Owning the Worst

I’m going to ask my fellow Denver Bronco fans to go to a very dark place for a moment.

Imagine that the recent Super Bowl bus accident was worse. Imagine that Von Miller, our monster with a license to sack, was hurt badly. So badly, in fact, that he was unable to suit up and take the field for Super Bowl 50.

Undaunted, the brothers of the Orange Crush know exactly what they must do. And when game time comes, they stream onto the field – 10 players, ready to go, with a gap where Miller would normally stand.

“We can’t let ourselves be dragged down by this,” they insist. “We have to think positively. If we play as though Von were still here, the rest won’t matter.”

And then of course, they get beaten like a drum. Why? Because you’ve still got 10 men going up against 11. And all the positive thinking in the world won’t change the realities of math.

It sounds obvious. Even a little bit silly.

But when it comes to the world of chronic illness, you’d be amazed how many missing Millers there are.

My wife Heather runs into this every so often online. Her own list of chronic conditions would have medical students fighting for the chance to invite her to show-and-tell. Crohn’s disease. Multiple sclerosis. Ankylosing spondylitis. A couple of others that lengthen the medical file and send spell check screaming for help.

Because of her situation, she visits a lot of patient-oriented online forums and groups. And when someone else wants to talk about their condition or the pain and discomfort it causes, she’ll usually respond, just to help the person see they’re not alone.

Unless, of course, someone else closes off the discussion first by insisting that “we don’t want to dwell on our illness here.” Or that “Focusing on it only gives it power over you.” Or otherwise implies (or states!) that by refusing to acknowledge the illness, you can continue to live your life in spite of it – sort of a medical prosperity gospel.

Few things will infuriate Heather more quickly.

“There’s not a part of my life that hasn’t been touched by this,” she told me recently, after one more clash with the power of positive thinking. “You have this – and it’s OK. You have to work with what you have.”

That’s true of so much more than the medical.

It’s a human thing to try to wish problems away, or to hope that ignoring an issue will eventually resolve it. It’s rarely that easy. You can compensate for it. Work around it. Even maybe come to peace with it. But outright denial not only doesn’t help, it can often make the problem worse. Ever driven a car too long on a flat tire? Or tried to exercise through a minor injury, only to discover what a major one’s like?

Contrary to the popular imagery, chronic illness isn’t a war. Not in the usual sense, anyway, where you can rally the cavalry and sweep the enemy off the field. It’s more like being a civilian during the Blitz, the German bombing of London in World War II. You don’t ignore the bombs. You take shelter when you have to. But you keep on living your life as best you can, making adjustments for what’s been damaged or lost.

It doesn’t mean you drown in your pain or become morbidly obsessed with your condition. But you forge a sort of partnership, taking what you can, planning where you must. Not a life without hope – quite the opposite! – but a life with the awareness and effort that real hope requires.

It’s OK to not be better. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You can own it, and in doing so, deal with it.

Take your best 11 and put ‘em out there. It might not be the team you want. But it’s the one you’ve got.

Play hard.

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The Paws That Refreshes

I’ve referred many times to our younger dog as Big Blake, about 85 pounds of rambunctiousness who’s never met a substance that he didn’t try to eat. He’s lively. He’s fun. He’s carefully watched at meal times.

He also, unknown by me until now, has an alternate identity as Doctor Dog.

No joke.

Case in point: I’ve had four gran mal seizures in my life. Blake has witnessed exactly one. But the other night when I sighed loudly in my sleep, my wife Heather saw him get up and place his head over mine, ready in case I started shaking again.

Feeling sore? I’ve had more than one migraine graced by his sudden presence, where he’ll climb up and plant himself on my legs. He’s done the same for Heather during a bad MS attack. Canine acupressure, applied by an expert.

Bad mood? I defy it to survive when you’re suddenly staring at soulful brown eyes. Or, equally likely, being thumped by a vigorous tail.

Doctor Dog is on the scene. And if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that a loving touch refreshes.

It’s a lesson more of us could be reminded of, frankly.

The author Spider Robinson once wrote about the hugs given and received by another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon. Robinson noted that Sturgeon always graded the hugs he received as either “Letter A’s” or “Number One’s.” After a while, he and the other bystanders realized what Sturgeon was talking about – a Letter A hugger touched at the torso but separated at the waist, like a capital letter A, just leaning in. A Number One hugger gave a full-body hug, top to toe.

Given his own druthers, Sturgeon was a Number One hugger. For him, he told Robinson and the others, all of the senses were just extensions of the sense of touch.

“If you can’t touch with touch,” he said, “you can’t touch with much.”

These days, how much do we touch at all?

Oh, we like. We poke. We friend constantly across a spectrum of social media. But for all our fervent activity, the academics like to point out, most of us don’t generate a lot of cozy friendships.

The most recent study came out of Oxford. In it, Professor Robin Dunbar found that while the typical Facebook user has 150 friends, only 15 were “actual friends” and only five could count as “close friends.” It might just be, Dunbar concluded, that actual friendships needed at least a little face-to-face contact to cement them.

In other words, they need the common touch.

But let’s take a step back. What does face-to-face contact do?

It verifies who you’re talking to.

It grants instant accountability – if you act like a jerk (or like a saint), there can be an immediate reprisal.

And just like with Big Blake cuddling up, there’s a commonality born of proximity. You’re opening yourself up and receiving another who’s chosen to do the same. When all goes well, that can mean comfort and trust and welcome.

But here’s the funny thing. Contrary to the suggestions of Professor Dunbar, that sort of positive touch can happen without ever entering the same room.

In following up on the study, Newsweek talked to a photographer, Tanja Hollander. She visited 600 of her social media connections and found that 95 percent welcomed her in the door instantly. About 75 percent offered her a meal or a place to stay for the night.

That doesn’t really surprise me. I have at least three close friends I’ve never physically met. If I had the chance, mind you, I’d seize it like Von Miller going for a quarterback. But even without ever sharing an atom of space, we all qualify as Number One huggers with each other … we’ve let the other person into our space without holding back, sharing good and bad times alike, being there to comfort and celebrate.

That’s the real measure of a friendship. Whether physical, virtual, or both, the key is the same – be there. Whatever “there” may mean for the space you’re in.

Be the eyes that care. The pressure that comforts. The presence that heals.

Be Doctor Dog.

After all, there’s no better way to build a pack.

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Horton Hears an Owww!

There’s a place in your head where your cranium sits,

And it craniates daily without throwing fits,

But sometime last December, my cranium crashed,

Making thinking as hard as a week-old Who-Hash,

 

There came first a wave,

Pounding hard as it came,

Dimming down all the lights,

Blotting out my own name,

And when the knife-pain came after,

(As knife-pains will do),

I was sure as a Cat with Thing One and Thing Two.

 

“It’s a migraine!” said I, in a voice mighty quiet.

If you don’t know why quiet, I suggest you should try it.

For a migraine’s a headache scaled up just a few,

To the factor of five hundred seventy-two!

 

Had it happened but once, well that might be just life,

But I soon found that daily I met with that knife,

And my doctor said “Hmm,” with that doctorly eye,

“Why not come place your head in this fine MRI.”

 

So it hummed and it thrummed as I lay in the drum,

And I waited to see just what answers would come,

(I also did learn in my lengthy long lying,

I could quote Alice’s Restaurant, without trying!)

 

And my doctor said “Humm,”

And she asked me to come,

To see what transpired in that rumbly drum.

 

And I saw there … a spot.

Really, almost a dot.

In the midst of my brain,

Where a dot should be not.

 

Now a spot can be deadly or nothing at all,

Just a mark of the chalk on your cranium wall,

But as we looked it over, we couldn’t help stewing,

Just what is this dot? What the heck is it doing?

 

 

Is it a lesion? A mark of MS?

A tumor that does who-knows-what-can-we-guess?

Or simply a scar from when really-young Scott

Hit his head? (I’m told that this happened a lot.)

 

I get slightly more anxious

With each passing hour,

I just want to know,

(They say knowledge is power)

As though knowledge would make all my problems go “Poof!”

“Enough with these questions now! Give me some proof!”

 

For we’ve puzzled and puzzed til our puzzlers were sore,

After all, we declare, that’s what puzzlers are for,

It’s hard to admit, faced with puzzling stuff,

We might never know “all” – we might just know “enough.”

 

And if we find something that puts down the pain,

All the waving and stabbing and pounding the brain,

I’ll be happy for now, though I’d still like to view,

Just what kind of dotting that dot likes to do.

 

So we’ll poke and we’ll pry,

Seeing if we can spy,

Things that are so important yet lost to the eye.

 

And if something be seen,

Be it yellow or green,

Or even some new hue, like blue-red-gra-zine,

I’ll tell every fact and I’ll keep you apprised.

(That’s the value of knowing the newspaper guys.)

 

But if you have a spot or a dot of your own,

And you’re longing to see more than doctors have shown,

Take comfort, though comfort may hide far from view.

It can still come to me, it can still come to you.

 

With patience and calm, may we all come to see,

Just “enough” of our needs for a small guarantee,

That somehow our problems may each be turned loose,

Now, farewell – for I’m calling a truce of the Seuss!

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The Power of “Yes”

Any time we grumble at gridlock, I can imagine the surprise of the Founding Fathers.

“A government that does nothing at all? Sounds like heaven, sir!”

OK, that might be a bit too strongly worded. After all, the Constitution was created because the old Articles of Confederation had proved impotent. Several founders (though by no means all) had realized the federal government needed more authority to act if the system was going to function at all.

Still, they were suspicious of a government that did too much. They could remember Townshend Acts, Tea Acts, and all the rest. So the Constitution was drawn with a bias toward inaction. A Congress that wanted to do something could be checked by the President and the courts. A Congress that wanted to do nothing… couldn’t really be forced to do otherwise.

Given that, I wonder what they would have made of the popularity of executive orders.

First, a little mythbusting. There’s nothing new or unconstitutional about executive orders themselves. The practice goes back to George Washington and began accelerating after the Civil War, reaching its peak in the first half of the 20th century. FDR was the most ardent practitioner (of course), but presidents Hoover, Taft, Truman, and Teddy Roosevelt were hardly shy of independent presidential action themselves. If anything, modern presidents are more restrained about using that power than those from Roosevelt to Roosevelt.

But it’s still an uncomfortable power to me.

In a government designed to default to “no,” this is the power of “yes.” In itself, that might not sound like a bad thing. We all know the image – and the reality – of a Congress locked in inertia, seemingly unable to agree on the time of day, much less anything of substance. So when a major debate goes nowhere, such as the debate on national gun control, it can be dangerously appealing to do an end run around the whole logjam.

The trouble is, the use of executive power rarely stops with the things you love.

Many people know that I’m a Tolkien fan. (I promise, this is relevant.) Between the novels and the recent immensely popular films, there are few people who aren’t familiar with the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” and its quest to destroy a magic ring to save the world.

What’s less familiar to the casual fan, though, is the nature of the Ring. It did more than just cause a wielder to turn invisible. In the hands of someone with enough power, it would grant a power of command – the ability to reorder the world exactly the way you wanted it, overriding the wills of others to do so.

That was the power that made the Ring so tempting, even to the righteous. Heroes fell, desiring it, even those wise enough to know better. The wisest – Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel – simply shunned it.

“With that power, I should have power too great and terrible,” the wizard Gandalf says. “And over me, the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. … Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

It’s true that executive orders can and have done good in the past. But they are not guaranteed to do good. What they are guaranteed is to do.

Independent executive action did indeed issue the Emancipation Proclamation. But it also issued the order creating internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Granting freedom, seizing freedom.

The strength and weakness of an executive order is that what one president can do, another can undo. But is that enough of a check? How much can be done in the meantime? How long might something sit before it is undone, by another president, or a dilatory Congress, or the courts?

Democratic friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Donald Trump?

Republican friends: Is this a power you would want in the hands of Hillary Clinton?

All friends: Is this a power you want in the hands of absolutely anybody at absolutely any time? Because right now, that’s how it’s potentially entrusted.

I’m not sure how we wind back the clock. I am sure we need to. However desirable the ends may be – and I’ve liked some of the ends a great deal – the means are far too dangerous. The boundaries are too fuzzy, the power too easy.

With this Ring, what have we wed ourselves to?

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Spoiled Again

By the time this appears in print, I may actually have seen the new “Star Wars.”

I know, I’m just a little late to the party here. By the time I actually walk into a theater and launch into that galaxy far, far away, the rest of my fellow fans will have purchased enough tickets to paper a small moon. (Or is it a space station?) By now, every last detail has been dissected and analyzed, whether it’s the precise dimensions of the new cross-hilt lightsaber or the dents acquired by the Millennium Falcon since its last run in “Return of the Jedi.”

I can’t wait to join the conversation. But I also can’t wait to discover the movie. And that means I’ve been filtering social media like a riverside gold panner, trying to keep from becoming The Man Who Knew Too Much.

One must be careful. The Spoilers are on the prowl.

“Spoiler culture” is a funny thing. In an older time, it was expected that one would know the crucial points of the great stories of the day. Some even spelled out the entire plot in a quick summary right at the start for those who might not otherwise keep up, such as the opening prologue of Romeo and Juliet. (A friend joked that the Shakespearean narrator should begin that speech with the words “Spoiler alert!”)

But something changed in the last century and a half or so. Partly, I think, it was the rise of plots whose dramatic power depended on hiding information until a certain point. Think of Citizen Kane and the need to identify “Rosebud.” Or the plays and novels of Agatha Christie with their hidden twists. Or even the quests of Frodo Baggins or Harry Potter, where the choice that the hero makes is all-important, but it’s not always clear at the start what choice the hero has to make or what the cost may be.

Partly, too, it’s an explosion of novelty and individuality at the same time. The 19th and 20th centuries especially set off an avalanche of stories and plot lines. And while the new mass media could make sure that many of them became community knowledge (is there anyone who doesn’t know how Gone With The Wind goes?), the exact timing would depend on individual choice and budgets and lives. Those who had undergone the shared cultural experience first had an advantage – however temporary – over those who didn’t, and could shape the experience of the “not yets” by what they chose to reveal. (“Don’t tell me the ending!”)

So – you have the spoiler. The information that would reveal a plot’s mysteries and surprises too soon. There’s been a debate over when is “too soon” to put spoiler information out in the open, especially for reviewers: should one wait a week after release? A year? Should the information stay locked away forever, despite all blandishments and temptations?

Some audiences are better at keeping secrets than others – there’s a reason that thrillers like “Deathtrap” retain their power to surprise and startle. And there’s no doubt that some storylines are damaged less than others by a premature revelation. A black-and-white action tale usually has all its cards on the table … and yet, how different is a new viewer’s experience of “The Empire Strikes Back” these days when it’s common knowledge who Darth Vader really is and what he’s after?

Ultimately, it comes down to the individual reader, viewer or listener. It has to. No spoiler law will satisfy everyone or will be perfectly adhered to. Each of us has to decide how much is too much to know, and do what we can to protect our own decision.

And really, isn’t that true with any sort of learning? All the way to the beginning, knowledge has been about choices. What do I need to know? What do I want to know? Sure, some things come in by osmosis (my wife Heather knows any number of movie ‘moments’ that she’s never actually seen), but the best learning is directed learning – making the decisions that will make someone a better student, a better citizen, a better member of society.

Choose well. Choose wisely.

And if you choose to tell me the new Star Wars plot twist before I can get in the theater, then may the Force be with you.

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Looking Forward

This year, I resolve to be irresolute.

OK, I’m being a little bit of a wise guy. But only a little bit. After all, we have the New Year coming up. And next to drinking, partying, and lying about staying up until midnight, the most popular New Year’s activity is the Oh-So-Solemn Resolution.

“This is the year I lose 30 pounds.”

“This year, I’ll finally write that novel.”

“It’s time I learned to play guitar.”

“Aliens are out there, and I’m going to catch them on camera.”

Well, maybe not that last one. But this is Boulder County, so one never knows.

About 45 percent of Americans make at least one New Year’s resolution, a recent study found. About 8 percent actually keep them. I’ve been part of both groups. If I kept every New Year’s resolution I’d ever made, I’d cook like Julia Child, play guitar like Andres Segovia, and have more New York Times bestsellers than Stephen King. (Oddly enough, one of the resolutions I did keep – to lose weight – was a springtime promise, made long after Baby New Year had been put down for a nap.)

In a way, it’s understandable. When a resolution is made because you feel the need to do something, more often than not it gets done. When a resolution gets made because you know it’s the Official Time To Make Resolutions … well, you get a lot of resolutions and not much else. It doesn’t mean they won’t get fulfilled eventually, but without a conscious need, Life Happens.

So, I want to try something a little different as we approach the boundary line of the year. Rather than look forward and make a promise, I want to look back and learn a lesson. When I do that, two things jump to the top of the curriculum:

1) I have no idea what lies ahead.

2) I can’t do it all myself.

Number one may seem too obvious to mention, but 2015 pounded it home in a big way. This was the year I got my first-ever leads at the Longmont Theatre Company, including one in a show I never tried out for. It was the year that Heather first learned she had MS and the year that I first met the power of migraines. We had to work out new rules for life, even as we kept on with what we already had: the wonders of Missy, the wrinkles of a new job, the joys and stress of a family wedding.

And thus – number two. The Ringo Starr lesson: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Maybe the hardest one of all for me to learn, year after year after year. But no less essential for that.

I can’t do it all. I want to. Heaven knows I try to. But until science discovers full-body human cloning and does away with the need for sleep, there’s simply no way that I can be everywhere I’m needed doing everything that needs to be done. As I’ve said here before, I hate not having control – and I know that any of it I think I have is an illusion, subject to revocation without warning.

That means I have to ask. And to accept. And to be grateful. Friends and family and co-workers have all been there at different points to make things happen. I’ve still taken on more than I probably should, partly because I’m stubborn, partly because friends and family and co-workers can’t be everywhere, either. But they’ve been a lot more “everywhere” than I could ever be alone.

So I’ve learned partnership. And pacing. And even just taking care of myself; the hardest thing for any caregiver to learn, really. Vital, though. If your own foundations aren’t solid, how can you support anyone else?

Those aren’t bad lessons to jump into 2016 with. Be ready to be surprised. And don’t meet those surprises alone.

Maybe those are resolutions of a sort. And with a year of learning behind them, maybe they’ll be easier to keep.

But easy or hard, it’s time to turn the page.

Class is back in session.

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Love in a Cold Time

The first serious snowfall of winter always energizes me.

Maybe part of me never stopped being nine years old. That’s how old I was when the Christmas Blizzard of 1982 hit, transforming the world around me with sudden rapidity. A six-block drive to pick up Grandma became an epic journey in my Dad’s crawling Subaru. A bicycle left on the back porch disappeared beneath a carpet of white, except for one tip of one handle. The entire back yard became a frozen world to explore, one that my sisters and I – proper “Star Wars” fans, all – immediately declared to be Hoth from “The Empire Strikes Back.”

In the years since then, I’ve learned about the joys of freeing high-centered cars, salting frozen sidewalks at 6 a.m., and wrenching your spine while shoveling snow. (Snow shovels make a very inadequate cane, by the way.) None of it has deterred me very long from my basic thesis. If anything, it’s deepened the complexity, setting off two overlapping voices in my head:

“It’s wintertime. What a white, beautiful and lovely place the world is.”

“It’s wintertime. What a cold, chill and deadly place the world is.”

The latter cannot be denied. This is a time of year that can freeze people outside or drain them inside, as the dark nights lengthen. It’s a time when we become all too aware of the people who should still be here celebrating with us, when the empty chair takes on a presence of its own and summons more ghosts than a dozen “Christmas Carols.”

Which is why I maintain that this is still the perfect time for a celebration of universal love.

I admit, this may take some explaining.

Almost every belief and tradition turns on the lights this time of year to hold back the cold and the darkness. Whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Yule, or something else, there’s this deep-set need to push back against the encroaching night and create beauty. The light kindled stands all the more bright and lovely by contrast, even without five marching Snoopys, four Santa Nativities, three melting lights, two inflatable turtledoves, and a partridge in a floodlit pear tree – all of them on the same yard.

But anyone can plug lights in a socket and “ooh” at the result. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we also turn our thoughts to tidings of comfort and joy, especially in times when the thermometer would have to be heated to reach two digits.

But it’s all the more fitting that we do. Because this is the time of year when love takes guts.

Love comes easy when the sun is shining and the world is green. The barriers are down. It’s when we relax, when we court, when we find it easiest to visit on the spur of the moment. Why not?

But when it takes an act of will and a thick pair of boots just to make it from the front door to the mailbox … that’s when even the smallest gesture takes on new meaning. The natural instinct is to stay huddled inside in the warmth – and we have to ignore that instinct if we want to be able to help a friend, a neighbor, a stranger freezing on the street.

We expose ourselves every time we do that. But we also spread the warmth to places where it otherwise could not go.

Anyone who lives in Colorado, I think, knows that it’s during the times of extremes that you find out what your neighbors are made of. Flood or drought, wildfire or blowing snow, this is when you see the open-armed charity and almost selfless courage begin to emerge. It’s when a community is tested, to see whether you truly have a community at all or just a bunch of people living together.

This particular test is more predictable than a rising river, more enduring than a blaze in the woods. So what better time to celebrate brotherhood and goodwill? Sure, church scholars talk about how Christ was probably born in the spring or the early fall (to draw from my own faith for a moment), but the story of love coming to a hostile world would still belong in the winter, even if no other tradition had demarcated the territory and lit the darkness.

This is where risky, selfless, muscular love belongs.

And if that love comes with strong vertebrae and a snow shovel – so much the better.

See you in Hoth, everyone. May the season be with you.

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Joy of the Moment

Missy stabs with her finger as the Christmas lights come into view. “Look … Lookit!”

She cranks the volume as high as she can when the Hallelujah Chorus comes on. “Yeah!”

She carts her hand-sized Christmas Bear with her everywhere, often cramming the poor red-and-white toy with glee into spaces it was never meant for, like a CD compartment or her overstuffed purse. It somehow soldiers on, its Santa hat hanging by a thread.

In short, if there were a job opening for Christmas Spirit, our disabled ward would be ahead of the competition by about three reindeer and a jingle bell. And it’s a bit infectious. Turn her loose on A Christmas Carol and not only would Scrooge redeem and Tiny Tim walk, but the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would be leading a chorus of “Feliz Navidad.”

That kind of joy.

That’s a word I don’t use lightly. To be honest, it’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, outside a few seasonal songs. We talk about happiness, we revel in fun. But joy is something deeper, more wonderful, less tied to circumstance. A toothache can steal happiness but joy can live even in the darkest of places.

It’s a quality we badly need now.

You’ve seen the headlines. They’re not the sort to linger over. Appeals to fear. Calls for division. Angry men with angry words about the dangers of a faraway people, too different to be trusted. Some of those angry men wear beards. Some wear three-piece suits.

They build nothing except walls. They give nothing except grief. And too often, people follow in their wake, pulled by the confidence of someone who seems to know where to go, how to get there and who to blame.

It’s a confidence born of arrogance. And it’s really the antithesis of everything that joy stands for.

Because joy, at its roots, is humble.

To truly “get” joy, you have to be able to be astonished. That’s less easy than you think. It means admitting you don’t know everything. It means abandoning cynicism. It means cutting free of past and future and allowing yourself to marvel in the wonders of now.

Maybe that’s why Missy does it especially well.

An outside observer might wonder what she has to be joyful about. Her physical disabilities means she usually takes slow, careful steps through life, balanced on an arm, a wall or a piece of furniture. Her mental disabilities mean that she’s sometimes four, sometimes 14 and sometimes 42 – in particular, able to understand a lot of what’s said to her, but with limited ability to communicate back.

But maybe those challenges have also made her blessings possible. Because she moves through life slowly, even small things can catch her eye. Because she has a “younger” perspective (I hesitate to say more innocent, knowing some of the mischief she’s capable of), those small things can be new over and over again, and acknowledged without any pretense. Patterns and traditions are often a thing of comfort for her, and few times carry more tradition than Christmas.

Put it together and you have someone constantly open to joy, giving it, receiving it and reflecting it.

I’m not suggesting all of us can or should live life exactly as she does. (For one thing, the number of intact Christmas Bears in the world might approach extinction.) But the general lessons remain viable, whatever our situation or level of ability. Take time to truly see what’s around you. Experience the moment as a moment, without the fears of the past or the dread of the future. Share the good you find without hesitation.

It doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna approach, sweeping all the bad stuff into a corner and pretending it’s not there. But over time, it can take away some of the power that bad stuff has. When even simple things can be a source of wonder, it’s harder to hold onto fear and anger. Harder to remain behind walls when you’re always running to the windows. Harder to stand apart when any new person could be a new chance to share the joy you’ve found.

In a world torn down by fear, joy builds.

So go ahead. Look around. See what you find.

The Christmas lights are waiting.

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Hands of Hope

There’s an exhaustion that threatens to border on despair. I think a lot of us are there now. I know I am.

I’m tired of this.

What else can you be when you see the same situations play themselves out over and over again? New shooters. New victims. New settings, from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino. And exactly the same results.

I’m tired of our communities becoming a roll call of blood.

I’m tied of the wait to learn a killer’s name, tired of the endless gabble and chatter and theorizing when it’s revealed.

I’m tired of the argument that’s become ritual, as we raise the points we know so well. Guns. Mental illness. Terrorism. Rights. Needs. Like a tae kwon do training pattern, we pose and shake the skies, only to end up right back where we started.

To have this happen in a sacred season seems a grim joke. And yet it’s the time we need the reminder more than ever.

Now, most of all, we have to have hope.

It sounds kind of insubstantial, doesn’t it? Of all the virtues that get celebrated coming into Christmas, hope may be the most misunderstood. It doesn’t get the full spotlight that basks over love. It’s not directly celebrated in carol after carol like peace or joy. When it comes up in the season at all, it’s a quick mention, almost glancing:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoicing …

Respite in the midst of exhaustion. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But how?

Let me make one thing clear. This is not optimism. A simple conviction that “Hey, everything’s going to be OK” will burn out fast in the face of everything besieging it. Hope has more than good feelings behind it. Hope is putting your sweat where your dreams are.

Hope is the soldier of World War II who can’t see the end of the conflict, but throws himself into it, convinced that his one life can still make a difference.

Hope is the civil rights worker of the 1950s, for whom the vision of freedom seems impossibly far away, who nonetheless keeps marching and speaking and battling to make it happen a little sooner.

Hope is what keeps the teacher at a classroom. The policeman on a beat. It’s what fuels the best of marriages, the kind that didn’t stop all their energy on the altar but kept pouring it into every passing minute and hour and day.

Hope means work. To paraphrase a favorite writer, once you say that problems can be solved, that better is possible, you have to get off your duff and do something.

That’s what can transform a “weary world.”

Despair is easy. You just sit back, let the world happen, and say “told you so.” Hope can wear you out to the point where it almost breaks you. But it’s also the only thing that gives any of us a fighting chance.

This last year has been a quest for hope in our house. Ever since my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we’ve had a lot to do. There have been medicines to try, work schedules to balance, a life to somehow keep going in the midst of everything. And it’s tempting to just sit down and shout at the heavens “I CAN’T DO IT!”

Sometimes we do. Everyone needs to retreat sometimes. But eventually we keep going. We have to. Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hope asks a lot. But it’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to move at all.

Are we ready to try it?

It means more than hand-wringing and pained pronouncements. It requires more than a hashtag and a Facebook post. If we’re going to break the cycle of death, we have to be ready to fix our eyes on a goal and shoulder our piece of the work. It may not be monumental. It may seem hopelessly insignificant. But drops become a flood. And a flood can change landscapes.

Will we? Are we ready at last to take up the burden of hope?

I’m tired of what we’ve got.

Let’s wake our world.

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Picking Up The Peaces

It’s time to enter the deep end.

You know what I mean. The Christmas season. The most full-immersion experience this country offers,  unless you count the marketing for the new Star Wars movie. The wrapping paper and decorations hit the shelves weeks ago. The lights have begun to re-appear, with the music and the online ads not far behind. Soon it’ll even be time for that most communal of American holiday experiences – exchanging profanity and insurance information in a crowded strip mall parking lot.

You gotta admit, it’s a heck of a way to celebrate peace on Earth, good will to men. Or are we?

Pope Francis recently raised that question. Well, actually, he did a bit more than that. In a recent homily, he drew some press attention by calling all the pageantry nothing more than a pretty wrapping over a world at war.

“Christmas is approaching: there will be lights, parties, lighted Christmas trees and manger scenes… it’s all a sham,” he said. “The world continues to go to war. The world has not chosen a peaceful path.”

Strong words.

It’s true that we’re a lot better at singing about peace than pursuing it – one of the Christmas traditions that hasn’t changed over the centuries. It’s a rare Silent Night or Joy to the World that hasn’t echoed over a battlefield somewhere. Our own American history even celebrates Washington crossing the Delaware in time to surprise a Hessian army that had been enjoying the season. (No word on whether they had finished watching “It’s A Wonderful Life.”)

Even on a more personal level, I wonder. At the start of this year, around Martin Luther King Day, I wrote about how “peace” means more than an end to war or violence. At its roots, it means a restoration of balance, a revival of how things should be. A sense that all’s right with the world.

Put it like that, and it becomes even more maddeningly difficult to pursue. Especially at this time of year, when the words “chaos,” “hubbub,” and “stress” would be the adjectives chosen by most people – at least, out of the words that can be printed in a family newspaper.

And yet … I wonder.

It’s easy to forget that this time of year is also a time of centering. Under the bustle remains a call to remember the basics: family, friends, faith. To come together. To see faces long missed and think on memories long absent.

Granted, that can sometimes be painful, too. As the season gets closer, I start to hear Grandma Elsie singing carols with us in the car and telling stories with us in the early-early until Mom and Dad woke up. But maybe that’s a different way of being whole, uniting yesterday with now.

Or, for that matter, with tomorrow. Grandma always said Christmas was for children. The eagerness, the decorations, the sense of being part of something special while following a long-established pattern … given all that, I suppose it’s no wonder that our disabled ward Missy starts to celebrate Christmas in July.

Unite all that and it becomes a place where hope and memory can meet — a place where peace, however fragile, is renewed.

Small? Certainly. But of all the season’s lessons, one of the oldest is that wonderful transformations can begin with the smallest of things.

So here’s to a piece of peace for us all. Here’s to the future those pieces may someday create.

And that’s no sham.

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