The Last Choice

“Blake and Du –“

I stopped, took a breath, tried again. “Blake! Do you want some food?”

Big Blake, our muscular English Labrador, bounded down the stairs to breakfast. As he did, I realized once again how hard this was going to be.

Duchess the Wonder Dog wasn’t there. She wasn’t going to be. Not in this world.

Strange how a small dog can leave such a big hole.

We had her for one more Christmas, the gift that Heather and I really wanted most, curious and loving and even cunning enough to steal part of Blake’s Christmas bone. But the cancer became too much. Piece by piece it was stealing her. Stairs had become terrifying for her, requiring us to lift her and hold her close. Her legs needed more and more help simply to stand. She’d lost any interest in dog food, though she still dived into people food with gusto.

Finally, 41 days after her diagnosis, it became time. Time for the kindest, hardest choice of all. Heather had already cried all her tears and held her close, comforting and reassuring. My own face grew wetter and wetter as I stroked and patted Duchess’s fur,  a stream of thank-yous and I-love-yous falling from my mouth.

We both had to be there. There was no question about that. We had been at her side since she was a three-year-old rescue dog and we weren’t going to leave now.

The time came. The eyes closed. The hearts broke.

I’ve never had to make this choice before.

Nearly 14 years old. That’s a long time for any dog. Too short for any heart.

But long enough to fill our hearts with memories.

There was our first meeting in Wichita when she was still timid and fearful from a little-known past. We greeted her, welcomed her, loaded her in the car – and 20 minutes later, our car was hit by a driver turning left against the light. I lifted a frozen Duchess to get her out of the busy intersection and she bit my arms in panic, the first and only time she would ever do so.

I still carry those faint marks on each arm. A memory made tangible.

The years since then could fill a book. They’ve certainly filled a lot of columns. Even in her most timid days, she loved children, letting them climb all over her. Our Kansas dog rejoiced to discover Colorado mountains, roaming far and wide until called close again by Heather’s voice. She charged through any fresh snowfall with glee, spinning through the back yard like a furry tornado, driving her snout deep into the whiteness until she earned the nickname “Snownose.”

Her timidity muted over the years – calmed by love, time, and pizza – but never entirely went away. (Right after a move, we learned that Duchess’s anxiety could become powerful enough to claw through a bedroom door.) But she had her own courage and awareness. A neighbor’s dog that jumped the fence and began barking at Heather soon found a black-and-white growling guardian in front of her. Our disabled ward Missy found that Duchess treated her with loving care … even if the cute doggy didn’t always linger long enough for a pat. A young friend of Missy’s named Hunter declared at a softball game that Duchess’s middle name was Hunter, too – and from that moment, it was.

On and on the stories go. Written in love, held by memory.

That same love made the choice to end her pain necessary … and darned near impossible.

How do you say good-bye to a hello that has lasted so long?

Maybe we never really do.

Maybe that’s how you know you loved and were loved.

My last photo of her was taken a few hours before the end. She had just wolfed down a Wendy’s cheeseburger, a gift that brought joy and excitement with it. As she licked up her lips and looked up with a smile, she seemed – just for a moment – to have become a puppy again. To shed the years and the pain and simply be Duchess.

A final gift. A welcome one.

Thank you, my good girl. Thank you so much.

You may never know it, but you rescued us, too.

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Dress Rehearsal

One of the best parts of being married to an actor, Heather sometimes says, is that both of us know what it’s like to endure makeup and hose.

Now we can add heels to the list, too.

No, this isn’t a “coming out” column. It’s just fair warning that I’m in another farce with the Longmont Theatre Company and that the show, “Leading Ladies,” requires me to disguise myself as a woman for at least half my time on stage.  What could be more normal than that?

Mind you, “normal” and “farce” don’t exactly belong in the same sentence. After all, this is the comedy of decisions made with high speed and little judgment, where gags fly fast and the actors fly faster, and where everything ultimately descends into complete madness … only to somehow rebuild itself into some semblance of order and justice with five minutes to go.

Compared to that, rocketing across the stage in a wig and heels IS perfectly normal – at least, by the laws of the comic universe.

If I sound a little too familiar with all this – well, yes and no. It’s been about 25 years since I played a man playing a woman, rendering a deliberately clumsy rendition of Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with tresses like a windblown haystack and a voice like an off-key piccolo.  (How high? Let’s just say that the applause probably included commentary from every dog within three blocks.)

Farce, on the other hand, is an old friend. From Neil Simon to Woody Allen, and from “Noises Off” to the offerings of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, something in me seems to respond to a riotous state of utter chaos and confusion.

Yes, yes, I used to be a newspaper reporter. Besides that.

Actually, the more I think about it (and thinking about farce is dangerous), the more sense it makes. In many ways, this sort of high-powered ridiculousness is the best life lesson of all.

Farce always has a layer of pretense. The motives are straightforward, but the methods never are. Need to impress a girl even though you’re bottom rung at the embassy? Make like you’re the top dog, despite a complete lack of diplomatic skill. The host of your party has keeled over five minutes before the other guests arrive? Weave together a “reasonable explanation” that changes every time someone new comes over.

Gee, this already sounds like the last election, doesn’t it?

Why pretend? Fear, mostly. Fear of getting embarrassed, fear of getting arrested, fear of getting booed off the stage. The personal stakes are high, and the fear of what might happen, could happen, surely will happen, terrifies people into becoming something they’re not.

And then something happens. Actually, a lot of somethings happen. Excuses start to be torn away. Disguises start to fall apart. And in the process of it all, the pretender usually discovers something true in himself or herself – something that will let them get what they really want, if they can just get past all the fantasies they’ve created.

Fear. Self-discovery. Overcoming past mistakes of our own making, and growing from it.  If that’s not relevant to most of us today, what is?  (The fact that it’s bundled into a package of slamming doors and hilariously awkward situations is just a bonus.)

Intrigued? Come on down to the theatre on the weekend of Jan. 13 or Jan. 20 and we’ll give you a crash course. (Details of “Leading Ladies” are online at www.longmonttheatre.org.) If nothing else, you’ll get the chance to see if Scott can really run in high heels without twisting his ankle.

It’ll be a riot. And a total drag.

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A Thirty-Year Gift

Star Wars grabbed hold of me at an early age.

I had the action figures in the Darth Vader carrying case, including a Han Solo whose hand went into the pencil sharpener, courtesy of my sister. I knew the movie dialogue, read the comic books, and reinvented the world around me in terms of a galaxy far, far away. Swings became X-wing fighters, blizzards turned the backyard into the ice world of Hoth, and even “A Christmas Carol” was seemingly improved when my best friend and I put Han in the role of Scrooge.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. But we had a lot of company. The story was thrilling and the characters were so much fun to be with. The wide-eyed Luke. The wise-cracking Han. And of course, the gutsy and determined Princess Leia.

And now the Princess has left the stage.

There’s been a lot written about Carrie Fisher since she died at 60 from a heart attack. She had that kind of life. People have talked about how they drew inspiration from her far-from-helpless Leia, or hope from her open acknowledgement of mental illness. They’ve talked about her rough-edged humor, her career as a Hollywood script doctor, even her dog.

The one thing I haven’t seen so much on is how close we came to losing so much of it.

It happened in 1985. After filming a role in Hannah and her Sisters, Fisher almost died from a drug overdose. She was rushed to a hospital in time and it afterward became a turning point for her life and career, beginning with “Postcards From the Edge” and going on to so much more.

A slightly slower ambulance might have meant a headline of “Carrie Fisher Dead at 29.”

That makes one pause.

Yes, age 60 is too soon to leave the world these days. But given what could have happened, we should count ourselves lucky. Time is a precious gift, and the world got 30 more years with her that it might not have had – years in which so many of us really got to know her, and in which she really got to know herself.

It doesn’t take celebrity to appreciate that.

None of us are promised one more day. When we leave a friend, it might be the last time. When we put off a dream, there might not be a later chance. Life can be an amazing story, but there’s no theme music to warn you when the credits are about to roll.

We avoid thinking about it most of the time. Life is busy and the implications are uncomfortable. A cartoon I saw once on a college door read something like “Bob lived every day as though it were his last” – and naturally, what it showed was Bob running around, screaming “I’m gonna die! Im gonna die!”

But turning away doesn’t make it less real.

It shouldn’t make us live in dread. But it should make us live.

Be aware of the world instead of sleepwalking through it. Make the choices, take the action, do the things that will make you and it better. Reach for people and lift each other up.

When I leave the house, my last words to Heather and Missy are almost always “love you” – just in case. It’s a small thing, but a big meaning.

None of us get guarantees. Not even gutsy space princesses. But what we do with what we get can mean the galaxy to someone.

And that kind of bond is a powerful Force indeed.

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Dropping the Ball

A couple of years ago, on a frozen New Year’s Eve, I watched as a brilliantly lit Hippity Hop ball descended to Earth.

It could have been a budget remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still, minus Keanu Reeves. (See, we’re ahead of the game already!) But this idea sprang from the minds of two good friends who, long ago, made this their own Dick Clark-style tradition. Simply gather the neighborhood for a party. Wrap a perfectly good hopper ball – the kind that are about two feet around with a handle on top – in Christmas lights. Then hoist it into a tree and lower it as the crowd counts down to midnight.

They’ll be the first to tell you it’s weird. Maybe even bizarre. And why not?

After all, when it comes to the New Year, we can use all the joy and laughter we can get.

It’s a strange holiday, to start with. It doesn’t commemorate any notable people or great events – just the passing of an arbitrary line. And it’s an oddly placed line to boot, celebrating the birth of a fresh new year in the cold and darkness.

Maybe Baby New Year is a cat burglar?

Not that it really matters. Even though the holiday’s officially about welcoming the new year in, most of the enthusiasm is usually about throwing the old year out. That seems to have reached a pitch this year, when Old Man 2016 might do well to trade in his scythe for a good pair of running shoes to keep ahead of the angry mob – well, everyone except the Cubs fans, maybe.

Zika. Russia. Creepy clowns. Beloved stars dropping left and right. Ugly election seasons with uglier aftermaths. Someone even let the Oakland Raiders start winning again.

Brrrr.

Even if your personal life was stellar, this was a grinder of a year. Add in a few crises (and many of us had more than a few) and it can seem downright intolerable.

Next year has to be better – right?

Well ….

Remember that arbitrary line in the snow? It’s not a magic barrier. All the raw materials of 2017 are contained in 2016; whether we liked it or loathed it, it’s what we have to build on as a foundation.

The good news, of course, is that we can build. We can’t erase what came before. But as a world, we can produce some unexpected changes in the plot.

Step back a moment to 1986. That was the year of the Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl meltdown, the first confirmations of the Iran-Contra scandal. Someone could be excused for calling it a grim year, maybe even a hopeless one for everyone but John Elway.

Three short years later, the Iron Curtain was tearing and the Berlin Wall was falling.

OK, that’s stark and simplistic. Yes, there were good things in 1986 and bad things in 1989 as well. But that’s part of the point – where will we put our attention? Where will we put our mind? Where will we put our hands and our backs?

No, this year won’t miraculously erase 2016 with all its good and bad. But it’s not condemned to be a clone of it, either. The year will need our vigilance, our diligence, our willingness to examine and challenge and call out evil. But it will also need all the joy, beauty, and hope we can bring to it—not as a futile gesture, but as the genuine start to something better.

Maybe it does make sense to put New Year’s in the cold and dark after all. It makes the light all the easier to see.

So if we truly want to see a Happy New Year, let’s get hopping.

Heck – let’s get hippity-hopping.

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Ho, Ho … WHOA!

By now, I should be used to the wacky and the tacky at Christmastime, from beer-can trees to Kris Kringle toilet seat covers. But nothing in a lifetime of holidays prepared me for The Ugly Sweater.

The best thing I can say about The Ugly Sweater is that it’s one-of-a-kind, because the existence of two on the planet would cause me to despair for the human race. To properly envision it, imagine a sweater created with the budget of Donald Trump and the taste of Liberace on a bender, with just a touch of George Lucas for panache.

A-glitter with nearly 25,000 gaudy crystals, it features Santa Claus flying through space on a unicorn, while garishly red-and-green planets gleam in the background. There’s even a faux diamond necklace around the collar – because, you know, if you’ve gone this far, you might as well do it with class, right? The price tag for this little gem? About $30,000.

Hey, who needs a car, anyway?

Yes, it’s real. You can Google dozens of references in a blink as long as you remember not to eat first. And it’s tempting to be just a little outraged at someone spending thirty grand for a sweater that’s too heavy to even wear comfortably. (Yes, of course it comes with a frame!)  But anytime something like this comes to my attention, I usually calm myself with two thoughts:

1) Anyone who would blow $30,000 on Santa Bling Is Coming to Space probably wasn’t about to spend it on widows and orphans as their second choice, anyway.

2) Unicorn Santa and gewgaws like it make a nice lightning rod for people with much wealth and little judgment, relieving them of their cash before it can do some serious damage. Sort of like taking the keys from the inebriated at New Year’s, only with less need for breath mints.

Besides, while it’s easy to laugh – and I did my share, believe me — it is possible to turn the question around.

What have we done with our time and money that could have been better spent elsewhere?

Reality check: I don’t live like a monk and I’m not about to force anyone else to do the same. We all do fun things, frivolous things, even downright bizarre things with our resources at times, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s even part of what makes this world a fun and colorful place to be.

But it’s also never wrong to ask “Have I done all the good I could do?” Maybe we don’t live in golden palaces or have Rudolph the Ruby-Encrusted Reindeer, but many of us have something. Compared to much of the world, we have a lot.

What are we doing with it?

It’s a question that becomes very palpable at this time of year. It’s one that should be more visible at all times.

The writer C.S. Lewis once said that the only safe rule for charity was to give more than we could spare. “If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they were too small,” he wrote. There should be something you would like to do, and can’t, he insisted, because of what you’ve already given.

It can look overwhelming, I agree. But just because we’re not doing everything doesn’t mean we can’t do something.

Is there someone to be helped? A friend, a relative, a stranger not yet met?

Is there a task that needs our skill? A hurt that needs our comfort? A wrong that can be made right, however briefly?

All it takes is a willingness to start. And if each of our littles can equal a lot, that is one dazzling gift, indeed.

Even more dazzling than Santa Claus on a space unicorn.

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The Uninvited Guest

I looked out the window one morning to see Longmont transformed.

White covered the grass, the sidewalk, the driveway – enough to make a Hallmark card, not enough to make a blizzard. It was the sort of landscape that inspired winter thoughts, like “How long til Christmas?” and “Where did I put my snow shovel?”

I smiled. This was what I had been waiting for. This was what I had needed, ever since leaving work the night before, spotting some small specks in the air, and excitedly texting Heather the news: “First Flakes!”

Yes, I’m THAT guy.

I have always loved winter, a childhood preference that was later reinforced by too many years of doing summer Shakespeare in Kansas’s 95-degree heat and 95-percent humidity. And to me, winter has never felt complete without snow. It’s a birthday cake without candles, Star Wars without the Force, a Broncos game without a hint of orange.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s cold. I know it’s wet. I know it can test the limits of vertebrae as backs strain to clear sidewalks or free stuck cars. And I certainly know how Colorado’s first few snow storms turn most drivers into either a tortoise or a Tasmanian devil.

But the child in my heart can’t help cheering.

This is snowflakes flying into the windshield as my sisters and I imagined the car making the jump to light speed.

This is the memory of Dad’s Subaru grinding the few short blocks to pick Grandma up for a Christmas Eve visit.

This is seeing every familiar detail covered and obscured – including my bicycle, left on the back porch overnight and now invisible except for the tip of one handle.

And in a way, this is what it means to wait for Christmas.

My Episcopal and Catholic friends like to remind me that this isn’t Christmas yet. This is Advent, the time of waiting, the time of expectation, the time of odd little calendars that hide a daily chocolate. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

For churches, it’s typically a four-week march to the 25th, with each week emphasizing a different trait: hope, love, peace, joy. Warm qualities for a cold time. And like the old Sesame Street song, one of these things is not like the other.

Hope requires work to be more than optimism. Love requires effort to be more than infatuation. Peace – not just the absence of conflict, but the restoration of how things should be – requires a constant reaching out, understanding, cooperation.

These are winter qualities, the candle against the darkness that grows brighter as more light the flame; the warmth that drives back cold as more huddle together. This is the winter.

But joy? Joy is the snow.

Joy is the one that can surprise you, ambush you, change everything you thought you knew. There’s never quite enough warning before the world suddenly looks different. It comes without invitation, jolting you out of the usual routine and into something new.

And if that isn’t a Front Range snap snowstorm, what is?

It’s not always comfortable, true. But it can make you see the world with new eyes. And if that child inside is still awake, it can be an awful lot of fun.

So bring it on, white Christmas and all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to make sure I’m ready to scrape a few inches of joy off my front walk.

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Holding On

Pets have a way of making the holidays unforgettable.

There was our long-ago cat Twinkle, for example, who discovered the joys of Christmas-tree tinsel. She not only lived, she shared the results in glorious Technicolor behind the television for all the family to see.

There’s our mighty Big Blake, the English Labrador who has spun entire trees like a propeller in his eagerness to charge past them and greet a guest.

And of course, any time Duchess the Wonder Dog has met a new-fallen snow, the result has been somewhere between the Dance of Joy and a high-powered Indy 500 winner.

Well, this time around, Duchess is at the center of another holiday memory – this one a little less high-adrenaline and a little more painful.

This Christmas, Duchess appears to have cancer.

We discovered it by accident. Having the genius of a border collie and the curiosity of a Lab, Duch had figured out long ago how to break into our pedal trash can.  She hadn’t been looking too well after her latest garbage raid, so we brought her into the vet to be looked at.

The tummy upset proved to be none too serious. But while looking at her gut, the doctor happened to notice some nodules in Duchess’s chest. That glance and a follow-up soon brought the M-word – metastasis.

This wasn’t necessarily the end of the road, the first vet hastened to explain. Depending on what an oncologist saw or didn’t see, it could be possible to drive things back, to beat this. Still, the shadow of the word had entered the conversation. And it’s a hard one to evict.

Cancer.

I hate the word. I hate even typing it, like pressing the keys might somehow make it more real. Cancer has already made too many marks on people I love. My Mom survived it. One of my grandmothers didn’t. Nor did Heather’s grandma, or her 40-year-old uncle, or … well, the list is too long. At one name, it would be too long.

I hate the thought that, with one bad turn, every Christmas memory of Duchess might become final.

Even before this, we’d been trying to steel ourselves against that possibility. At 13 years and almost eight months, Duchess has been slowing down. Her step is a little more careful, her hearing not quite so sharp – though all bets are still off when food is involved. Her heart is still as big as ever, but the body that houses it has some miles on it.

But she keeps going. And we get used to that. The mind doesn’t like to acknowledge change and especially painful change. Not until it’s forced to.

Even now, I don’t know if we’re there yet.

It’s not the most comfortable thought for the holidays. But then, none of us is assured a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Sometimes “the most wonderful time of the year” carries pain, or anxiety, or uncertainty. Much as we might wish otherwise, the bad stuff doesn’t take a vacation for the holidays.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to something more.

I refuse to let fear for Duchess’s future poison her present. Whatever the doctors finally say, she’s still our dog, well-loved and cherished by us for over 10 years. Those chances for love aren’t going away yet. And we are going to continue to seize every one of them, whether it’s for one year, or three, or enough to make a canine Methuselah.

We will not let fear drive out joy.

Duchess has amazed us many times over the years. Maybe the Wonder Dog has another miracle left.

But whatever lies ahead, her love is here now.

Powerful.

Unmistakable.

Unforgettable.

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It Came Upon the Small Screen Clear

It’s the simple things that mark the arrival of the holidays at Chez Rochat.
Things like discovering which of our pre-lit tree’s lights have pre-burned out, so that we can have the stimulating mental exercise of finding and untangling our old string.
Or the eternal debate as to whether decorating is better done to the strains of John Denver and a chorus of Muppets, or Alvin and his band of helium-voiced chipmunks. (Making the tally “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!!” versus one “HUUUU-LA HOOOOP!”)
But never is Christmas more surely on the way than when the subsonic tones of  Thurl Ravenscroft begins rumbling from our television speakers.
If you don’t recognize the name, I dare you to read the following words without hearing it in his distinctive voice:
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,
 You really are a heel …”
OK, how many sang along?
Thought so.
In a time when traditions seem to have the lifespan of a Raiders fan on Bronco Sunday, a family’s holiday movie choices are all but unshakeable. I have known people who could do without sleigh bells and snow, but would consider the season incomplete if it passed without just one more viewing of Die Hard. (“Yippie-ki-yay to all, and to all a good night.”)
It’s comforting. Reassuring. Familiar, to the point where if the TV burned out, everyone could quote their film of choice letter-perfect – in between jokes about which Clark W. Griswold light display burned things out this time.
For us, it’s a quartet: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story (yes, the never-ending chronicle of the Red Ryder BB gun) and the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. These old-school classics have dominated the networks, our shelf space, and significant portions of our family’s  gray matter, to the point where we can mentally count down the moments until Ralphie “didn’t say fudge” or the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come rolls through the graveyard on a hidden scooter board. (Hey, special effects are expensive.)
But these four have a lot more in common than their deathless production values. In each case, the story centers around what we think we want versus what we need.
Charlie Brown sets lights  and aluminum trees  against “what Christmas is all about.” Whoville celebrates not the stolen gifts, but the togetherness that lay at their foundation. Mr. Scrooge famously has his priorities shifted in one night, and even Ralphie’s story, the most materialistic of them all, is less about actually getting the coveted BB gun (which – spoiler alert – loses its charm after one accident, anyway) and more about getting a grown-up to actually listen to him for once and take him seriously.
In each case, it’s not about the stuff. It never really was.
OK, maybe it’s a little corny to say it out loud. But at a time when most of us are frantically trying to get through the holiday decathlon, maybe it’s not bad to claim a moment of quiet and think about why we’re doing all this, beyond muscle memory and social expectation.
Is it just about easily-torn paper and misplaced decorations? Does it really come down to whether we can make enough clicks on Amazon before time and money run out?
Or is there something else? Something not just limited to a few weeks in December?
That’s the real gift. And it’s one we’re all going to need going forward.
Though if you still want that hula hoop, I completely understand.

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Lighting Hope

I’d gotten halfway across town when Santa Claus mugged me.

OK, not literally. There’s no need to call the fine folks of the Longmont Police Department and report a jolly old man with a fur hat and a blackjack, making a getaway in a reindeer-powered sleigh with one (red) headlight. The year’s been strange, but not that strange – yet.

No, this time Santa was part of a yard display that seemed to pop out of nowhere, complete with lights and color and holiday cheer. Normal enough for the holiday season. But a bit striking when it’s several days before Thanksgiving.

Missy, of course, was delighted. Our disabled ward eagerly plays Christmas carols in the middle of July. If Longmont were to break out in colored lights immediately after Labor Day, she’d probably break out in cheers that could be heard as far as Lyons – right before insisting on seeing every display, every night.

Not everyone is in her camp, of course. As stores increasingly deck the halls with holiday merchandise right after Halloween, I’ve seen the more-than-occasional post on social media, all of it set to a common theme: “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

I understand it, believe me. When I worked in the now-vanished City Newsstand bookstore, Christmas music and decorations were strictly forbidden until Black Friday. The dire penalties were never explicitly spelled out, but presumably included a lengthy spell on the Naughty list and a stocking full of coal.

But these days, I’m not really bothered by a chorus of “Oh, Early Light.” For a couple of reasons.

First, I figure Thanksgiving can take care of itself. Where other holidays cry out, Thanksgiving is about drawing in. It doesn’t require fireworks or dazzling displays, just a table to share and a spirit of gratitude. Its one garish parade, the Macy’s march, is really more of a start-of-Christmas celebration, with cartoon balloons and forgettable pop ballads mixed in. Thanksgiving doesn’t need to shout. It just needs a space to be.

Secondly, in this year of all years, I’m not about to refuse light and cheer from any source.

It’s been a hard one, with a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty that isn’t over yet. One (out-of-state) friend has had family threatened.  Another found a friend’s car had been covered with hateful graffiti. In so many places, online and off, battle lines have been drawn.

Mind you, election years are often divisive. But this one has taken it to a power of 10, not least because it’s left so many unsure of their future or fearful that they don’t have one. It’s a time when we need to be standing by each other and saying “You will not be forgotten” – as a promise, not a threat.

But threats are in the air.

I’ll say it again – we need each other. Every time we isolate, every time we declare someone unworthy of a place at the table, we weaken the whole family. Every time we turn aside from someone who needs our comfort, our support, our help, we break one more bond and undermine one more foundation of our common life.

If a few lights can remind us that joy drives out hate, I’ll welcome them.

If an early carol or two can send out the call for peace and understanding, I’ll join the chorus.

This isn’t about burying discord under a carpet of tinsel and plastic snowmen. It’s about recognizing the pain and reaching out to heal. It’s about seeing the darkness and driving it back so that we can find each other … and ourselves, as well.

There’s a Christmas carol I’ve quoted in this space before, taken from the despair and hope of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its final verses are worth evoking one more time.

 

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.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

 

May we give that peace to one another and a true Thanksgiving with it.

May that be our proudest decoration.

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The Next Duty

When I lived in Emporia, Kansas, the week of Veterans Day was always one of the highlights of the year. During the week-long celebrations, all of us would be reminded that we owed our veterans three basic things:

1) To care for the veterans we already have.

2) To create as few additional veterans of war and conflict as possible.

3) To take the nation they protected and continue to make it something special.

The first point continues to fuel many a speech and editorial, often with a nod to the needs of the aging VA hospital system. The second remains a common desire for those in and out of uniform, especially after this country spent so many years fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But with Election Day now falling into the rear-view mirror, maybe the final item is worth looking at once more. What kind of America are we building?

I know, we’re all sick to death of campaign speeches. And campaign mailers. And television ads. And telephone surveys that ask for “just a few moments of our time.” (As my old math teachers might have said, “a few” times several calls per day equals “a LOT.”) This isn’t meant to join that particular chorus, and I think all of you might run me out of town if I tried, after dipping me in tar, feathers, and a burning copy of the film from the last Oakland Raiders game.

But the fact is, there’s still a job ahead of us.

True, the most basic job is done. And many of us tend to think of voting as the greatest duty we owe our country, to fill in the bubbles, drop off our ballots, and then either cheer or curse at the results before getting on with our lives.

But it doesn’t stop there. It never did. It’s a necessary first step, but there’s a lot of staircase left to climb.

Yes, we’ve chosen our leaders. Yes, they can make choices that help or hurt a lot of us. But most of what this nation can be is on us.

Do we lift up the weak or chase them from our doorstep?

Do we greet our neighbors with love and acceptance or with jeers and mockery? Do we even know our neighbors when we see them?

Do we carefully watch the steps of those we’ve elected and call them to task when they need reminding? Or do we just hand them the keys and go back to sleep?

Do we look for ways to build, to welcome, to aid, to defend? Or are we more interested in tearing down, in separating, in spurning the unworthy and attacking the strange?

Our answers will do more to define America than any war or legislation ever could.

The Christian songwriter Don Francisco once wrote that God didn’t care about the height of church steeples or the loudness of hymns, but whether the people inside cared for their family, their neighbors, and the rest of the world:

Are you living as a servant to your sisters and your brothers?

Do you make the poor man beg you for a bone?

Do the widow and the orphan cry alone?

I have heard from many people who are afraid of what might happen next, who find their future uncertain. So much of that is in our hands. What we say. What we do. What we’ll tolerate and what we’ll rise up to oppose.

What answer will we give?

The words of the African-American poet Langston Hughes, written more than 80 years ago, still echo:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

American never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!

Today and always, we must build the America our veterans swore to defend.

What America will it be?

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