the gifts of the anti-magi

This post has been a long time coming.  This time of the year is always difficult for me, as I feel torn between holiday cheer and resentful drear, obligation and celebration, hope and despair.

I am so very sick of the war on Christmas.

“Oh, good,” some of my Christian friends may be saying at this point, “me too!  Why can’t people just put Christ back into Christmas?”

No, dear friends and readers, that’s not what I mean.  I’m sick of the phrase “put the Christ back in Christmas” and all of the entitlement it entails.  I wish it would all just stop.  Now, I understand that may not sound terribly Christian of me, but hold on.  You may say that your anger and demands are for the sake of Christ, and I wouldn’t want to disparage your motives.  I’m not in your head and I don’t know what you’re thinking.  Yet there’s a painful sticking point in that concession, and it’s one that bears hearing out.  Saying “put the Christ back in Christmas” pretends, even for the space of that second, that Christ is something that can be moved and removed by man.  It implies that Christ’s presence in the holidays for us, as individuals, is somehow dictated by the actions of society.  I don’t like to believe that my experience of Christ this time of year is somehow beholden to the displays in Macy’s windows.  After all, the force of love I am enthralled by is greater than any one man, any one store, any one society.  How weak would I have to be if my sacred observances were somehow shattered by a greeting card?

“Now, it’s bigger than that”, someone inevitably says.  “The fact that people are no longer observing Christmas as a Christian holiday shows how secular society has become, and this is supposed to be a Christian society.”

Hold. On.  Please.

For one thing, the Christmas smashed all over billboards is hardly Christian.  The Christmas touted in the commercials telling our adorable little tots that this monster truck or that Barbie doll will somehow complete them are anything BUT Christian.  The promise of the holiday that society has started to hold on to is almost in direct contradiction to the Gospel.  The “spirit of Christmas”, as it is sold, is that the holiday itself has some ability to heal.  We’re told, in less than guarded symbolism, that if we buy the right things, eat the right food, invite the right guests, and have the right attitude that we will somehow achieve a transcendent state.  The holiday has become a spiritual act of reaching for sacred healing, but that sacred healing is not tied to God, Christ, or the ideals of Christianity.  It is a secular sacredness, and as such treating the holiday as holy is tantamount to idol worship.

After all, it is jolly ol’ Santa Claus receiving the sacramental cookies and milk, not God.

Christmas, the holy mass of Christ, was once not even Christmas at all.  You’ve got the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia blended in with Christianity, as the Roman empire expanded and brought in new territories and started to expand the practice of tolerance towards other religions.  In order to lower the amount of infighting between sects and oppression as people traveled from district to district, the Roman calendar morphed to overlap the holidays so that people’s observances were not as conspicuous.  It is ironic, then, that a holiday once tweaked to help avoid oppression and foster inclusiveness has become such a battleground.

Honestly, I don’t think Christmas is the real problem.  I think that Christianity has become the real problem.  In the United States, Christians have a huge entitlement complex that has become an idol above God.  We say that this is a Christian society and anyone that acts against that is out of line, ignoring the fact that we are all equal citizens under the law and Christians are not owed privilege or protection to any greater degree than their neighbors.  We act affronted when anything we deem as untoward is allowed to continue, no matter how innocuous it is.  We bicker and argue and fight constantly, sending our representatives to the evening news and gleefully hacking to bits anyone who dares to disagree with them.

Here, in this season of the Magi, when we celebrate the sacred gifts laid at the feet of Christ, I feel that Christians in America have started praising three other gifts, the gifts of the anti-Magi, laid at the feet of our own ego.  We have swallowed these gifts whole and they threaten to destroy us.  They are entitlement, disdain, and division.  Gifts like that are born of evil and exercised at great personal cost.  But open your eyes, brothers and sisters, and see how we worship them!  Hear the entitlement in the voice of the person telling the Jewish shop owner to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas” when they hand up a Happy Holidays banner.  Hear the disdain in the voice of the mother who, when hearing that a classmate of her child’s wouldn’t come to the Winter Program because they don’t celebrate holidays, says, “Well, isn’t that just what’s wrong with this country?” Look at the division when someone goes on Facebook to beg for tolerance and they are told that they are why Christianity is failing in this country.

I have so many friends who say they can’t stand to go to church, that every time they hear someone is a Christian they instantly feel uncomfortable around them, that they believe in Christ but not the church.

I feel like my soul is just shredded, absolutely shredded, by the holiday season.

la pieta

Christianity is not owed anything by society.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Because you are Christian, everyone ought to respect you, respect everything you say, and never cause negative consequences for any of your actions.”  In fact, it says quite the opposite.  It tells us not to be surprised when we’re hated and persecuted.  So why are we so surprised?  Because we have idolized our own society.  We idolize the constitution, idolize free speech, idolize the symbolism of our holidays.  We worship those things as sacred and then react like vipers when they are threatened.  Because we blindly believe they should be perfect, we accept nothing less: even when, or perhaps especially when, the evidence all around us says otherwise.

We bear a tragic consequence for that behavior, but society bears one even worse as people turn from love to disdain and hatred.

So in this time of year, as we dream of the Magi traveling by the light of a sacred star, carrying gifts of adoration and penance to a pure and holy infant king, let’s think about the gifts that we ourselves need to offer.  Not the perfect consumerist presents wrapped in expensive wrapping paper and laid down at the altar of a tree whose symbolism we’ve forgotten, but the gifts we offer each other.

Let’s stop being the anti-Magi.

Photo from Daniela Munoz-Santos

On Motherhood in a crisis

The last week has been a whirlwind of stress, pain, exhaustion and moments of absolute clarity.  It all started last Thursday when my husband and I learned that his father had been injured in some sort of accident on the job and had been rushed to the hospital.  We live several states away, so there was immediate panic.  How bad is it?  Is he going to be okay?  Could we get my husband out there if we needed to?  Thanks to the generosity of my parents, my friends, and a handful of random strangers, we were able to raise the funds and airline miles to fly my husband out to be with his family.  As I’m writing this, my father-in-law has yet to regain consciousness, although his eyes sometimes open and his fingers sometimes move, which is better than where things had been.

It is so surreal, being out here while my husband is out there, trying to be the still point in a turning world when the center of gravity seems out of place.

I can’t say I know how hard it has been on my husband.

I do know, to some degree, how hard it has been on my children.  I can’t say how many times in the past week it seemed like the household turned from happiness to panicked chaos in a split second.  One moment we’re talking about our favorite My Little Ponies, the next minute it’s, “what happens if Pappy dies?”  One second it’s plans for the Minecraft server, the next it’s, “what if Pappy stays alive but never wakes up?”

Questions I can’t answer.  I long for the good old days of just having to explain that it is dark earlier because of the way the earth tilts on it’s axis and that the sky looks blue because of how our brain interprets the refraction of light.  That stuff is child’s play compared to explaining how when there’s bleeding inside of the brain, the brain can’t send signals the way it should and…  ugh.

We’re walking through the store and it’s this ghost that haunts us.  I want to lay down and cry, but I can’t.  I have to buy the groceries and clean the fridge and fold the laundry and check the homework and cook the meals, and meanwhile these questions follow me around the house in the irresistible and unignorable form of my children, panicking every time I have to think before answering.  “Why can’t Pappy talk on the phone?  Will he ever talk on the phone?”  I cook the food, I serve the food.  We sit around the table and try to act like nothing is missing.  “I don’t like eating at the table without Daddy.  Can we just watch a movie?”

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Time for bed.  Time to try to act like we can do this.  Change into pajamas, brushing teeth.  Here come the tears again.  “I don’t like going to sleep without daddy praying first.”  “We can try to call daddy.”  “Daddy is with Pappy.”  And here it comes again.  The kids keep getting out of bed, coming to see what I’m doing.  Wipe the tears quickly before they pop their heads in the room.  Smile.  Keep smiling.  Tuck them back in, again and again.  Be firm but not angry.  You have to sleep, you have to go to school in the morning.  Yes, it’s very sad that daddy isn’t here and we don’t know when Pappy will wake up, but in the meantime we have our lives to live.

Monkeypants keeps me up until midnight.  I sneak a few moments of silence before laying down, wake up before everyone else so that I have a moment to clear my head.  Wake the kids up with tickles and laughter, try to keep the questions at bay.  On the way to school they creep back in.  “My teacher asked about Pappy, what do I say?”  Smile, say that we’re keeping hope, we’re staying positive, daddy will be back home soon.  “Will Pappy wake up before daddy comes home?”  We can’t know.  “What if Pappy doesn’t wake up?”

Whatever happens, we’ll be okay.  We have each other and we love each other.

“Don’t fall down and hit your head until your brain bleeds,” my son says in a very serious voice.

I put my hand over my heart, “I promise to try not to,” I say, “but no matter what happens, you would be okay.  I know you would.”

He shakes his head, “I don’t like the fact that people get hurt and die,” he says.

No one likes that.  Who would?

Another bedtime, this time with less tears.  Another night where I’m up past midnight, putting them in bed again and again and again.  I wonder how little sleep I need to survive.  6 hours a night doesn’t seem like quite enough.  I make coffee in the mornings, I never make coffee.  I smile.  The questions are quieter today.  They aren’t always asked, but I see in their eyes, I see the questions they aren’t asking so I smile, I hold them tight, I speak softly as I check the homework and put out the food.  The questions always come out eventually.  “How much blood can come out of a brain?  Like, all the blood in the body?”

Gosh, that’s a good question.

“Do they put more blood back in him?  How does that work?”

I need to take more physiology classes.  The two weeks we spent on the brain in Psychology are not enough.  We Google things and talk about them.  “I hit my head on everything.  It seems stupid to put something as important as a brain in somebody’s head when they might just fall down and break it forever.”

We talk about miracles and people who come out of comas after months or years.

“I don’t want Pappy to be asleep for that long.”

No one does, but Pappy’s job is to sleep and heal and our job is to wait.

Another day, and another.  I find myself randomly nodding off on the couch while Monkeypants plays in the other room.  Wake up!  It’s not over yet.  My job is to stay awake and wait.  And I wonder, how long can I hold off my own questions, my own tears?  How long can I keep showing them how to be brave and keep hope?

8 days in, I realize the truth.  I can do it as long as I have to.  I can do it forever.  As long as their eyes are watching me, I can do whatever is asked of me, because in proving to them that everything will be okay, I prove it to myself.

It starts with the pain.

Like many of my friends, I can’t shake off Boston.  Though I’ve no real tie to the city, other than the shared human desire to see the moxie of the masses triumph over adversity, I still feel this sort of gut-clawing grief every time I think about the events that have transpired over the past week.

Like so many stories, it starts with pain.  It looks like here we yet again have a tale of a man turning to terrorism as a desperate last straw after his pain became unbearable.  He turned to religion as a salve for his wounds but the twisted darkness inside his soul only turned the scriptures into further torment, as he sought extremism as an answer to the emptiness he felt. 

What can we take from this?  Perhaps nothing.  All I can say is that perhaps there is another young soul out there aching right now, feeling his or her needs unmet by the surface nature of many people’s religious lives.  Perhaps there is another dark and twisted soul that needs unknotting, and for whatever reason is still balking under the hands of well-meaning mentors who teach at a distance.  Perhaps there is another soul lost to insomnia and loneliness, crying out by acting out instead of leaning in.

And what does our hatred do?

What are we doing?

I wish I could answer my own questions.

hurts like Heaven.

I love my job.

But there are days that I really, really hate my job.  For the most part I work with people who have had a lot of bad things happen to them.  Sometimes it’s really awful- the kind of stuff that seems more at place in a horror novel then a quiet midwestern town.  Sometimes, it’s the kind of stuff that leads to me locking myself in the bathroom for a time out.  The worst part of it isn’t the fact that I’m a visual person by nature and thus struggle with visualizing the badness and taking it home in the form of nightmares.  The worst part is that often I’m dealing with people whose lives have trained them to believe that they deserve no better, they will get no better, and the best that they can hope for themselves is to grow thick enough skins that they become numb to the pain.

There are men who learn that “real” manliness is fighting back and fighting dirtier.  Women who think that they need to trade sex for safety.  Kids who think that learning is for nerds and losers and the way to get ahead in life is to punch the other guy first.  Mothers who reject their children because responding with sympathy to a babies neediness makes them vulnerable.  Men who reject their pregnant wives for the same reason.  The world is full of people who know nothing other than cycles of poverty and pain, people who see daily happiness as just as much of a fantasy as the whole family getting along over the holidays.  The world has a seedy underbelly of pain and discontent that so many are blissfully unaware of- but for the people who live there, that is the entire world.

Pain, heartbreak, rejection and more pain.  The smart ones learn to reject before they can be rejected, to cut more quickly and more deeply, to make sure that everyone else owes them more than they owe anyone.

It’s hard to remember that there’s hope beyond all hopes, that there is a love that conquers fear, that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding.  It’s hard to remember, but most of the time I manage to.  And I do my best to continue to be God’s hands and feet in this world.  I offer love, and then I experience the greatest heartbreak of all: love rejected with a wary eye.  Love mistrusted.  Love responded to with anger and fear.

And I lock myself in the bathroom again.  And sitting there, in the dark and heat (because for some odd reason our bathroom is the hottest room in the building, like a sauna, suffocatingly hot) listening to the sound of the radiator rattling like Marley’s ghost, I realize that what I am experiencing is only a fraction of the heartbreak that the Spirit feels every day when we mistrust God’s love for us, when we respond to salvation with cynism, when we judge others before they can judge us.

The answer is simple:  love more strongly.  Believe with more conviction.  Offer more grace.  Create an overflow of mercy and affection so strong that it washes away even the most stubborn of barriers.  Live every second of your life in the hope of salvation.  Pick up the shield of faith, wear the belt of truth, set your feet in the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.

We already have earned our reward if we only love those who want to be loved.

We have to love the way God loves.

And God just… loves.  Everyone.  Constantly.

I would say it hurts like Hell, but that’s a misnomer.  It hurts like Heaven, but that’s the kind of hurt that’s worth carrying with you.

It could change the world.

september eleventh, and my head is splitting

I’ve been debating whether or not to write something about September 11th.

I’m so conflicted.

A part of me wants to write something sympathetic, deep, encouraging.  A part of me wants to write about the horror of seeing the news reels for the first time.  The part of me that struggled and bucked up against the realization that this was real, that those were real people, that this wasn’t part of a Tom Clancy novel.  This was America, and that was terrorism.  Part of me wants to write about what it was like to stay up late at night with my head on my knees just wondering.  Wondering how many lives would be destroyed, would never be the same.  Wondering if the people with their feet on the pavement around Ground Zero were being good and responsible.  Wondering if in three months, or six months, or a year, if anyone would still care so deeply, be so willing to give- or if at some point the victims would simply be told, “aren’t you over that yet?”

I want to write about my good friend who lived outside Manhattan, and how she called me, crying, to say she was okay.  She was okay, but there were friends she couldn’t find.  She was okay, but she knew one girl who’d wandered around for twelve hours, aimlessly, from store to restaurant to store to restaurant, agitated, unaware of the time passing.  Her friend had wandered around asking, “do you know my brother?”  He was dead.  She would never find him. So many people had this sudden psychotic break, they couldn’t connect to reality anymore.  Everyone was so worried.  No, not just worried.  They were terrified.

I want to write about how awful it was, how awful it still is for so many people.

But I also want to challenge.  I want to be just the slightest bit cruel, just cruel enough to wake people out of their stupor of memory, their dregs of grief.  I want to ask people if they have ever considered why it is that September Eleventh struck us so deeply.  I want to ask if they’ve considered how shocking, how unexpected it was.  If they’ve noticed that in our minds the grief is so exagerrated because we’ve nothing to compare it to.  This is our one and only- and thank God for that.

But I wonder, I have to wonder, if anyone is considering how that grief would change if death were constant for us.  Not that I would wish for that, not in a million years- but imagine that girl wandering around Manhattan, aimlessly, asking if anyone had seen her brother.  Imagine if instead she were a girl in Iraq- and if her brother had been killed years ago.  But every day she hears the car bombs and she relives his death, again and again.  Unable to reintegrate herself into normalcy.  Unable to reaccept the fact that everyday life is bearable.  Unable to block out the pain and learn to cope.  Unable to go back to that basic assumption, that assumption that comes with such ease to Americans, that assumption that we are all safe.

A girl who is raped loses the assumption of safety immediately.  She must go throughout her life retraining herself to accept her own safety.  It’s a long process.  Because you and I, we go to the grocery store and don’t contemplate danger.  We assume we are safe.  We get the mail assuming we are safe.  We go out to eat assuming we are safe.  We jog around the neighborhood assuming we are safe.  And sometimes, someone isn’t safe.  They are attacked, and they lose that assumption, and it makes daily life incredibly hard until they can rewire that part of their brain that screams “DANGER!”

After 9/11 America collectively lost it’s assumption of safety.  And over the years we’ve reintegrated ourselves.  We no longer panic that the color code has reached orange.  We no longer hold our breath when boarding airplanes.  Life continues.

But elsewhere in the world terror is a part of life.  The assumption of safety cannot be reintigrated.  Go to buy groceries, you may die.  Check your mail, you may die.  Jog around the block, you may die.  Somewhere in the world there is a girl, wandering from store to restaurant to store, asking if anyone has seen her brother.  She doesn’t know how much time has passed.  She can’t make the day end.

She may only be in my imagination, but she breaks my heart.

I would say “I don’t know what to write about”, but the process of pressing digits to keys has taken care of that problem.

Now the problem is waking up tomorrow morning, and not feeling so damn guilty just because I’m safe.

Shared pain, shared experience

Pain is a gift.

I realize saying that may make a few people stare at me oddly.  And people currently in the throes of pain may resent me, but it’s a topic worth addressing.  We need to get past the stage of suffering where we eagle-eye focus in on ourselves.  We need to get to the point where we think of our pain in relation to each other.  Think about what pain really does in our lives- not simply the part where we feel our pain, but the part where we open up to each other, learn to depend on each other, and learn to hold others who are crying.

Without the pain, none of these experiences would be possible.  If Billy couldn’t feel physical pain, and then a friend of his scraped a knee, how do you think that Billy might respond?  I can only imagine the conversation:

Billy:  Why are you crying?

Timmy:  Because I scraped my knee.

Billy:  But it’s not even bleeding.  Why would you cry?

Timmy:  It hurts.

Billy:  Hurts?

Timmy:  (pinches Billy) Hurts.

Billy:  Why did you do that?

And so on, and so on…  Because Billy’s lack of pain bars him from imagining his friends pain, and that lack of imagination bars him from sympathy.  He may intellectually rationalize that his friend is reasonable, and therefore must have a reason for expressing agony, but he cannot truly empathize.

Our pasts are our gifts to our future friends and family.  All of our shared experiences bind us together in a way we could not be bound if it weren’t for mutual suffering and mutual love.  Every blah day and every dreary evening make up part of a bigger global picture, one in which we are part of a universal community.  Our microwaved lunches and lemonades on the porch, or tearful arguments and celebrations are all part of the picture that makes up humanity.

Cherish it.  Cherish the heartache and the bliss.  Cherish the doldrums and the excitement.  Cherish even the pain and agony, as that pain reminds you of your humanity.  And it reminds you of something greater, of the Son of Man come down to earth to walk in our skin, to share in our humanity, and even to suffer.

The Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us…

Pain, Ephemeral

The problem isn’t pain, my mother once said, the problem is our belief that it needs to be managed.  At first listen that seems like such a cold statement.  But, in truth, it’s not.  It’s simply an acknowledgment of a condition.

Pain is our body telling us that something is wrong.  By over-managing pain, we silence our bodies and thus push into the background the message we should have heard.  A woman ignores the pain and ignores the lump until her cancer is no longer treatable, a man ignores the twinge until the tendon tears so badly surgery is necessary.  The lesson there is do not manage- treat the cause.

Emotional pain is much the same.  We like to say, “I’m feeling blue,” when in reality we are two steps from the edge.  We like to pretend that depression, anxiety and all other manner of mental ills just need to be managed the way we manage our physical pain.  I’m not saying that there is no such thing as mental illness, pure and simple, no question- there is, there definitely is.  The question I ask myself is how much of this real illness is birthed from our ignoring the source until it is too great.

I think we ignore because we fear.  We fear that our blues and blahs are too much for us to handle, so we shove them back until they are in fact enormous.  We fear that our anxiety is ruling us, which makes us anxious, so we tune it out.  We fear our hyperactivity and distraction would need medication that would deaden us, so we sit on our hands.  In the meantime, think of how much good we could do simply by naming our problems, by confronting them, by giving them shape and color and tone.

I have a theory.  My theory is that our pain starts out as ephemeral.  It is a shadow, a smear on our consciousness.  It clouds our vision and tricks us into thinking it is bigger and more unmanageable than it truly is.  So we ignore it, and grant it power.  If we could just focus on it, scrape it together, find it’s true shape and color, we wouldn’t be so afraid.

We need to stop letting it be like a fingerprint on the lens of our vision, and see clearly.  See what is really out there, what is really bogging us down.  See that it’s just the world, the world we know and love.  We can deal with this.  We can be here, together.  We can squeegee  each other’s consciousness if need be.