A Christmas Carol

I wrap up this year’s tribute to Christmas carols with a nod to a carol of another kind. The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, relates Charles Dickens’ struggles in creating his classic, A Christmas Carol. And while I take exception to the title (Dickens did not invent Christmas and I suspect he’d find the title alarming), it’s all I take exception to. Daniel Stevens as Dickens shows us a man struggling: to deny his childhood traumas; to escape disreputable relatives; to provide for his wife and children; and to find something worth writing. Justin Edwards, as Forster, shows us why Charles so trusted his good-hearted agent. And Jonathan Pryce, as Charles’ father, is both endearing and disturbing.

The cinematography and scripting mesmerize. Fixtures and personalities from Dickens’ life weave themselves into his emerging story, giving viewers a glimpse into the writing life. Dickensian costumes of all kinds abound, depicting stitch by stitch the chasm between upper and lower classes. Pair that with the streets of London: from Dickens’ upscale neighborhood to the squalor of his childhood home, and you have social commentary paired with story magic.

And then there’s Christopher Plummer as Scrooge: sardonic, cold, cruel—and absolutely perfect.

Our family saw The Man Who Invented Christmas at a second-run theater. I don’t know why the film didn’t get a wider release. It’s family friendly holiday fare and explores the creation of one of our most beloved Christmas stories. What’s not to love?

When The Man Who Invented Christmas is available on DVD or streams on your online service, I hope you’ll give it a view. It’s now a cherished part of our family’s holiday festivities and just might delight your next holiday as well.

Happy 2018. And God bless us, every one!

 

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Cardiac Conundrum

2017 has been, well, tough. My husband’s job was unexpectedly outsourced in March and we’re in a holding pattern in finding a new one. I awake in the morning wondering how will we pay our bills, and, more than that, what will happen to our nonprofit, A Spacious Place? The grant we’d hoped for, prayed for, fell through. The added stress of job searching coupled with nonprofit and small-business work netted me a respiratory infection that just wouldn’t quit. Hesitant to visit the doctor and add to our bills during the job-free season, I finally yielded as the Christmas holidays approached. I got the kind of surprise you don’t hope for at the doctor’s office.

I came in, expecting antibiotics and cough medicine, but found myself hooked up to EKG wires. (Once you top 60, you get extra scrutiny from medical professionals.) Something, apparently, was amiss. After my exam, the medical community moved at light speed. A little alarming.

Thanks to the antibiotics and cough medicine I’d received along with diagnosis “”heart questionable,” I was feeling better physically. But the wheels were set in motion and I found myself in an exam room at the Heart Hospital, staring at a three-D rendering of a human heart. “”You have a heart murmur,” pronounced the cardiologist. “”We need to do an echocardiogram.”

More money: my grad-school daughters this very year would be completing degrees and starting to pay off student loans. And more waiting: dandy.

My echo appointment was scheduled for 7 a.m. on Dec. 26. Fortunately, the holiday season kept us so busy there wasn’t much time to stew on “what ifs.” Still, it was there, in the back of our minds as we baked cookies, sang carols, and unwrapped gifts. What would next Christmas be like? Would A Spacious Place even exist?

At 7:05 a.m. on Boxing Day, a lovely and professional young woman, kind enough to ask about our Christmas even though her hijab evidenced her Muslim faith, handed me a hospital-blue poncho. As I lay on my left side, she pressed a wand against my chest. For 25 minutes, I breathed out, held it, took a breath, breathed out, held it.

“”You have a beautiful heart,” she said, finally. “”It looks like the heart of a teenager.” And then I breathed easier. When, two days later, I received a call from the cardiologist’s office stating that my heart pumping was normal, it was all-out celebration time.

Celebration time consisted of a sausage biscuit off McDonald’s dollar menu. But, accompanying our frugal feast rang in my head a snippet of a German carol: “How great our joy: joy, joy, joy/Praise we the Lord in heaven on high….” The tune played in my head through the day, particularly the three-fold rendering of the word, “joy.” The word swelled with each repetition until the final sung “joy” becomes joy itself.

We’re still in limbo: still job seeking, still seeking funding for A Spacious Place. But something has changed. A corner turned. A resurrection begun. Looking toward 2018 I’m determined. Determined not to accept the assumption that I should wind down my life because I’ve walked this earth for 63 years. Because the miracle of my journey through a cardiology conundrum is discovering I don’t have the heart of a teenager. I find today, beating in my chest, the heart of a child: eager, open, wonder-filled. And I can’t wait to see what God has in store in 2018. And in all the years to come.

 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;

”There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.

So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.

Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”*

 

I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.

In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.

But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.

And who yearn for a reason to hope.

*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.

 

Joy to the World!

Each week of Advent and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll again share my ponderings on the beautiful alchemy of lyric and melody in some Christmas carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well.

This time of year, the word, joy, meets us everywhere: mailed to us in cards, strung along the street in lights, and, of course, sung to us in carols. There’s “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings” (joyful all ye nations rise), “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (oh, tidings of comfort and joy), “O Come O Come Emmanuel” (rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel). And, of course, “Joy to the World” (not the Three Dog Night version, though that one’s joy packed as well)

C. S. Lewis described Joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Though joy is both a delight an ache, “anyone who has experienced it will want it again.” Lewis concludes, “I doubt that anyone who has tasted it would ever…exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.”

If you’ve ever peered through a keyhole or a crack in a fence, you know something of joy. You can see just enough to long for a fuller vision, maybe even to walk into the space you see. At the same time, you’ve a limited perception of what’s out there. But it looks mighty promising; if you could just get there…

During the holidays, we have available—alongside the frustrating grocery lines, the crazy traffic, the scary bank balances, and the lights that won’t light on one side—ample opportunities for JOY. It might be that holiday song that wrenches our hearts, lights that transform us into children, a cherished family tradition (ours is driving around to view lights while belting out holiday tunes), or surprise snow IN AUSTIN, TEXAS! Even mundane tasks can, unexpectedly, overwhelm us with joy. In the midst of folding laundry, we glimpse the now and the not yet.

Joy, in the present, promises much more in our future. Joy is a delight that aches. It’s a wonder and a mystery. And I wish for you this holiday a season of joy.  In the words of the carol: Joy to the world—that includes you and me!

Clown Series Book Cover Q & A

The author of the Clown book series answers questions about book-cover design.

Q: You create your own book covers?

A: Yes. I love doing it. In seminary, I learned to do rice-paper collage and I’m just crazy about it. Each cover is a collage.

Q: Collage. What exactly is that?

A: Quite simply, collage is affixing materials to a surface with artistic intent. I paint rice paper with rich colors, cut and tear the paper into the shapes, and affix the shapes to illustration board using watered-down glue. Sometimes I add other items as well: beads or threads, whatever gives the needed effect.

Q:  What is it about collage that you’re crazy about?

A: It’s not an easy art form, that’s for sure. Glue gets stuck to my fingers, rather than to the surface; the illustration board bows up with all the water applied, so I have to flip it over and wet down the other side. Getting the shapes I need is a challenge. But collage is very forgiving. When I mess up, I simply peel off what didn’t work, shed a few tears, and start over. And with all the water, it’s a baptism every time I do collage.

Q: Do you have a theme for your book covers?

A: A book-cover-design conference I attended favored  simplicity for book covers. And I get that: I did one book cover that way because the book’s theme is stark. But for the Clown series, I wanted a spectrum of rich colors—and I wanted intrigue.

I love book covers that puzzle me: ones that seem incongruous, then, when I’m midway into the story there’s that “Ah-ha!” moment. Each Clown book features a rendering (related to that book) of the Clown’s three primary-colored orbs. I hope readers enjoy getting to the “Ah-ha!” moment with each one of them. And, of course, reading the stories within the story.

 

Clown Series Interview

 

The Clown Series

The author of the Clown book series answers questions about the books and about her motivations.

Q: Why a clown?

A: People wonder about that. Truth is, despite the horror industry’s bogarting of clowns, true clowns embody qualities of God that resonate with me. When I imagine God in human form, I see a Clown.  Capital C Clown.

Q: But a clown? There are lots of other human types you could have chosen.

A: Clowns intrigue me. Always have. And they set my thoughts on God. A clown embodies joy, benevolence, virtue, and love.  Sure, there is hiddenness behind the greasepaint, just as there’s hiddenness in God. But, let’s face it, a clown’s hiddenness is what makes them magical.

Q: How did you come to write these stories?

A: Since my early teens I  imagined my life as a story: how would I write what happened today for someone to read? During my late teens, I became intrigued with the magic of clowning. And I’ve always loved Jesus’ stories (parables, to use the literary term): so brief, but with such punch. In some kind of magical alchemy during my twenties, this image emerged of a clown spinning these timeless stories and those stories working a powerful good for those who had ears to hear.

Q: Isn’t there a Pollyanna quality to these stories? Can such problems as your characters encounter—from eating disorders to desertion even to death—be fixed by a story?

A: Fixed? No. Stories open us to possibilities. There’s a eureka moment in the reading or telling: we blink before a new and transforming thought. What will we do with our eureka? That’s where our work begins. I see the Clown books as realistic tales: ones that accompany readers through good times and bad; stories dusted with God-magic and grounded in hope.

Q: Why do you keep writing these books?

A: I thought there would only be three. But God keeps giving me stories and I never feel more alive, more connected to God, than when I’m writing. Plus, I keep hoping a child—8 or 80 years old—will pick one up at the time their soul longs for its message. I hope I’ll keep writing Clown stories until I meet the Clown face to face.

Bike Fail

“Find another way to keep fit,” said the podiatrist in uncharacteristically stern tones. Decades of walking had netted me two very unhappy feet. What to do? I needed time out in God’s nature and, never much good at sitting, had used the rhythm of my steps to focus my prayers.

I rummaged up warm memory from my youth: cycling home from the library with a basketful of books. Eureka! Calling in wifely and motherly chips 2016 Mother’s Day, I requested the gift of a bike. I loved her on sight: old-style frame, cream-colored paint, and stenciling that reminded me of ice cream parlors and The Music Man. I named her Cordelia.

Worry: would I remember how to balance after all these years? A surreptitious ride around the neighborhood allayed those fears: you really do never forget how to ride a bike! But an altogether different problem arose. The slopes that seemed gentle to my walking feet grew Everest-sized when I pedaled them. Breezes that mercifully cooled my walking skin buffeted my biking body with maniacal force. And, it turns out, you use different muscles bi-peding than you do bi-peddling. My quadriceps screamed, “What did we ever do to you?”

I finished the ride on willpower. I was clearly past it. Done for. Failure with a capital F.

But what of Cordelia? She was a gift of love and hope. I couldn’t give up on her. I painted my bike helmet like van Gogh’s Starry Night and, following the advice of the ages, got right back on the, um, bike.

Not great. Not disastrous.

Today I can ride longer before my legs turn into overcooked noodles. I can manage inclines with a bit more panache.  It’s not as easy as I’d like, but it’s worth the effort. Plus, I learned that failure, while harsh, has benefits. I learned

  1. Failure doesn’t kill us. Even though at the time our mortification might wish it did. In surviving failure, in a larger sense, we win.
  2. Failure defines our values. Sometimes we give something a go and failure tells us, in no uncertain terms, “Nope. Not for me.” Other times, when we face a challenge that’s hard, but somehow energizing (what I call God energy), failure spurs us on. We test unused muscles and set our determined chins.
  3. Failure fosters humor. We grow in self-acceptance when we can laugh at our humanness. Not in a derisive way, but in a way that says: “Yep. That’s me. Warts and all. Gotta love me.”
  4. Failure cultivates community. We all fail. Sharing that honestly helps us discover—and share—the refreshing truth that failure doesn’t define us.

Sure, it’s frustrating to re-tackle with determination (and Ben Gay) a skill I once mastered with nary a thought. But it’s frustration with benefits. I feel a kind of wondering joy as I wheel Cordelia out of the garage and slap on my helmet. There are adventures out there just waiting for me. I intend to pedal out and find them.

Housing Grief

In our neighborhood sits a fire-gutted house. For months it sat, its yard weed ridden and rodent infected, its shattered windows like eyes into a dead soul. How long would it be left in that state? Why not just tear it down and rebuild?

Then in came the troops. First, the lawn was mown. Then, inside, fresh wood transformed the space from empty into potential. Outside, the crew built additions onto the existing structure. The house was, at its soul, what it had been, but also something new. A resurrection house.

The house reminds me that fires come. They destroy what has been. And we grieve. Grief takes the time it takes. Slowly, we’re opened to hope—not for what was, but for what might be. A resurrection. A soul house transformed.

This Eastertide season finds our family in loss. Last month, my husband’s job was outsourced. The life we’d known, the life we’d counted on, is gone. At 60+, we look out at the world through broken windows. Around us, as we wait and watch for what will be, we see resurrection. In nature. In the lives of others. In fire-gutted houses.

Whatever you are grieving, I hope for you clear evidence of resurrection. And with it, anticipation of fresh, new life.

eScapegoat Easter Reading

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Eastertide. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Into the Wild

Never at home with the points of the compass or even with directions left versus right, I stopped to get gas, apparently turned the opposite direction I needed to return to the Interstate, and found myself deep in a neighborhood of weary houses and weed-ridden yards. Kids played in the street without adults around to yell at them. I pulled over, made myself breathe, and then turned the car around, looking for familiar landmarks. Thinking backward, I retraced my drive through the neighborhood, down the drag of decaying convenience stores, through light after light, until finally I saw the Interstate cutting across my vision: a ramp of gray marked with huge stars—we are the Lone Star State, after all! Following the blue and red shield signs, I made my way onto the Interstate, which immediately sloped upward into the sky.

I drove in another world: only gray barriers and clouds existed here. My car moved itself toward the embankment; I felt powerless to do anything to stop it. In a moment, I would be flying in these clouds, and then falling. It was fixed, it would be. My heart thudded and my stomach clenched. I felt dampness under my arms and a prickling at my scalp. I sat, helpless, as the car sped up and moved toward the barrier.

I told myself, forced myself to realize that I was pushing the accelerator; I was steering toward the sky. Since I couldn’t seem to stop it, I did the first thing I could. I eased off the gas. Looking behind me, I saw a single car approaching. He’d just have to understand—this was the best I could do. As my front bumper approached the barrier, I pulled my eyes away from the clouds and onto the road before me.

“Drive here,” I commanded myself. “Only here.”

My front bumper veered into the lane and I forced myself to hold the sides of the hood between yellow lines that depicted the lane’s boundaries. Below me, closer and closer, cars sped down the Interstate, grounded and going about their business. In a moment, I would join them. I would end this successfully.

Down the ramp, merging into traffic, accelerating to comparable speed—I had made it. Only then did I realize I’d been holding my breath, only then did I glance down to see my heart thudding through my t-shirt. Only then did I feel my exhaustion. I longed to pull over to the side of the road, close my eyes, and sleep. Since I couldn’t do that, I cranked up the radio and sang along at the top of my lungs. I was alive—more so than I could ever remember—and I found that I was glad.

***

I arrived at the dorm the day before my assigned roommate, accepted my key at the front desk, and plunked my stuff onto the floor. The dorm was empty, except for a few other women who’d arrived early. I nodded to them, head down, as I walked down the hallway. But mainly I stayed in my room, reading and rereading the college materials I’d received until, at last, my eyes forced themselves shut.

I woke with a start the next morning, fearful I had overslept and missed registration and orientation. An absurd worry, since both activities began after lunch. It was still quite early when I stuffed the campus map into my pocket, and decided to stroll over to the administration building and look around.

A catwalk spanned the street between my dorm and the administration building. I stepped out in one world and midway found myself in another. Below me, splotches of green—fresh spring green; sad, withered green; deep, restful green—covered almost my entire plane of vision. Here and there the hard gray planes of housetops evidenced the distance between my feet and the unseen ground below. A rusty guardrail spanned the catwalk. Since the rail was high enough from the sidewalk to allow a body to slide through, someone had strung metal cording through holes in the railing, cutting the space in half.

I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I felt, instead, drawn inexorably toward the guardrail. My feet would, of their own volition, propel me toward and over the railing. I would have no choice but to plunge over the side, down, down into the canvas of trees. I stopped myself inches from the rail, heart racing, and sat squarely in the sidewalk. I needed to feel myself on the ground.

I couldn’t stay here; already students were gaping at me as they hurried by. I waited until a break formed in the traffic, forced my knees to unbend and my legs to straighten, focused my eyes on the sidewalk’s edge nearest the street, and made my feet carry me there, away from the siren song of the guardrail. A car blew its horn; I ignored it, knowing that walking this traffic-riddled balance beam was the only way I could make it to the other side.

One step. Another. Another step. Another. After an eternity, I beheld a world like the one I’d left before stepping onto the catwalk; I forced my way toward it. When I stepped off the catwalk, exhaustion claimed me. I made my way to a bus stop bench and collapsed onto the searingly hot metal seat. I didn’t care. This felt real: evidence that I had made it out of the strange world of the catwalk and into the world of choice.

 

eScapegoat 10

eScapegoat is a story for those whose life experiences require a tenacious, and sometimes solitary, faith. It’s a hard read but a hopeful one. Look for a new posting daily during Holy Week (apologies for my late start this week).

May eScapegoat nourish your soul this Lenten season. Return to beginning.

eScapegoat

Shadow Lands, cont.

…he is to lay his hands upon the scapegoat, symbolically laying the sins of the people upon it. He then sends the scapegoat away into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the sins of the people with it.[i]

***

I couldn’t live in a world where I could believe Sheila would betray me.

I would not believe she had.

I was going insane trying to disbelieve it.

I imagined her apologizing for what she had done or what she’d failed to do; I thought I could keep my sanity if only she would own her actions. If that happened, these tormenting thoughts could, at last, end. But day after day went by with no word from her. It was as if our friendship happened in a bubble and when that bubble burst, the friendship no longer existed, at least not for her.

I realized I didn’t want to live: even more, that I hadn’t wanted to live most of my life. I begged God to kill me. I wanted to kill myself, but I’d embarrassed my family enough. At night I prayed to die in my sleep; I awoke each morning discouraged to discover breath in my body. I stopped painting, stopped eating, stopped imagining Magic Land. Still I lived, still I endured every unendurable moment. My family no longer even feigned interest in my welfare, exerting no effort make me eat or sleep. And still I lived on.

 

When it became clear God would not let me die, I realized I hated Sheila. I hated myself, too, for being fool enough to believe she valued me. Fool enough to believe myself valuable. Sheila would never apologize; I knew that now. I didn’t matter enough to be stood by. Shadows can take only the form given them by substance. In my family’s world, in Sheila’s world, I had no substance of my own. Days went by and weeks as I existed in the sterility of my family.

Weeks turned into months; I ceased going to church. I imagined everyone sighing in relief at my absence. Especially my family; they had grown smaller, tighter. They’d closed ranks: reformed themselves with me outside the door. Wilda’s place of seniority was secured. My shadow hardly darkened our family’s consciousness anymore.

I made plans to simplify their lives. My plans grew solid at the mailbox; one evening at dinner, when a lull formed in the conversation, I spoke.

Everyone jumped; I rarely spoke these days and it seemed in poor taste to put myself forward. I kept it short: “I am going to East Texas College and majoring in art. I’ve been given a full scholarship. I start next month.”

***

The goat that was to be sent into the wilderness was designated by a black mark on the head, the other one on the neck.[ii]

***

Thanks to my job at the hobby shop, I’d bought myself a car: a used Pinto with more miles on it than my parents’ ancient station wagon, and a stain in the back seat I tried not to think about. I had it loaded: Mother had bought the necessities: towels, sheets, flashlight, crackers and Velveeta cheese for snacking. The three of them stood in an awkward semi-circle at my car’s door. Then Mother lurched forward and gave me a hug, the others followed suit, laying cold hands on my back, doing their familial duty.

I could feel their relief as I closed myself into my car and cranked the engine. Then, astonished, I felt myself relieved as well. I was alone in the truth of myself. In my family’s world, they spoke of their faith as the peace that passes understanding. For me, it’s been more the pain that does.

***

He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.[iii]

[i] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Gen. Ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Baker Academic Grand Rapids, MI 2005, p. 449.

[ii] Orr, James, Gen. Ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI 1955,   p. 344.

[iii] Lev. 16:21a NRSV.