Each December I think it will be different. This will be the year I shake my winter melancholy. This will be the year my delight grows day by day. These are days of ornaments and sugar cookies and twinkling lights. Aren’t they supposed to be happy?
But this year is much like every other year. The ornaments shatter, the cookies crumble, and those new LED bulbs cast a cold-hearted glow.
More than ten years ago, I spent a few December days watching my friend’s little girl. My friend was in the hospital laboring to deliver a baby boy whose heart had already stopped beating. Over the weekend, I took care of another little girl who has no idea her parent’s hearts are broken.
All weekend, in the background, Over the Rhine was singing, “If we make it through December we’ll be fine.”
This was going to be the year I would look on the bright side, but I have just about accepted that there is no bright side in December. Only darkness and the pin-prick lights on the Christmas tree, and tonight is the longest night.
At one in the morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent, my friend’s little girl threw up. When I found her, she was crying, and her beautiful curly hair was smeared with vomit. While I bathed her and toweled her dry, I thought two things: Why is this happening tonight? and Thank you, Jesus, that I can do this for my friend.
This is what we do in December. We bake sugar cookies, and we scrub vomit from the sheets. We cry for our friends and we cry for ourselves, and we hand out bars of chocolate tied with red and green bows. We make toasts to the new year, and we wonder how we’ll ever survive another one.
We pray come, Lord Jesus, come, and we remember that he already has and that he’s seen it all before. The vomit and the death. The good food and the hunger. The love and the loss.
I don’t know if I’m angry, or tired, or simply sad, but I will keep baking cookies. I will continue hanging ornaments, and I will make my husband climb up on the barn roof to secure a lighted star.
Because somehow despite it all (or because of it?) I still believe that there is a God up there in heaven who has made us this promise: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
We live somewhere between the promise and its ultimate fulfillment. It is a land where tears drop onto festive wrapping paper. A place dusted with cookie crumbs and peppermints. It is empty stockings hung by the fire, and it is our hope, perhaps a little shaky and unsure, that one day we will wake and those stockings will be full.
But it isn’t only a one-day hope. Perhaps if we make it through December we will be fine, but I don’t want to be fine. I want more than that. I want better than that.
I want gladness.
Gladness like the taste of sugar cookies and candy canes and the cinnamon rolls I make every Christmas morning.
Gladness like the face of a child when snow finally does fall.
Gladness like every bright, sweet gift that comes to us only in December.
It is called the Golden Hour or, sometimes, the Magic Hour. Photographers and filmmakers revere it.
It rarely, if ever, lasts an hour. Usually it is less, though in the far north in deep winter, it might last all day. It is that period just after sunrise, or, more usually, just before sunset when the light is warm and soft and shadows are long and gentle.
During our winters, golden hour is something I glimpse from a window in mid-afternoon. A sight that causes me to pause. For a moment.
Now that it is spring, golden hour is more like a place. We might wander in and out of the house all day, but as sunset nears a new door opens. It no longer matters what indoor tasks are pressing on us (homework, dinner prep, a pile of laundry on the dining-room table). When that door opens we will stay outside until the door swings shut and every last, golden drop vanishes.
This week, in this magic evening place, I have seen a two-year-old girl, her hair the same color as the light, kneel in a sea of violets. She used a stick to stir a basket overflowing with dandelions. She was so focused on her fluffy, yellow stew that she never saw the pink magnolia petals drifting behind her back. She never noticed the bright green buds from the maple tree dusting her shoulders.
This week, in the golden place, I have seen a brother and sister roll their bodies down a green hill, over and over again. My own shadow was so long, reaching toward them, it seemed as if I could wrap shadow arms around them while they rolled. I could use shadow hands to help them back onto their feet.
In the golden hour, all kinds of burdens are lifted. Dinner and homework and laundry matter so much less. Even the daily burden of gravity seems to lift. In this light, we walk somewhere between the earth and the sky, belonging equally to both. When the two-year-old cries, “I catch the moon!” I believe her.
Here is what I have seen in the golden hour: my children are beautiful, the earth is gentle, there is no reason, ever, to be afraid.
Here is why I hesitate to share what I have seen: Baltimore burns, another young black man is dead, wars rage, a marriage is ending, young parents grieve a baby’s diagnosis, a friend has landed back in the hospital.
I am strongly tempted to keep the vision of golden hour a secret. I know that my world is not the whole world. Do I tempt you toward jealousy if I say that this week my life, between the hours of six and eight, is almost unbearably beautiful?
Yet if I am silent then some essential part of the story goes missing.
CNN and NPR tell their stories, and we feel duty-bound to hear them. What about the good news? What about those dispatches from the golden hours?
The door to that place opens and closes according to a will that is not ours. Some evenings bring clouds and rain, and we are given only darkness.
I cannot even begin to guess why this is so.
But I hope that when the clouds move in, and darkness once again surrounds me, that you – yes, you – will have the courage to share your golden visions.
That I might know more of the story and take heart.
That I might glimpse the ending of it all and have hope.
I know that the killing freeze arrived later this year because I checked last year’s date in my journal. I understand that the cold air pouring in even as I type is, if anything, overdue, and yet I wish it had held off longer still.
Winter approaches, and I find myself afraid.
Most of the maple leaves have fallen, but the trees still wear a few. They look like dabs of watercolor paint. It is autumn’s last deep breath before the descent of winter’s gray veil.
Last winter was long, and the memory is still heavy. I love snow falling past the window, and I love pulling my children on a sled through the Christmas tree farm, but winter is not only that. Winter is also dark afternoons and ice in the chicken’s water and snow turned to mud.
We have all been sick for weeks, and I keep getting better only to get worse again. The baby’s eyes are red and infected, and our whole house shakes with bone-deep coughs.
I am too weary for bad news, I have kept the radio turned off, but terrible tidings slink in, like that draft around my office window. First there was a text from my friend. Such a devastating loss. A week later there was a phone call from family, and that one was so much worse.
They aren’t my stories to tell. Perhaps they aren’t stories at all. They are ruptures. Faultlines.
But you don’t need the details. I’m afraid you’ve heard them before. You, too, have received a text. You, too, have picked up that phone. These are the things that should never happen.
These are the stories every atheist mentions when he or she says they cannot, cannot believe in a good and loving and all-powerful God.
And I find I have no desire to argue with them. Such things should not happen. My atheist friends are absolutely right about that.
When the text came in, I started praying a prayer I’ve never prayed before. I think every true prayer is given, but the given-ness of this one was more apparent than most.
I prayed Let there be light.
I was still praying that prayer when the phone call came. And now I see no reason to stop. Lord, let there be some light. Dear God, please.
It is a winter prayer, and it beckons me toward spring promises:
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people …
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune.
– Isaiah 65:22-23
I want to believe that these words are true, but I am thinking of two mothers. One labored in vain. One bore a child doomed to misfortune. At least, that is what appears to be so.
But what if death was no more the end than winter is the end? What if these words are yet true for these mothers and their children? All hope seems lost, but maybe that is a lie.
After the cross came an empty tomb in a springtime garden.
Winter is near. They say it will be long and cold. I know for certain that it will be dark. But I also know that on the other side of winter is spring.
On the other side of death is life.
In late December, the seed and nursery catalogs began arriving. I dove in. When I came up for air, I tried to remind myself I was planning a vegetable plot, not an eight-hundred square foot formal rose garden.
It is easy to get a little lost in a pile of seed catalogs.
These are the days for rest, both for you and your garden. Unless you live in Florida.
I’ve heard it said that southern gardeners should take their winter break in late summer. Which is sort-of true. No one can grow tomatoes in Florida in August. But, it is also not true at all. You may give your vegetable beds a break, but the grass, the weeds, and those horrible invasive vines covered in thorns do not take a break. Unless you want your house to disappear back into the primeval jungle, you had better not neglect the August garden entirely.
I only gardened in Florida for two years, but I am still recovering. As it turns out, I need a good long break from working my bit of ground.
I need a season for rest. I need a season for dreams.
Rest can be painful. A persistant ache. Dreaming hurts.
I love winter in the north, but I don’t find it easy. I long for sunshine. For warm air on the skin of my arms. For flowers and green grass and those little breezes that feel like a caress. It is a season for rest, but this means it is also a season for waiting, for desiring, for pressing hard against the blunt edges of everything you dream about but do not yet hold in your arms.
It is a season of emptiness.
True rest means returning to God. But this is not as easy nor as pretty as it sounds. It is often anguish that sends us back.
Back to the source of dreams, back to the source of every good and new thing.
Back to the only One who can renew our hope.
If this room were hanging on the wall of a museum, like a painting, I would call it “After the Celebration.”
The fabric birthday banner is draped over a dining room chair (having fallen, gracefully, from the top of the china cabinet). A pile of gift bags, in shades of pink and purple, is stacked on the floor waiting for a return trip to the third-floor closet. I think there may still be a few candles, slick with the crumbs of a cinnamon-apple cake, hiding beneath the birthday cards lined up across the tabletop.
I am not yet ready to sweep away the remains of this past year or the party with which we ended it. I am following the trail of these crumbs trying to piece together the story of my baby girl’s first year.
I suppose it is more my story than hers. One day she will look at photos from this day and feel utterly disconnected from the beautiful baby in the pink dress. If I can discover the story, the meaning that lurks in a messy pile of remembered odds and ends, I can pass it on to her.
A better gift, I think, than any doll or keepsake book or slice of cake.
I don’t have what it takes (and what does it take? Time? Skill? Dedication?) to pray long or complicated prayers for my children. Instead, I ask for a verse, I write it on an index card, and I pray it just whenever I find myself sitting at my desk.
All year my prayer for this child (my second daughter, my last of four babies) has been less of a prayer and more of a long exhalation of gratitude. I have prayed this: “A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul” (Proverbs 13:19a).
However, this story doesn’t begin with longing. It begins with my determination not to ask or desire. It begins with a hole in my heart where longing should have been.
After the birth of our third, I gave away the baby things. I packed clothes in boxes and mailed them off. I left books at the used-book store. I sold the pricy breast pump on consignment.
This made perfect sense. Having finally earned my PhD, I was embarking on a career that left little space for more babies. I would soon round the corner of my late 30s. But beneath the reasonableness was something much darker: fear.
I had three children, but I had never conceived without doctor visits, invasive tests, medications. Even the surprise of my third pregnancy arrived only after months of tearful prayers.
I had always assumed we’d have another daughter. I sometimes remembered the tiny pink things I had packed away years before, but when I tried to imagine praying for another baby, waiting for another baby, I couldn’t.
Whatever store of desire had fueled my prayers for three children I had used it all up. I was empty, so I gave away every last object that might say hope.
Here, then, is the beginning of the story.
It is the quiet, twilit hour of bedtime. I am sitting at the end of my daughter’s turquoise bedspread. Her face is lost in shadow, but I can hear her voice clearly: “I want a sister.”
I have heard these same words before. I have heard them many times. I think it is exasperation that prompts my reply, but I wonder now if it was my own desperation?
I tell her, “I can’t give you a sister. Only Jesus gives babies. If you want a sister, you have to ask him.”
You might think this memory became meaningful only in hindsight. But that is not the truth. I knew something had happened as soon as the words left my mouth. It felt as if a boulder had shifted. Where there had been nothing within me but irritation there was something new.
Was it desire? Was it hope? I’m not sure I can name it, but it felt like this: pain.
My daughter prayed, and here is where hindsight does color this memory. Looking back, I really cannot say whether it was her prayer being offered or my own.
“I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him.”
I Samuel 1:27
*first photo by Kelli Campbell, second photo by Christie Purifoy