A Resolution to Celebrate

As summer gave way to fall this year, I made myself a resolution. I was going to celebrate this year.

Maybe it’s my hobbitty heart, with its love for the sparkle and merriment and food of the holidays. Maybe it’s that they represent something innocent and childish. Maybe it’s my love of stories, which entwine themselves around all holidays. Maybe it’s the colors and the foolish beauty of decorations. Maybe it’s the gathering together of friends and family, painted in my head in the most idealized Dickensian lamplit colors. Maybe it’s my passionate love of gift giving and receiving. Whatever it is, there is a deep idealism in holidays that my heart yearns for.

And I sure didn’t have much of it last year, for whatever reason. Last fall, I was in the thick of my student teaching, doing little else besides school-related activities. Furthermore, as I’ve discussed before, it was a spiritually and emotionally draining school year. Students were wracked with tragedy; the school took several hard hits. For those reasons and perhaps more, I spent the holiday season in a sort of dark fog. The holidays passed, and I nodded soberly at them as they went by, going, “Huh. That was Christmas. Christmas used to be so much fun. Is it always going to be like this now? Over before I can hardly register that it happened?”

But a sort of change happened in me this summer. I made a new friend, and I developed a crush. I know. Alarming. And, as you’ve read in previous posts, it’s been thoroughly dragged into the light, analyzed, and given a proper and respectable place as a friendship and nothing more. But in the middle of the summer, when I was working hard and happy outside in the natural beauty of Whidbey Island, the peculiar heart-glow that comes with the giddiness of a girlish crush, especially when it is reciprocated by the kindness of friendship, lit me up from the inside. And as my overdeveloped imagination painted blooming future images in my mind while I scrubbed toilets and weeded walkways, the paintbrush strayed toward the upcoming holiday season.

Why, now that I had someone to do them with, I could do all the holiday things I’d been too busy or serious to do for the last several years! I could go to a corn maze with him, and then, by George, we could carve pumpkins afterward! Then would come Christmas. Would he go caroling? Would he like to walk around and look at Christmas lights? What about going to a Christmas concert of some sort? Suddenly all of the holiday sparkle, which had struck me as a jaded, gleaming veneer last year, seemed joyous again. 

Thus I resolved to make this season the season of celebration once again.

Now that the relationship has taken a more substantial and less romantic turn, I look back on the giddy, ephemeral source of my resolution with a little bit of embarrassment, but I will not say with shame. There is no shame in the rekindling of the heart. And the truth is, that somehow, God used my girlishness to not only bless me with a supportive friendship but to lift me, at least a little, back toward a sunnier outlook. And for both I am thankful.

But back to my resolution. As the fall rolled around, the corn maze and pumpkins happened, crowned with an evening of Doctor Who at a friend’s house. Halloween came around, and, even though I never celebrate Halloween on principle, I set aside said principles, figured that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with dressing up and watching a spine-tingling movie or two. So over the week, I crossed a few classics off my list, including “The Nightmare before Christmas” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Halloween night, I put on my long coat and went to the new Dracula movie with my friend. By now, our relationship had been carefully categorized; it did not lessen the charm of the evening.

Then came the Thanksgiving season, and my resolution to celebrate encountered its first hiccup. The week before Thanksgiving, my father and I had a telephone conversation, which I have already blogged about, which threw a very wet blanket on both my friendship and my celebratory spirit. And, lucky me, it was right before that holiday which, more than anything else, focuses on family. I got to go home and spend the week with people who were unhappy with me about something that made me happy. Great.

But sometime around Thanksgiving and the struggles that surrounded that week, I had to ask myself why. Why should I celebrate? Really, truly, why? Because I had a crush with whom I could share the sparkling delights of the season?

Or maybe these holidays were like my own giddy feelings. Once the sparkle floated away, there was something more substantial, more valuable to be found.

For the first time, it occurred to me this Thanksgiving that maybe my resolution to celebrate could be carried out despite all occurrences otherwise. That even if the circumstances surrounding this holiday season should become as clouded as they were last year, I could still celebrate.

And this Christmas, I will. That is a resolution and a promise.

Sure, the celebration might look a little different. Maybe it wouldn’t be the giddy, superficial fun, although giving that an try couldn’t really hurt. Maybe it would be possible to set the burdens on my heart in the hands of my Heavenly Father for long enough to enjoy some true holiday merriment. It would certainly be worth a try, should those burdens become overwhelming.

But there is so much more to Christmas than glittering trees and Christmas carols and presents (although those things are a source of particular pleasure to me). It is about showing love to others, selfless love that is not dependent upon any conditions at all, because that is the kind of love that Christ showed when He left Heaven to take on bodily form. No matter what the circumstances are, I can celebrate in the deepest form this Christmas.

Now, the best part of this is that I can use that kind of celebration to fuel the other parts of celebrating. I can celebrate by helping my mom make Christmas dinner, and by eating the Christmas dinner we’ve made. I can celebrate by giving gifts that speak my love to my sisters and family. And every time I show care or love–deserved or not, felt at the moment or not– I am celebrating.

So with that I laugh in the face of wet blankets and fog. Come rain, snow, or sunshine, I will celebrate Christmas this year.

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Turkey, with a Side of Perspective

Thanksgiving was in full swing upstairs, but I had slipped downstairs for a moment to breathe. My cat Oliver, who had come to my parents’ with me for the weekend, rubbed up against me and started purring. I picked him up and squeezed him, as if squeezing my silent, furry friend could ease the pain inside me.

I felt unutterably sad about the tension between my dad and me. I felt sad that he had said nothing about the Thanksgiving card I had left on his desk. I so desperately want a good relationship with my parents, but I want that relationship to be one that allows us to talk as adults, back and forth. I want to be able to be honest about what I think without being condemned, and so far I have seen no progress in that direction. And here, at my family’s, we were celebrating thankfulness, and I could only seem to think about how my recent efforts at openness with my dad had failed or been misinterpreted or ignored. Not that I had always handle everything well– I fail as much as anyone– but I had been trying harder than usual, it hadn’t been working, and it hurt.

But as I hugged Oliver, suddenly I remembered that this was not the first Thanksgiving when I had excused myself momentarily from the family gathering because the atmosphere of happy thankfulness had become oppressive. And when I remembered the circumstances, I smiled in spite of myself.

I had probably been about fifteen or sixteen, and we were at my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving– you know, the long table and the cousins and the whole nine yards. It was all very happy and wholesome, and we had just gone through that yearly rite-of-passage where we all went around the table and said what we were thankful for.

I don’t remember what I said– something trite and expected, probably– but I do vividly remember excusing myself shortly thereafter and going into one of the bedrooms and throwing myself headlong on the bed, the quilt pressing up against my cheeks as I ground my body into the mattress in silent agony over the charade I’d just been through and the emptiness I saw in my own soul.

You see, I was in the middle of one of the darkest chapters of my short life, although I was doing a mighty fine job of hiding it from everybody around me. As a young person who’d grown up in the Christian church and been raised by very Christian parents in a very Christian way, I had been wondering for the last several years whether or not any of it was real. And I was terrified that it might not be, and yet afraid of the condemnation that would come should I ask the questions that were tearing me up.

Hence the inner agony. My life might not have any point to it, there might not even be a God or any hope for forgiveness or purpose, and I’d just stuffed my face with turkey and pretended to thank Him for it. I was desperate for answers and sick of the charade, and the agony of all of it was shredding me inside.

Over the next several years, my own inquiries and the guidance of several wise adults pointed me toward satisfying answers to my questions. My parents’ faith has now become my own. I believe with all of my heart in God and His plan, even if I will never have all the answers to why the things happen in life that happen. God held onto me. I was His, I am His now, and I will be His for eternity.

But I still remember that day with the vividness of a photograph, of a frozen moment in time. I remember it as one saves a relic. It’s a reminder of how lost I was then, and how found I am now.

This was what I thought of, there in the basement, as I hugged Oliver and took cool breaths of air in the solitude of the basement. And yes, I smiled at the memory.

It was the comparison of the two that made me smile. Because, what is a conflict with my dad in view of the destiny of my soul? The one question, the important question, was answered. And the answers I found are the answers to everything else, to every other desolate moment I might have.

I don’t know how things will get worked out with my dad. I hope for peace, for understanding, for a trust-based adult relationship, but I may not find what I seek. There’s bound to be a lot of unpleasantness ahead. But I can make it through that unpleasantness, because, well, I know Who’s holding onto me. I know that He exists. I know that He has a purpose for everything, and I know He is my Savior.

Not that it eases the pain. Just last night– after this epiphany, mind you– I was crying in a corner of the couch after nearly everyone was in bed, texting a friend about all the ugliness I felt. But that’s life sometimes. It stinks, and no amount of pious-sounding words will fix how much it stinks and hurts.

But there is hope. And there is purpose. As the Sunday-school song says, “this I know,” beyond shaking.

Nothing like a little perspective to put you fully into the spirit for Thanksgiving. Carefully I set Oliver down and headed back upstairs into the warmth of the kitchen and the laughter of my family.

Snow for Thanksgiving

It was several days before Thanksgiving three years ago. I’d been working my little bookstore job, but had closed early, at my boss’s direction, when flakes of snow started drifting down.

It doesn’t take much more than a little snow to send the good people of Oak Harbor, Island County, and northwest Washington in general into a sort of panic, mostly because we don’t get snow often enough to have sand trucks, snow shovels, or snow-driving skills. We are afraid not only of the snow but of each other. It is reason enough to panic.

So I walked back to my apartment, savoring the beauty of the flakes drifting down, and spent a peaceful evening. I wasn’t especially worried about my plans to drive to my family’s in a few days; whenever we get snow, it doesn’t stick for long. Especially when it comes as early as November.

Much to everyone’s surprise, though, the snow stuck. And accumulated. And I found myself, the day before Thanksgiving, very snowed in. I took a quick walk to the entrance to my cul-de-sac, watched another lightweight rear-wheel-drive car of about the size of mine spin and spin its wheels as it tried to mount the thick-crusted incline toward the main road, finally giving up in defeat and retreating to its driveway. I shrugged my shoulders and headed back to my warm apartment. Looked like I would be spending Thanksgiving here. I better call my family and let them know.

But it was not to be. “No, I’ll come and get you,” said my dad firmly. “I’ll take Amy’s truck. I shouldn’t have any problem getting down into your driveway. You’re coming home for Thanksgiving.”

An hour and a half later, my sister’s Ford F-150 crested the entry to my cul-de-sac and pulled up in front of the apartment. My dad helped me load my bags into the warm truck as if he were my chaffeur, and we pulled away.

Next thing I knew, we were in front of Starbucks. “Get whatever you like,” he said, as we climbed out of the truck into the warm coffee shop. While I waited for my double tall gingerbread latte, I thumbed through the CDs in front of the counter. “Illuminations” by Josh Groban had just come out, and I pulled it out and started reading the back. My dad snatched it away from me and handed it to the barista. “And we’ll take some Josh Groban, too.”

I will never forget that ride home in the dark with my dad, the dashlights glowing, my fingers around a warm cup as new songs from one of my favorite artists poured out of the speakers. My dad had heard the album once or twice already, and as a song came on he’d make a comment. “Ooh. ‘Bells of New York City.’ This one’s good.” Or I would exlaim, as the percussive intro to “Voce Existe En Mim” came on, “Oh, I like this.” And the tires of my sister’s trusty truck carried us closer and closer to my family’s home and my family themselves.

When I was young, Thanksgiving was a time to gather all the cousins around a long table at my grandparents’ house and stuff our faces, followed by space adventuring out in the rec room. Those days have passed. People have moved, people have died, people have other plans these days.

Those Thanksgivings have a special place in my heart. But now, when I think of the perfect Thanksgiving, I don’t think of Grandma’s house or the cousins or the turkey. My mind drifts to an evening lit by my sister’s dashlights, surrounded by the sounds of Josh Groban’s singing and the deep, secure warmth of my dad’s love.

A Redirected Revolution

“Anna, what do you say to a guy who wants to marry you?” my dad asked my sister Anna. We were all quite young–I would guess that Anna was four or five at the time– and we were passing the time on a family road trip.

Anna’s voice was sweet as she piped up with the perfect answer. “Speak to my father first.”

“Good! And Linda, what would you say if a guy asked to marry you?”

My two-year-old sister didn’t miss a beat. “YES!” she shouted.

It was funny. We all roared with laughter, and I immortalized it in one of the little comic strips I liked to draw of funny things my sisters said.

Today, though, it isn’t all that funny. Because today I am sitting around, halfway between resentful submission and outright antagonistic revolt, because my father is unhappy with me, a twenty-seven-year-old who has lived on her own for almost six years now, for having a guy friend without consulting him.

It would be funny if it wasn’t me. And my dad. And my dear friend. And the holidays.

My dad is generous, and kind, and wants nothing more than to protect his family, provide for them, and see them happy and safe. He also wants to serve God with all his heart. I know–as, in fact, my guy friend keeps having to remind me–that he loves me, and that all of his actions come out of a heart that loves and longs to protect. But somewhere out of this desire, he has subscribed to one of the many variants of a word that I am beginning to loathe: courtship.

Now, there are about as many different takes on that word as there are people who use it. I find that most people in my particular conservative Christian circle mean a variant on dating (though heaven forbid calling it that) which includes the guy who’s interested in you talking to the father, the father taking the guy through a sort of screening process, while the guy and girl get to know each other in supervised situations, particularly in groups of friends or with the girl’s family. Then, once the guy passes the screening process, he once again asks the father for permission to marry the girl, and the girl can at that point say “yes,” and he can put a ring on her finger. In a few months, they’re walking down an aisle.

My dad’s version includes something he calls “the Program,” which is a systematic method by which he hopes to get to know the fellow in question and show him for who he is, including reading a carefully selected reading list along with my dad and having weekly reading discussions.

The problem with all (and I mean ALL) man-made formulas is that they are just that: man-made. And when something is man-made, it will have a margin of error. It will not be one-size-fits-all.

The particular problem with this version of courtship is that this schema was not designed to accommodate a woman who is nearly thirty, has been living on her own, and has not screened her choices past her father for eight or nine years. Further complications arise when this particular young woman feels strongly about being able to make her own decisions.

The conflict was inevitable.

I was aware that my father would eventually like to know my friend. However, I knew that, to him, it would be highly singular and furthermore deeply suspect if he knew that I spent plenty of time with a guy as a friend. The whole “just-friends” thing, by the way, is rarely if ever found in the courtship schema, as far as I have seen. I mean, you’re hanging out before your dad has had a chance to screen him?

The problem was that my friend and I really, really wanted this to be just-a-friendship. We’re both cautious people, and we’ve been burned before, and we have no desire to rush into something. Why not just be friends, for a good long time, if not indefinitely? And if it turned into something else, save all the awkward parent conversations for later?

But I was growing uncomfortable with having to deliberately sidestep the gender of my friend in conversations. I never lied, but it was feeling sneaky–sneaky about something I shouldn’t have to be sneaky about. So in typical fashion, I decided to run at it headlong. I introduced my father to my friend, figuring there would be unpleasantness so we might as well have it out.

They spent all of twenty minutes in each other’s presence. I thought it didn’t go horribly, but alas I was wrong. Two nights later, I got a call from my dad. He wanted to talk about it.

I don’t really “talk about” stuff with my dad on a regular basis. Listening is not his gift, and submitting graciously is not really mine. So our interactions, while pleasant, have avoided controversy by skimming on the surface. But I had reached a sort of epiphany. The truth is, I loved my dad. I want very much for him to be part of my adult life. And while I do not feel obliged to “obey” him letter-by-letter, I do very much want to give him honor.

As my friend Mary pointed out, honor could very well mean opening my heart to him. It could mean trusting him to handle this situation well. And a relationship of trust is a relationship of truth.

So I listened to my dad. I listened to him talk about the shortcomings he perceived in my friend. I listened to him talk about what he wanted “the Program” to look like. I listened to him talk about how what he really, ultimately, wanted, in case of a serious romantic relationship of mine, was to get to know the guy, to have a relationship with him himself.

Then I shared my heart. I was finally honest with my dad about the things about the Program that made me nervous, about how I didn’t like everything being put into a formula because not everyone fit a formula. I told him that I wanted to trust him but it was hard, and when he asked why, I was honest with him. I got to say a lot of things I’d been wanting to say for some time, in a way that I felt was honest but not unkind.

Then I went home this weekend–and my little sister told me about the aftermath. Apparently he had discussed my conversation with him over dinner, and he had told the family that I did not want him to be part of that aspect of my life. Apparently it had also been seen as a sort of betrayal that I had had a guy friend without his knowledge, as well.

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

I tried to talk to my dad that night, to no avail. He had worked a long day and was too tired to focus. I did manage, the next morning, to convince my mom that I hadn’t said those things, nor was that how I felt. But I felt so violated. I had finally opened my mind and heart to him, and I had been misunderstood on a catastrophic level.

My initial and regrettable impulse, once I recovered somewhat, was to decide that, well, it must be time for someone to stage a revolt against this whole system. But the more I tried to wrap my head around this Hunger-Games-esque resistance movement, the more it sat wrong with me. I don’t want alienation from my family. I don’t want to sit alone in my apartment, secure in my independence but with unraveling family ties. I love my family. They matter to me.

What I want is an adult relationship with my dad. I want him to listen to my side. I want him to hear my perspective and give it thoughtful consideration. I want him as a friend and advisor, not a dictator. I want to find a way that I can hang out with a guy friend–and go on dates–without being afraid that he will find out and object. I would love to be able to tell him about things like that without worrying about him suspecting me of inappropriate behavior or demanding to meet the guy… because the truth is that I have a pretty strong moral compass (thanks to my family and faith), and I know my own mind and furthermore have high standards of my own when it comes to gentleman friends.

So the revolt it is not to be, at least not yet. As I go home for Thanksgiving this week, I need to be carefully considering how I can pursue this dialogue, but, even more, I need to deliberately show my dad that I love him and that I know that he loves me. I need to steel myself and try to talk with him again.

Don’t think better of me than I am. Reopening this conversation is the last thing I want to do now.

It was my guy friend, actually, who gently reminded me of the love inherent in my dad’s words, actions, and even in the Program. Despite the unfairness directed at my friend and the rather vitriolic version of the weekend that he’d heard from me, he could see the love and protection in my dad’s methods. And when I asked what he thought would be the best way I could approach my dad about the situation, he said the last thing I was expecting.

“He needs to know you love him.”

Retreat or open rebellion would both be so much easier. This approach involves trusting when I am already suspicious, being vulnerable when I already feel hurt, and showing love when I feel antagonistic. Seriously, it feels like it will never work. It feels as foolhardy and impossible as the X-Men sending Wolverine back in time to talk sense back into young Professor X. It requires tact and delicacy and patience, and I’m feeling more like sullenness alternated with claws-out attacks. I have next to no hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully, and next to no confidence in my own ability to handle it well.

But what is the truth of the matter? The truth is that I have done nothing wrong–in having a guy friend, in being honest with my father about how I feel about his Program, in any of it. The truth is that no one else actually has control over me, and that the only person I “belong to” is my Heavenly Father. The truth is that “courtship” is a cultural construct, and that the intentions–purity and discernment– can be achieved by other paths as well. The truth is that, if my dad and I are willing to find it, a middle ground exists in which he can act as the protector while allowing me to be the adult I have become. And, even if we cannot find it, no part of my life needs to be destroyed thereby. None.

And the truth is that I love my father and he loves me. And in recognition of that love, however distorted and twisted its expressions might be, I intend to give the whole dialogue thing another shot. I’ll redirect my fighting spirit and, instead of fighting against my dad, fight for a new kind of relationship with him. It probably won’t work, but isn’t that the most epic kind of fight?

Excuse me. I’m going to go listen to the Gladiator soundtrack.