Season’s Greetings and Thoughts

Merry Christmas! I sure didn’t think I was going to write a blogpost today, but the brain came alive this morning with some percolating ideas…

Christmas can be a strange day. We know about the amazing pressure and busyness leading up to it: only X more shopping days! What’s on your dinner menu? Did you put up your lights? Is your tree camera-ready? Sometimes it feels like we race through those last couple of weeks or so with barely a minute to call our own, and then suddenly, you wake up and it’s Christmas morning, and everything seems to stop. All the preparation, and now here’s the day itself stretching out in front of you, and it can feel somehow…empty.

For some of us, this is a very tough time of year. We might remember folks who aren’t here to celebrate with us anymore. We might think back on past Christmases, which might not have seemed so perfect at the time, but seen through that backward-looking lens, are full of nostalgia and carry a sense of loss. For me, growing up, Christmas Day itself usually wasn’t the happiest, but the leadup sure was. I remember baking spritz cookies and gingerbread men, hanging foil icicles on the tree, helping my dad set up the electric train and the Dickens Christmas village. I remember A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, carols on the record player (yes, I’m middle-aged 😉 ), and, maybe best of all, the Christmas Eve service at church, with the music of a magnificent choir and the light of hundreds of candles filling a space that echoed like a cathedral. There was beauty and joy, solemnity and peace that seemed to come at no other time of year.

As I said, Christmas Day itself wasn’t the happiest. In our house, there was a definite sense of frantic leadup to an inevitable letdown. We didn’t have much family, and the day could feel lonely. You get up and have breakfast and open your presents and then…what? There are no relatives crowding the house, no bustle to greet people and get a big meal ready for a dozen mouths or more. You know you’re “supposed” to be happy, this is “supposed” to be a day of celebration, but you aren’t feeling it. (And maybe you wonder what’s wrong with you that you aren’t.) You’re just marking the hours until you can quit pretending. I think all of us also have known the feeling of comparing what we actually have to those rosy Norman Rockwell images of the perfect tree, the pile of presents, the laughing kids, the big family around the dinner table. In every store we venture into, and in the car when we turn on the radio, we hear the relentless songs about “the most wonderful time of the year” and whisper to ourselves, “Really?”

For a lot of us, Christmas simply doesn’t look like that. Some of us are alone, by choice or because that’s the way things ended up this year. Some of us have a partner but no kids; some of us don’t have the money to make a big splash; some of us just don’t want to tap into all the craziness that goes with the season. It can be hard to be okay with what we have when society tells us we “should” have something very different.

My husband and I used to have a big get-together with his family every Christmas. After his grandmother passed away a few years ago (at the amazing age of 104!), the different branches of the family separated a bit and got into their own traditions. Christmas for us is now the two of us and our three cats. Today we’ll probably go for a walk and maybe watch a movie. I’m going to cook a chicken in the crockpot and serve it with rice and salad, and strawberry pie for dessert. It’s not a Norman Rockwell Christmas, but it’s ours, and I’m glad we have it.

Last night, we had our Christmas Eve service at the church where I work. When I first started directing the choir at First Presbyterian, six years ago, I wanted to make their Christmas Eve service look like the ones I remembered from the church I grew up in. But First Presbyterian is small and homey, where Bryn Mawr Presbyterian was the afore-mentioned cathedral-style building with a congregation that numbered somewhere around two thousand. It took me a while to realize that, in a smaller church with smaller forces at hand, I wasn’t going to be able to re-create the services I’d loved. It also took me a while to learn that simplicity and friendship can count for as much as formality and display.

But more about last night. Our new pastor delivered a homily in which she talked about how Christmas is a season of suspending disbelief. Everything from the child in the manger to the man on the sleigh seems wildly improbable, but for a little while, we let ourselves take in those so-familiar stories and delight in them. And if we can forget our skepticism about those stories, she said, maybe we can suspend our disbelief about other things. For instance, that such a thing as “peace on earth” could exist. And that we as flawed and uncertain individuals can do good and important work in the world. And that the small things matter and add up to create much bigger things than we can imagine.

I left the service thinking about light. If you’ve followed my blog, you know that 2019 was very far from being my best year; I’m sort of staggering up to the finish line, annoyed about all the time that got eaten by mental health struggles, looking forward to shutting the books on this year and hoping maybe for better things in 2020. I’ve wondered an awful lot about what I might actually have to offer, what kinds of constructive things I can do in a world that seems to need so overwhelmingly much. I’ve thought about how messed up I have felt, and still feel many times a day, and I’ve felt just tired and way out of the energetic and productive mainstream. At this time of year in particular, I know I’m definitely a far cry from those people who do have Norman Rockwell Christmases.

After the service, though, I was thinking about how, yes, maybe I can suspend disbelief for a while. Long enough to believe that I carry a light of my own, and I can do something with it in the world, in the days and years to come.

So whatever your Christmas Day looks like, I invite you to find the light in it, and in yourself. Know that it’s there. Honor it. If you’re like me and tend to find the flaws in what you have and who you are, try to suspend any disbelief you might have in your own power, and honor that too.

As always, thanks for reading. Wishing you a day of peace and beauty, and all good things in the year to come.

Christmas tree 2019
Our tree this year. With cats, smaller is better…





Old into New

Thanks for visiting again! Today’s post (I think) will be short: an apology for the unintended hiatus over the past couple of weeks, and a note about the upcoming (probable) hiatus until the New Year.

I didn’t plan to miss last week’s post, but a pre-Thanksgiving cold has been hanging around, making any extra work a challenge. Now, as we’re going into the extremely active holiday season, I’m expecting my brain to shut down a little over the next couple of weeks.

Can’t believe 2019 is already almost over. I thought that for this short post, I’d mull over the transition between the old and New Years a bit.

To be honest, I’ll be glad to see the end of 2019. It’s been a tough year overall. To begin with, it was a year of saying goodbye. Here, on a personal note, I remember Lee Abbott and Van Reiner, two bright and brave souls whose passing this year has left things a little darker. Lee was an extraordinary writer whose gifts touched the lives of countless students and colleagues. Van was a scientist and one of the warmest and most genuine people I’ve ever known. It was too soon to lose them both.

While I tell myself to remember their light and carry it on in my own life as best I can, sometimes that feels really hard to do. Sharing a link here to Maroon 5’s “Memories,” which has resonated with me a lot over the past few months:



Shifting from the personal to the professional, the past almost-six months have been pretty disappointing. Anxiety has kept me mostly in survival mode since early July, and as I look back on all that time, it feels like far too many weeks that I won’t get back. None of my 2019 goals really came to fruition; I didn’t have the energy to work or hustle the way I needed to. While I know I did the best I could, given how I was feeling, I still don’t like seeing all that blank time in the rearview mirror.

On the other hand, things are getting better. Mornings, especially, have gotten a lot better over the last couple of months. If you’ve dealt with anxiety, you know that mornings can be the absolute worst, because your cortisol levels are high after the night. Sometimes it can be impossible even to sit down for five minutes to eat a bowl of cereal or drink a cup of coffee (and that’s if you don’t swear off coffee for a while, as I did). It’s been good, lately, to sit down and eat breakfast the way I used to, and yes, savor that cup of coffee. The agitation is still there, but it doesn’t run things anymore.

And though the last five-plus months do feel like a professional blank, I also have to see them as a time of growth. My anxiety forced me to look at some big, deep-seated issues I have with the way I feel about myself: the roots of what I’ve always experienced as chronic depression. As I’ve written about before on the blog, I’ve gotten used to depression, but the anxiety of this summer was a real wake-up call. It’s made me see that taking a different view of myself wouldn’t just be helpful: it’s actually necessary if I want to continue to work and do the things I care about. Before this summer, I didn’t know that self-directed shame could explode into something so destructive and inhibiting. I don’t want that to happen again, so I have to work on the shame.

Going into 2020, I want to let go of my disappointment about that big piece of 2019, learn what I can from it, and hopefully come out stronger and more ready than ever to work. Whether you have goals for the New Year, or prefer to take things as they come and focus on the day-to-day, I send you all positive energy and good wishes for the holiday season and the year to come. See you in 2020!