I wrote this Advent reflection two years ago. My daughter is twelve now, but she still asks difficult questions. I still have no easy answers.
When I began writing these Advent reflections, I had a very general structure in mind. The whole series would move, I thought, from dark to light, from ordinary to extraordinary, from dust and dirt to starlight.
Oh, the best laid plans.
Instead, I have consulted this writing plan each morning and discovered my own emptiness. No words. No stories. No ideas. Which is a desperate place and a very good place to find oneself. It has led me to frantic prayer and constant listening. Finding no stories in the plan, I have listened hard for any hint of story in my day.
Often, I have found my stories in my daughter’s difficult observations.
Yesterday, she said, “I think it must be the worst thing in the world to have a child who dies.”
I am a writer, and I abhor a platitude, an easy answer. The cliché we use to bypass actual thought. Even so, it can be tempting to fall back on those things when we are faced with the unanswerable and the terrible. But I have learned a few things from writing and from reading, and I have learned a few things mothering this daughter.
I fight the pull of the pretty, easy answer and say nothing but “Yes, yes, I know.”
She is only ten, but she already understands love’s terrible shadow. She knows intuitively, without ever being taught, that great love rips us open. Leaves us wounded and bleeding.
I have no good answers for these kinds of questions. I have no band-aid for this degree of pain. Today, I do not even have much of a story. Sometimes, the world looks darker and more ordinary the closer we get to Christmas. Sometimes, there is no perfect, timely trajectory from Advent waiting to Christmas fulfillment.
But if I have no story, I do have this one thing to share with you. A vision of sorts.
After our conversation, I kept seeing a picture in my mind. It was my daughter, so full of difficult questions and a grief too old for her years, and she was wearing the angel costume we once found at a thrift store. It is white and shimmery, and the padded, embroidered wings are gold.
I kept seeing her sad eyes against the white glow of the angel’s dress, and I realized, I think for the first time, how much our Christmas gift was heaven’s loss.
I realized how vast an emptiness the Prince of Heaven left behind him when he poured himself into Mary’s womb.
I looked into angel eyes, and they seemed to say, “We have lost him. We have said goodbye. How long till he returns to us?”
I can’t erase love’s dark shadow, and I’m not sure I would if I could. But I know that the parent heart of God has known it all already. He has passed by a heavenly chamber and found it empty. Heart-breakingly empty. And I know he suffered that pain for love.
And yet, the emptiness of heaven at the moment of incarnation is as much good news as the emptiness of the tomb.
This is the good news of God-with-us. This is the good news of our restoration.
This is the comfort of believing God sees our emptiness, our pain and says, “Yes, yes, I know.”
I wrote these words exactly one year ago. Today, we will carve pumpkins, adjust costumes, and pull the old decorations from the basement. The boys made a scarecrow last week, but he still needs a pumpkin head.
The kids are so much taller, and Elsa is old enough now to refuse the costume we chose for her. But so much is the same. These words are still true.
My friend looks up toward the trees and says I had forgotten how graceful dying can sometimes be.
I follow her glance and know that she is right. I, too, have forgotten. I remember autumn through snapshots. Which means, I remember the brilliance of that one sugar maple down the road. Or, I remember the startling red of a Burning Bush shrub against a deep blue sky.
The snapshots help me to remember true moments, fiery moments, but they do not give an accurate picture of the whole.
Autumn, taken as a whole, does not look like clear, bright brilliance. Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, it is gentle. Faded. It is burnished gold and copper. It is gray clouds and wet pavement.
This autumn world does not rage against the dying of the light. It smolders, quietly.
Christians like to talk about Halloween on the internet. I have usually abstained from those “conversations.” So much depends upon context. Like the context of our own memories. Like the context of our own communities. Often, the internet is a conversation without a context.
Here is a bit of mine. In the church of my childhood, Halloween was ever-so-slightly taboo. We wore costumes, but we wore them to collect candy at our church’s “Harvest Fair.”
As new parents, we discovered the great adventure of escorting a temperamental two-year-old ladybug down city streets. We stole her candy when she wasn’t watching, and we hugged our neighbors. We tried to catch the eye of their over-tired Dorothy or Scarecrow. To tell each one we had no idea it was them.
Still, decorating my home for Halloween always seemed like a step too far. Until we came here. Now we live in the farmhouse on the hill and how else can we entice our neighbors and their children to climb our hill, to receive our gift of love and candy, but with a few smiling ghosts and candle-lit pumpkins?
Context. It changes things. Changes us.
We live in a culture that largely ignores death.
Our children no longer walk to church through churchyards dotted with graves. Our own church is that rare thing with its own cemetery, but it is all the way around by the back door. My children often ask to walk that way, but I am in a hurry. Another time, I say, as I rush them through the front door.
I am sorry for this. And so, this year, I am grateful for Halloween. I am grateful for the space it opens up. I am less grateful for the gory zombie poster set at a child’s eye level at the local Wal Mart, but mostly I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about death. About dying. About our baptism and what it might mean that we have already died with Christ.
Which is, to say, we will have a conversation about living.
Soon, we will bring out the plywood grave markers my husband made last year. Our kids painted them gray with black crosses and the letters R I P. We will tuck them near the crumbling stone foundations of the old farm buildings, and we will drape them with twinkly lights.
As we outline a path for candy-seeking neighbors, my daughter will ask me again about those letters R I P. And as darkness settles, and the lights begin to flicker and gain strength, she will tell me, It’s beautiful.
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Is green edged with gold.
It is the first official day of autumn, but we have been observing its approach for weeks. The lingering heat and humidity made us doubt our eyes. Now that the air has shifted, now that we have retrieved our jackets from the back of the wardrobe, we cannot tell ourselves that the cherry trees with their yellow leaves are overeager.
The maples are shaded with color now. The pumpkins lined up outside the grocery store no longer seem presumptuous.
Last weekend, Jonathan and I buried two hundred daffodil bulbs on the slope above the driveway.
Every year when I trip over a just-delivered box of bulbs on the porch near our back door, I feel beleaguered. Who has time for bulbs when the younger two won’t stop poking one another then screeching and the older two are whining about after-school snacks and someone refuses to meet my eye when asked about his school reading log?
But every year when spring finally breaks through, I wish I had planted more. I always wish for more.
I am trying to remember that winter-weariness. Trying to remember what those bulbs will mean come April.
Two hundred daffodils are only the beginning. I’ll plant at least as many more when another box shows up some time in October. More daffodils, but also alliums for the new flower garden and tulips for the raised beds in the vegetable garden.
If I plant tulips anywhere else they’ll only be eaten by deer, so I fill a bed or two inside the picket fence. When the tulips are finished in May, I can fill those spots with tomatoes or peppers or beans.
I am reading Terry Tempest Williams’ beautiful book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Early on, she writes, “Peace is the perspective found in patterns.”
When I came across that line, I put down my book and went in search of a pen. Her words describe something I have been living for years now, but only dimly perceived. The poetry of her sentence, with its alliterative P, has made something invisible in my experience visible to me.
The earth is full of patterns and rhythms. Some we merely observe but others invite collaboration. Like the planting of bulbs in autumn and the picking of flowers in spring.
These back-to-school days have been anxious days for me, but feeling again the net bag of bulbs stretched tight against the palm of my hand is like feeling my head surface above deep water.
I can breathe again. The peace of a larger, more meaningful perspective fills my lungs.
Homework may go unfinished, my children may go on poking and screeching, but wasn’t it only yesterday I was digging in bulbs with a baby strapped to my back? And isn’t it only tomorrow when those bulbs will bloom again?
The earth spins so fast. There is so much to remember (not homework but the feel of a baby on my back). There is so much to anticipate.
The present moment is always what matters most. But it matters most when it is rooted in memory even as it reaches toward that which is still to come.
In Alaska, there are many ways to die.
You can die in the air: bush plane, float plane, an airliner in wind and fog. You can die in the sea: barge, skiff, a ferry plunging in the trough. (If you are a sea lion, you can die in the jaws of an orca halfway between your rock and the waves. I have a picture of blood and frenzied sea lions if you are the sort who needs proof.)
You can also die with your feet planted firmly on the ground: bear, cliff, swiftly-shifting weather.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. The shadows are longer. Death lurks out in the open here.
When you become a mother, you count all the ways there are to die: babies sleep but do not wake, daughters fall on the stairs, sons are diagnosed and named incurable.
Later, the ways are counted for you, but they are not the deaths you have already met in your imagination.
One day, you do not recognize how much your boy struggles to breathe, but the pediatrician does. She calls an ambulance from the exam room.
Another day, you forget your child’s epi-pen. Thank God, that stranger in the corner of the shop had one in her purse. You learn, to your sorrow, that death is folded within each moment.
Silent. Hidden. Utterly inseparable from love.
In Alaska, there are so many ways to live.
You live in the air: bush planes and float planes fly low. You soar like an eagle, skim mountaintops, explore islands empty except of bears.
You live on the water: the taste of salt spray on your lips, a diving fin whale almost at your fingertips, sea otters like floating teddy bears.
You live on the land: black-tailed deer who are not afraid of you, tide pools filled with sun stars and blood stars and the deep breathing of anemones.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. It is a dazzle in your eyes all day long.
Of what consequence is death when the air is like glittering glass?
If you are a writer, you are often alone. You retreat from family and friends seeking the quiet you need to write.
But one day you step on an airliner. One day you step on a bush plane. One day you wade through the water and heave yourself into a skiff. One day you taste salt spray all the way to Harvester, an island like a boulder tossed across the sea.
You journey to the edge of the world, and you discover you are not alone. The world is as full with stories and with storytellers as it is full with the glory of God.
The stories you find on Harvester Island are intimate with death.
There is the story of the old man and the young boy. They vanished on the water, leaving behind only a dog in a skiff and so many broken hearts.
There is the story of the unhappy wife standing on the edge of the island rock with a small suitcase in her fist. She has arrived at the end of her road. She is alive, but she has already died.
There are so many ways to die, but in Alaska, you learn what is true in every place on earth: there is only one way to live.
The only way to live is to die.
The only way to live is to arrive at the end of yourself and then to keep going (you can do this via bush plane, you can do this via motherhood or marriage or any great attempt at love).
Love is what remains, at the end of yourself, at the end of every beautiful story, at the end of every terrible one, too.
Love is our home. It is the place where death is only a fading legend. A tale we will tell again and again until, like glass smoothed and polished by the waves, it loses every sharp edge.
One day, we will let that old story go; we will drop it there, on the black gravel of the beach. For we have traveled 10,000 years, and we are ready for new stories.
Written in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. With love for all the writers who traveled to that boulder in the sea. I am glad to have met you, there on that line between rock and water, life and death, stranger and friend.
It is one thing to choose less for oneself. It is another thing entirely to make that same choice for your children.
We always want more for our children. More than we had. More than we are.
What kind of parent holds their child’s small hand and walks in the direction of less?
In some ways we have chosen less. We try (and fail, and try again) to choose less noise, less hurry, less stuff. We choose fewer activities, fewer commitments, fewer toys.
We limit sugar and entertainment (which, paradoxically, makes apple cider doughnuts sweeter and family movie night more fun).
But, mostly, and perhaps most significantly, less is chosen for us.
There is never enough money and there is never enough time for all that I want for my kids.
Yes, I want sewing lessons and music lessons and art lessons. Yes, I want a pool pass and movie tickets and restaurant meals. But I have four children and limited funds, and I say “no” a lot because “no” is the only thing I can say.
When I choose less for myself, I must trust in God’s provision. His protection. His presence. Yet I seem to believe that I am meant to be God for my children. As if I am the one who provides. As if I am the one who protects.
But my provision is faulty. My protection imperfect. Even when present I give myself with impatience rather than love.
Yet I would fill all those gaps with more. I would build a high wall – made of stuff and experiences and extra curricular activities – in order to launch my children into a future I cannot even begin to see.
It turns out that having less to give requires letting go.
Having let go, having placed my children in the hands of the only provider and protector, the one who has secured a future for each of them, I am freed of so much fear.
I am released to love them. Freed, even, to give good gifts without worrying that I must give every gift.
Living with less where our children are concerned might sound peaceful. It might sound idyllic. And, at times, it is.
Without the pool pass, there is the creek and the slip ‘n slide. Because of severe food allergies, there is more made-from-scratch food enjoyed together around our own table.
But often it feels as if we are jagged pebbles tossed together in one of those toy rock tumblers.
We cannot escape one another (because there are fewer camps and activities to take us in different directions).
We cannot stop hurting each other (perhaps because we are bored, or because we are not distracted by a screen, or because we are human).
This, then, is my prayer, this is my hope: that through constraints and tears and a thousand petty squabbles, we are becoming gems.
I have wanted to share a guest post from my friend Laura for a long time. That I am finally able to do that, and on Christmas Eve, is one more good gift of a season that is full of them.
Laura is a dear friend. She is also a writer of rare talent. I sit up and take notice whenever I read something of hers.
Read the following reflection and then search out her gem of a book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories, and you will understand why.
After an evening meeting last spring, I turned on my phone and saw messages from my daughter. She wanted to Skype. The last time she asked, two years earlier, it was to announce her engagement. I figured this had to be job or baby. I drove home through the silent night with a sense of wonder, hope, anticipation. I tried not to speed.
Once I got to the desk and logged on, we chatted for a moment. Then she said, “We have some news,” and slid a grainy black and white image up into the frame.
The church tribe I grew up in didn’t observe the liturgical year. I knew Christmas carols from school music time and TV. Advent was a countdown calendar, a surprise picture or bit of chocolate behind each day’s cardboard doorflaps.
This past Sunday — same tribe, decades later — we sang some carols. The lyrics are projected on big screens, but not the notes. When we got to the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” as I sang the alto “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ri-a” (which has six fewer o- than the melody), I had a passing thought: How do I know this harmony so well?
Not from singing. In the little church where my daughter grew up, Advent culminated in a Christmas Eve service. We are both flutists, and for several years we played a duet. We’d test-driven several carols and hymns at home, and settled on that one, precisely because it was enjoyable, more musically interesting, to play the glorias.
She took the melody. I tried to keep my volume a degree lower than hers, to support but not overpower. There’s a kind of communication between musicians, part keen listening, part familiarity, part intuition. There’s a way that music memory gets in your body. More than once, someone came up to us afterwards with tears in her eyes and told us we somehow sounded like one flute playing harmony.
At the end of the service, someone would dim the lights and we’d assemble ourselves in a circle around the sanctuary, holding our little white candles with their little paper skirts. One light. Two. Silent night, we sang as we shared the flame. Holy night. All was calm. And eventually, all was bright.
I didn’t cry when I met him. I expected to. But it was such a calm moment. I had just arrived in their bright corner apartment. She went in the bedroom, where his daddy was changing his diaper, and I sat down in the living room. Then she brought him out, so relaxed, already so at ease with him, and introduced him. I stood, the way you would to meet anyone for the first time, and introduced myself. I sang “Happy One Week Old to You,” softly, and stroked his sweet head.
“Would you like to hold him?”
The answer will always be yes.
I have nothing profound to say about Advent. No neat way to swaddle up this series. I’ve been in churches where it was the focus of worship for four weeks, and churches where it’s not on the radar and some people have never heard of it. I’ve taken and eaten the daily morsel of chocolate in years when I went into a church only to attend a friend’s wedding.
But I know something about waiting. Don’t we all?
I know the story never gets old, that story of the most powerful force in the universe coming to earth to be with us, to be one of us, starting out helpless and needy and soft and beautiful, just as every one of us did.
I held and beheld that baby boy over the next few days, for hours and hours. Talked to him. Sang to him. Soothed him when he fussed, which was hardly at all. Studied his surprisingly expressive face.
His mama was studying him one afternoon, on the sofa with her knees drawn up, cradling him on her thighs. It’s still amazing to me that we made him, and he grew inside me and then I pushed him out, she said.
Do you ever look at him, I asked, and wonder what he’ll like, and what he’ll be good at, and who he’ll become?
Her heart swelled, and the overflow, you could practically see it rising in her chest and spilling out her eyes. She just nodded. The wave swamped me too.
Let earth receive her king.
Laura Lynn Brown vanquishes errors and makes the rough places plain as a copy editor at a daily newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Slate, the Iowa Review, Art House America and the High Calling, and she is an editor at The Curator. Her book Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories was published in 2013 by Abingdon Press. More of her work can be read at her website, lauralynnbrown.com, and her one-year daily gratitude journal, Daylilies.