Minnesota with their cousins, Wall Drug, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, the Hiawatha Trail (where they went on a 17 mile bike ride) and Yellowstone. They also kayaked on Mineral Lake at the end of their journey.

Niagara
Wall Drug
Mt. Rushmore
Eclipse
Hiawatha Trail
Kayaking on Mineral Lake

They got back from this adventure about 3 days before school started. (Meanwhile, I was hiking Chocorua.)

We were supposed to go camping Labor Day weekend. I regret that we didn’t. It is not restful to be home, I swear. But we were so worn out from all our wanderings that we just stayed at home and took a deep breath in preparation for our busiest season, the fall.

But truly, if that doesn’t count as the best summer of your childhood (maybe your life?) then, well, I’m not really sure what it is you are hoping for. It was a glimmering, golden, busy, joy-filled, friend-filled, nature-filled, history-filled, ice-cream-filled summer, and I will treasure it forever.

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Conquering Chocorua

Carter Ledge Trail crosses a small brook and soon ascends a steep gravelly slope with poor footing, then turns sharply right and up at a gravelly slide with a view of Mt. Chocorua; this turn is easily missed, especially on the descent. Continuing to climb steeply… The trail passes through a sag then climbs, steeply at times, up the slope of Third Sister, with several excellent outlooks, but with some ledges that can be dangerous in wet or icy conditions. Higher up is a particularly tricky scramble across a potentially slippery, downward sloping ledge (especially difficult on the descent)… White Mountain Guide 30th edition p.385

If only I’d seen this

About the time we hit that gravelly slide bit (on the descent, of course), we’d already been on the trail for about 8 hours. I’d noticed the beautiful way the light slanted through the jack pines that we were just about to lose it behind Chocorua, on whose summit we’d so recently stood. I figured that it was probably a bad idea to point this out to Erin, who was clinging to the ragged edges of sanity after the “slippery, downward sloping ledge” bit. It had rained torrentially the night before and was very humid, turning all the granite rock faces to a slip-slide zone. But I picked up the pace just a bit anyway.

Note how ominously close that sun is to the horizon – that’s also where we’d been a few hours prior

My fears were justified. We reached the blessed safety of our car at just the tipping point between when ruining your night vision with a flashlight would’ve been worth it. Every muscle in our body screamed. Successive adrenaline jolts were wearing off, and we scarfed a bag of M&Ms by the fistful. Erin is an extremely polite and well mannered person. So when she turned to me to express feelings on the hike all she said was “I am NEVER hiking that mountain again.”

Not the steepest, scariest part of the trail

It’s possible I’d slightly undersold the experience. You see, I’ve wanted to hike to the top of Chocorua REALLY BADLY for about the last six years. I made an attempt six years ago (on a shredded knee, right before surgery) but had gotten turned back. It’s logistically challenging. It’s definitely a full day hike. The kids definitely aren’t up for it. And it’s several hours drive from my house. Also, you really really shouldn’t do it alone. This made it hard for me to “convince” my husband he wanted to do it, or to figure out how to do it at all. But this summer, a window opened. The kids were off at Camp Gramp chasing the eclipse. Adam was at Gencon. And I had a summer weekend all to myself. Sometime this spring Erin and I were talking about hiking and the high pressures of modern life and I said, “Hey, you wanna come on this hike with me? We’d get a hotel, make a weekend out of it, and really relax.”

My usual view of Chocorua from White Lake State Park

The last few times I’ve gazed at Chocorua’s lovely & taunting profile I’ve taunted back “This time I’m going to get you!” But for having been on my bucket list for years, I’d spent remarkably little time thinking through which trails I wanted to take. We’d been using a hike book the last 6 or 7 years, but Irene did a number on several off the local trails and we’d gotten in a bit of trouble, so I stopped at EMS to try to buy a new copy. They were fresh out! But hey, if I wanted a “Paddling the Ohio” copy no problem. I figured I’d stop at the Ranger Station to get a copy there. But traffic was awful and I hit the ranger station after 5 when it was closed. But hey, I had a recent map of Chocorua! Erin and I reviewed the route that night.

Not enough information

We had two cars and wanted to do a circle route. I picked one of the shortest loops that seemed to also include the most viewpoints. “So we’ll go up the Hammond Trail, pick up the Liberty Trail across the summit, and then come down the Carter Ledge Trail to White Ledge Campground, which has plenty of parking. It’s about 10 miles. Sound good?”

I mean, ten miles eeeeeeaaaaasssssy right? AHAHAHAHAHAH!

Chocorua is on the left here. We’d be coming down where the white cliffs are to the right.

Well, it was absolutely gorgeous. The pull up was long and hard and humid. The ground was steaming. The leaves were steaming. We were definitely steaming. It had rained so hard the night before, but it was still warm – touching 80. We’d brought lots of water – nearly 5 liters – as well as a UV water purifier that I’ve wanted for years but never splurged on. (See also: stop at EMS) But we were losing water at a great rate, which was ironic given that vast muddy puddles littered the trail. The rocks couldn’t dry off in the humidity, so stayed slick the whole day. And we needed to climb 3,200 feet. Then summit about three different peaks in a row. Then descend that 3,200 feet.

The wild blueberries were superb and I grazed continually as I hiked!

We ran out of water with about 3 miles to go. Fortunately, I did have my schmancy fancy new water purified and got us a critical additional liter for the last two fast miles out. Did I mention on that descending Carter Ledge Trail we saw not a single other human? We were definitely going the wrong direction, and were very likely the only people on that trail. We couldn’t call mountain rescue if we got in trouble, either, since Erin’s brother would’ve been the one to answer our call and that might’ve been mortally embarrassing.

The view of Chocorua from Middle Sister

This climb was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done. Every single stabilization muscle was spent. The big muscles of my legs screamed. Bands of pain radiated across both knees with every step up and down. The next day, I could hardly walk up or down a staircase. The biggest surprise was how incredibly sore my arms and core muscles were. We did a LOT of climbing and used a lot of arm strength to get ourselves up and down. I’m not sure any part of my body didn’t hurt. Erin had some blisters she didn’t even know she had because their pain signals were hidden in the overall pain-signals from all other parts of her body.

But oh my friends, what a triumph it was. What a great blessing it is to push yourself to and past your limits, and emerge victorious from the battle. I live so much in my mind, that to spend 10 hours being very much within my body was a great gift. It was truly everything I wanted – and more. Now to figure out how to talk Erin into making this an annual event….

See more pictures here!

Dating in mid life

My husband and I have been married for 17 years. We started dating 21 years ago. Eleven years ago we added Grey to the family, and eight years ago Thane joined in. Now, this is going to come as a massive surprise to you, but it’s hard to spend great quality time with your spouse when you have two children, two full time jobs, a rather obscene number of side interests (see also: Pastor Nominating Committee, role playing games, local politics, Mom’s Groups…). But Adam and I would like to stay happily married for another 2x 20 years. (Given our ages when we got married, we have a shot of making it to 60 years of marriage!) And that means that sometimes taking a break from the tumult of life to focus on each other.

Fruity drinks with umbrellas at the Baldwin
Fruity drinks with umbrellas at the Baldwin

When we switched the kids’ afterschool option, I wasn’t sure if there would be February break coverage. But do you know what’s cheaper than $900 a month for afterschool? Airline tickets and retired parents. So last Friday I waved my children goodbye as they went down the gangplate. (No pictures because I left my phone in the car. I didn’t have it for like 2.5 boring hours! It was a sobering highlight on how dependent I am…)

Snow shoeing in warm temperatures and bright sunshine!
Snow shoeing in warm temperatures and bright sunshine!

We then had the AWESOMEST weekend. We ate out practically the whole time. That night we went to the Baldwin. The next day we went snow shoeing. That seems funny to say right now, as it’s 60+ degrees out, but it was a lot of fun! Then we went to a regional theater performance of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirits and ate a super fancy dinner. We actually got a chance to talk about something other than the upcoming week’s agenda.

Since we couldn't snuggle kids, we snuggled cats
Since we couldn’t snuggle kids, we snuggled cats

Sunday I went to church. We had lunch with a friend, went on a run, and then had dinner with other friends. We ended the night at 11, reading the Iliad aloud around the dinner table.

Then, oh bliss!!! Monday was a holiday! First we had brunch at The Ugly Mug in Salem. We wandered through a used book store (where we bought books mostly for the kids, whom we were missing…). Then we went to the Peabody Essex Museum and went to the maritime art section (which ostensibly interested neither of us, but which we were both quickly enamoured with).

This was our favorite piece
This was our favorite piece

We took as long as we wanted, and Adam spend half the time on his belly near the furniture to see how the artists had jointed it. We got home just after noon, and I initiated project “second batch of beer”. I think I did… better this time. Not amazing, but better. It’s really a lot of work for a product that has a high likelihood of inferiority, so I’m not 100% sure there will be a third batch.

On the flip side, I discovered that dude-hobbies have cleaning devices driven by power tools.

Boys and their toys
Boys and their toys

I asked Adam to get me a sink connector for the wort chiller. He ended up going to like 3 different stores and buying 5 pieces of hardware. None of it, in any configuration, actually connected our wort chiller to the sink.

Not pleased
Not pleased

We ended the weekend at another friend’s house having another delicious dinner and playing games. We got months’ worth of dating into one action packed weekend!!!

It was awesome. It’s easy to lean on him as a capable partner, hard worker and good provider. But that can risk forgetting that my husband is funny, loving, great to talk to and in sum – he’s the guy I want to spend my life with.

I got my children back on Friday night (the same day my husband hied him off to yet another gaming convention). I really missed them too. The house seemed very quiet and clean without them – unnatural, I tell you! But I’m really looking forward to spending more time with this awesome guy I’m sharing my life with!

I'd missed these boys!
I’d missed these boys!

2016 retrospective

I had a very productive close to the year – lots of important work got done on both the home front and the work front. But I didn’t get around to writing my “Christmas letter” blog before the calendar flipped over to a prime number. So in this last day before the real world whirs back up to it’s usual frenetic pace, here’s a look back at the year I had.

2016 was a hard, hard year for many people around me. The loss of seminal artists to our generation was heavy and unrelenting. The division along political lines was hurtful and scary to many. The sense that we’re all in this together fractured. It may never have been true, but it now certainly does not feel true. The future feels unusually unknown and uncertain. Some of the tragedies felt extra close to home to me. Our pastor died of brain cancer. A firefighter was killed on my street when he and a buddy were goofing off with a gun. I watched the ambulances and fire trucks pass. A colleague of mine was brutally murdered. The killer remains at large.

But most of the sorrows and tragedies of the world happened outside my home, my friends, my family. And many of them are tragedies in potentia (obviously not all). It’s fear, not yet fact. So we’ll work to prevent those fears from coming true. And on the whole, 2016 was a good year for me and for my family.

Johnstones in Yosemite
Johnstones in Yosemite

The first big milestone of the year came in February, when my grandmother died after a long and loved life. My family has an odd (and I think healthy) attitude towards death. While we miss grandma, her time had come. If ever anyone had the hope of the resurrection in God’s time, she would. I’ve known very few people of such faith as she was. So when we came together for her funeral, we didn’t mourn as much as we celebrated. I was reminded what a neat family I’m so lucky to have. Does everyone have a blast at a funeral? I sure did! I also got to sneak in my “West Coast Mountain” fix. I had a conference in LA the same week, and got to spend some time in Yosemite with my family, take a weekend to myself in Sequoia (a new one for me!). It was pretty glorious.

Adam had a big year. When I was pregnant with Thane, he started a new job. (I remember particularly because he renovated “the nursery” in his 2 weeks off between the jobs.) Thane is in second grade, and Adam just switched to a company. (The company is curing cancer. He’s writing internal systems for it. I’m trying to convince him that basically means he’s curing cancer!) This has had a huge impact on our family. The work is much faster-paced and intense, and he’s learning a lot. On the personal front, he’s been doing a lot more with wood-working. Ask him about the joint-cutting work he’s doing! For someone who works mostly with their mind, producing something you can feel and touch is intensely satisfying!

Adam and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary this year. It also marks 20 years that we’ve been “an item”. We celebrated by going to Ashland Oregon and catching the Shakespeare Festival. Highlights included Timon of Athens and the Japanese Spa.

Crazy, and awesome
Crazy, and awesome

The boys are crazy. And awesome. Or maybe crazy awesome. Something like that. Grey started Middle School this year. (I KNOW. HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN!) He’s doing very well, although still working on the concept of just how badly a 0 for not turning in your homework affects your GPA. (I totally support learning this lesson in 5th grade, when it really does feel like just practice.) The Middle School transition has gone more easily than I expected, frankly!

Thane is in Second Grade and doing a good job there. He’s funny and independent and incredibly loving. Also, his penmanship has improved remarkably. He still enjoys math, although he’s declined to take extra classes to learn more. He reads a lot (mostly at school when he’s supposed to do other things). He’s revisited some prior loves – namely Legos and Scooby Doo.

My kid in a nutshell
My kid in a nutshell

We’ve switched up our childcare situation. After YEARS of going to the Stoneham Y, we switched to a different afterschool situation. The kids have a little more autonomy there, and it’s awesome, but it’s also a lot less controlled. It’s been going really well so far! It feels like a huge deal in the daily life of the family, and like a marker in the “wow, they’re really growing up aren’t they?” page. One change is that childcare isn’t available for the break weeks – like winter break, Feb break and April break. We just worked from home this last week (or took the kids into the office!). We’ll ship them out to Washington in February, and import Meme for the April break!

Christmas Eve Congregation
Christmas Eve Congregation

This was a huge and hard year in the life of my church. Last Christmas Eve was the last time our Interim Minister worshiped with us. We’re coming up on the 1 year anniversary of his diagnosis with glioblastoma. He was gone by Easter. We scrambled to keep things running, and I’m proud of how well we have stuck together. We finished the Mission Study (a process I ran). We finally have started the Pastor Nominating Committee (which I’m chairing). I’m also on Session (our leadership board) right now. Adam is chairing Trustees (the “let’s keep the building and finances in one piece” group). It’s a lot of work in a hard time for the congregation. But it’s meaningful work, and it’s with people I care deeply about.

Still a very serious person
Still a very serious person

For me, this was a good year. I am still obnoxiously happy with my job. I got to travel all over the place this year (which actually gets pretty tiring after a while). I went to Madrid, Chicago, Houston and LA. I am pretty sure I went more places, but I can’t remember them. I’ve continued my faithful once-a-week updating of this blog (although the readership has declined prodigiously, which makes me sad). A new thing for me this year was running. I started running in April, and have gone on 44 runs since then totaling 113 miles. I generally run about a 5k on my runs. I’m slow, but it’s one small fight against entropy.

We have continued many of the rich and wonderful things we usually do. We went camping 3 times this year. We hosted Piemas and Mocksgiving, and added in Flynns Fiery Feast as the third event of the year. We played tons of board games at 9 pm when the kids were finally in bed. We went on hikes. We watched movies. We took trips and had adventures. We visited Quebec City in April, spent Thanksgiving hitting museums in DC, and took the boys to their first gaming convention. We played Pokemon Go. We spent time with our neighbors, fund-raised for a service dog, and stuffed Easter Eggs together around the fireplace. We learned we loved roller coasters and that the kids have absolutely 0 fear of heights.

It was a joyful year. I can only hope that 2017 is also a joyful year – not just for my family, but for yours. May our worst fears evaporate and our greatest hopes come to pass. May the next year find us more peaceful, more joyful and with a bounty of love and sufficiency spread across all humanity!


Here’s a highlight album of some of my favorite pictures from 2016!

Christmas Cards

The picture which made it on the Christmas Cards this year
The picture which made it on the Christmas Cards this year

Christmas Cards are a big deal to me. The process starts in the summer with the question: should I get a professional to take our pictures? Every four years it’s a no-brainer. We have a professional picture taken ever four years for our family portrait wall (usually by Coe). This year was one of the four. The pictures came out fantastically!

Sometime around Thanksgiving, often Thanksgiving proper, I go onto Shutterfly and craft my cards. (Their site is annoying, but improving, and their production values are excellent.) I usually make a calendar for the grandparent-set at the same time, so it’s a lovingly laborious process of going through all the pictures I’ve taken all year, spotting the highlights, uploading them, fixing them, etc. I place the order, and curse myself for not doing this two weeks ago so I could WRITE the cards during Thanksgiving, because I won’t end up having enough time to do them justice. (Please note: this happens EVERY YEAR.) Fall is my busiest time, so I really don’t have time to do this two weeks earlier, to my regret.

So there I am, on the 9th of December, with 100 cards and envelopes staring me in the face. And I begin.

I have two sets of addresses – my personal address list and the church list. The first list is about 60 addresses long, and then I send out all the remaining to my church brothers and sisters. This process probably takes me 20 – 30 hours over the coming weeks. I spend big amounts of time on weekends, and nearly every free weeknight. It takes me far more time than baking, shopping or decorating do.

Why do I do it? And why does it take so long?

Happily, the act of writing all these cards gives me a lengthy chance to think on that investment. And year after year I have come to the same conclusion: this time is not only worthwhile, but precious.

You see, I address the outside of the envelope, and then I write to the person I care about. Some people actually get a full sized letter in their Christmas card. There are a couple correspondents I have where our only communication is annually, at Christmas. For example, one of my college classmates died of Muscular Dystrophy a few years after graduation. We had been good friends in college, and I’d known his mother who had moved heaven and earth to give him a “normal college experience” even though he was very motion constrained. So I wrote his mother a sympathy card, letting her know what he’d meant to me. She asked me to keep in touch, saying it was nice to follow what his life might have been like if he’d been healthy. So, every year I send her a Christmas Card with an update on my life. (And of course, every year I remember my friend in doing so.) And every year she writes back with an update on hers. So the updates are huge – a baby born, a wedding, a big job shift, a move, a death in the family.

And that shows what’s precious to me about this whole laborious process. I take time to really think about the people who matter to me. I stop from my busy day and try to tell them how I really feel about them. Almost every year, there’s a name I take off my list. This year, I didn’t send a card to Grandma Jones because she is gone where no Christmas Card can reach. This sorrowful moment is also a reminder that I have no guarantees that this isn’t the last Christmas card I’ll ever send to the friend in question.

So, if this was the last card I ever send to this person, what would I want to say? If this was my last chance to tell them what they mean to me, how would the card be different? And then I try to write THAT card. (Note – this isn’t perfect. Sometimes inspiration fails, and sometimes I just get tired.)

Christmas is a time of counting blessings. We get and receive gifts. We connect to family and friends we don’t see as often. We lay down our busy lives and pick up our slower ones. We think about the year behind and plan for the year ahead. We think of what is meaningful to us.

There is nothing more meaningful, more precious to me, than you my friends. There’s no gift under the Christmas tree more dear to me than the ones that fill my mailbox this time of year.

Merry Christmas to you, my friends, and a joyful new year.

These are a few of my favorite things
These are a few of my favorite things

Peace & the Second Sunday in Advent

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. The four advent candles, for the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, stand for hope, peace, joy and love. Every week in this season of waiting we light another candle. The world gets a little brighter and we think on these things: what it is to hope, what a hope of peace looks like, how it is to feel joy, and the great love we believe God showed us in becoming human to be one of us.

Candles & LEDS - the oldest and newest light sources
Candles & LEDS – the oldest and newest light sources

This weekend my family prepared ourselves for Christmas. We selected the tree. We brought down the boxes of ornaments. We hung one advent calendar and filled a second one with Hershey’s Kisses. We played The Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” and Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album. We told the children the stories of the ornaments as we hung them: the sad stories, the funny stories, the happy stories. We discussed optimal ornament hanging strategies, and enjoyed the new LED lights we got with purple instead of pink making the tree significantly less orangy this year than last year. We watched Scooby Doo in a fit of nostalgia brought on by Thane’s Scooby Doo ornament, and the children were shocked to discover that it is actually pretty good.

Decorator and decoratee
Decorator and decoratee

Our halls decked, Adam and I decamped to my holiday Christmas party where I got to sing on the stage at the House of Blues, which was something I didn’t know was on my bucket list until I was standing under the bright lights singing.

All dressed up with somewhere to go
All dressed up with somewhere to go

I love this time of year so much. And I think what I love most about it is that it’s a joyous contradiction. It’s the season of lights, but instead of bright 100 watt bulbs we light our homes with, with have tiny 13 lumen candleflames. It’s the season of warmth as we turn up collars and look to the first snow-commute-disaster of the year. (Tomorrow, according to one report I read!) It’s a time busy with parties and cookies and cards and caroling and…. but it’s also a time of year when we slow down a little. We sit a little and look at the lights. This year I’m feeling the magic of the season in full force. Perhaps it’s because this year for the first time my children are full collaborators in the creation and appreciation of the time apart. We shall see.

Peace is a rare commodity in this world. The world keeps throwing up sorrows. Just this week, one of my friends was dead for two hours when his heart stopped Thanksgiving night. And blocks from my work, in the blink of an eye sixty people became homeless as their Christmas trees went up in a grand conflagration. In Aleppo, the last voices of the crushed citizens are going silent. Where is the peace? And if I find it in the walls of my own house, with my family and my tree and my Christmas music, well… should I? What right do I have to peace when so many live without it?

But then we come back to that first candle. I still cannot believe that despite two hours without a pulse, my friend was saved. (He just posted a hilarious status update “In my defense, I was dead at the time.”) Through a miracle past knowing, no one was killed or seriously injured in a fire that called firefighters from 20 neighboring towns. There’s no silver lining for Aleppo, but there is a sliver of hope at Standing Rock, where the Army Corps has decided to find a safer route.

The peace we have comes from the hope, not from the existing perfection. And we look forward to joy – the rarest of emotions – and to love, the foundation stone for our lives.

Christmas in a troubled time

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5

We have seen a great light
We have seen a great light

Growing up in the 90s set my expectations unrealistically with regard to how much tumult and warfare I might expect during my life. There was this brief shining moment where we hand only a few small combats going on – and those seemed from my privileged perspective to be minor and easily resolved. The economy was good, feminism was working, the Cold War had been won, we weren’t talking about racism (it seemed like a problem of the past) and we’d finally found a way to treat AIDS. Clearly everything was only going to get better from there on out!

I think I know the day I lost my innocence about that. I was in the car, driving to a special youth symphony rehearsal on the streets of Tacoma. I had NPR on, as I always did. I think both Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me had wrapped up for the day. (I liked to joke I was getting my NPR PHD.) I was 17. And there was a breaking bulletin that Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Because I followed the news so closely and diligently I knew what that meant for the Oslo Peace accords. I – like so many others – originally assumed it was Palestinian terrorists. I still don’t understand why someone hated peace so much they’d kill their own leader. That moment both broke my heart and shattered my illusions about how the world was trending. It’s telling (to me at least) that it’s the moment where I remember where I was.

This time of year is one of my favorite times. I slow down from the insanity of my Fall and drink deeply of the music, the lights, the decorations, the crazy traditions we didn’t realize would become traditions the first time we did them. I look through a year’s worth of happy moments recorded on camera. I write my Christmas cards – each one a breath of prayer for the beloved person who will receive it (incanted several times as I address, write and prepare the cards). I buy too much stuff for my kids, and cuddle with my husband on the couch while we argue about whether the Kingston Trio’s “Last Month of the Year” or Roger Whittaker’s Christmas Album is superior. (Duh – obvious answer there!)

But this year I have had more trouble than usual finding my Christmas zen. When it seems as though I might just slip into the joy of the season, there’s a bombing, a shooting, a story of refugees. We are deep into the volume of violence and war that seemed to start that November day in 1995. My spirit feels dry, my back hurts, and I can’t help but think that my sons will have a less innocent innocence than I got in my childhood. We never had an active shooter drill in our school. But Grey is the same age as the children gunned down in Sandy Hook who never got to walk to school by themselves.

As I was thinking through this depressing litany (which I’ve now shared with you – you’re welcome), I wondered if I was depressed. You know, the whole “usual activities bring you less pleasure”. Having carefully considered the question – I’m pretty sure I’m not. I’m just pretty sure that this is a time where a responsibly informed person can reasonably feel pretty bummed on a regular basis.

I was reading my usual list of advice columnists today, and there were two different letters from people saying that they were having a hard time enjoying life with all the suffering that was going on. That’s truly a pity – all our challenges included we have the highest standard of living for the most people that’s ever existed in the history of our species. I wonder if we’re designed to hope in adversity and worry in plenty. I know some people take social media holidays to hide from the onslaught – but I love the people I interact with every day on my many social media channels.

What can counter the malaise of being responsibly informed? One of the advice columnists recommended service to others. I think that’s a wise response. I also think that active gratitude can help. It really is hard to stay blue while you write your Christmas letters to the people you love. I have a hunch that exercise would really help me (I swear my butt hurts from too much sitting – yet all the things I really want to do involve sitting and most of them involve a computer).

Are you finding this true for yourself? Is this year harder to find the joy in? Is this just because I’m getting older and losing my sense of wonder? How do you push past trauma and horror and incivility and unkindness and find light and warmth and joy in the darkness? Where do you lift your eyes to see the light?