O ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow…
The past few weeks have been marked by much suffering for those I love. The pain seems overwhelming: a cheating spouse, soul-crushing anxiety, an ex-husband who seems bent on destruction, an out-of-nowhere heart attack, a teen in the struggle of his life with substance abuse, babies who are stuck in the NICU, my own grief over huge life-changes and financial struggles that seem insurmountable. You get it. You might be in the middle of it. Like me, your thoughts are shouting, “How long? How much? Why? Why especially right now?”
I love the holiday season. From November 1 to January 1, like many of yours, our house is filled with decorations, food (and way too much of it, as my waistline is currently showing), family, friends, celebration, and traditions. Along with these external manifestations of the season, there are also the underlying inner emotional expectations of gratitude, wonder, joy, peace, love, hope and generosity, to name just a few. (A quick confession: I like this paragraph more than the first one. I want to live here. I want all good things, happy thoughts.)
The four-week period leading up to Christmas morning is commonly known as Advent. It’s Advent right now. Shauna Niequist says,
“Advent is about waiting, anticipating, yearning. Advent is the question, the pleading and Christmas is the answer to that question, the response to the howl. There are moments in this season when I don’t feel a lot like Christmas, but I do feel a lot like Advent.”
Advent speaks about and grieves broken places that are yet to be healed, questions that have no answer today, and yearning that is unfulfilled. However, Advent ALSO gives a glimpse of hope at the end of a long season of waiting. Advent says there is suffering and it is real, palpable. But Advent ALSO reminds us there is promise of healing, just as real and palpable. Advent says “do NOT skip over the suffering. Do NOT minimize the heartache. Sit in it, acknowledge it, and feel it.” This is not an easy place. I struggle with Advent. I have difficulty sitting with the grief, the waiting, acknowledging and feeling it. I skip right to Christmas morning, the happy place, where the answer is here and salvation has come. As Emily Freeman says, “I rush to joy.”
Skipping right to Christmas does NOT work in the end. Rushing to joy does NOT take away the pain. It does NOT prevent bad things from happening (I was in the ER this past weekend to prove that point…I am fine now). It does NOT bring true healing. Advent might be the better place that brings lost-lasting healing. Advent speaks the deeper truth of heartache and hope, suffering and a savior. Both are needed in this beautiful, messy life of ours.
God seems to do some of His best work during the seasons of “Advent” in our lives, the waiting periods, the not-yet times. Especially if we look for those who will “sit with us in the dark,” when we can’t see the light, those who will venture into the not-so-pretty places with us and remind us that we are not alone, Immanuel is coming and has come and will stay with us for as long as it takes until we can see “Christmas” on the horizon.
We still have more than two weeks until Christmas. Let’s not skip to it. Let’s stay in the not-yet, the place of anticipation. Let’s dive into the questions, the grief, the “howl,” the yearning of both ourselves and those we love. Let’s be okay in the waiting. Christmas will come soon enough. A baby will be here. A Savior will come. What is empty will be filled. Heartache will be healed. Yearning will be fulfilled. What is broken will be repaired. What we’ve lost will be found. But in the meantime, we wait together, not forgetting the howl of our hearts.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
(It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Fourth Verse)
I sit by my fire alone.
It’s strange here.
A year ago, my third-born was bursting through the door, overstuffed college laundry bag in hand, ready for a week of “rest” in the “best bedroom ever,” along with eating the ultimate “Taylor ham and egg on an everything bagel” sandwich every morning of his time with us.
This afternoon, I was driving him to the airport. He is off to see his younger sister 2,726 miles away on the left coast.
A year ago, I was picking up my exhausted college baby girl up at the same airport, joy filling my heart as we chit-chatted on the way back to a house filled with family.
Today, my phone buzzes. “Can you send me Josh’s flight info? Also, can I have the famous jello salad recipe? I’m going to make it for Thursday.” She is headed to buy the ingredients to make her favorite Thanksgiving dish at a grocery store I don’t even know the name of.
A year ago, my oldest fed her baby our family-secret sweet potato casserole in the same booster seat we used for her, surrounded by oohs and aahs from cousins and great-grandparents.
On her commute home from teaching second-graders earlier, she chatters away on the phone. “When do you leave, Mom? I’m hoping to get my grad school papers done on Friday. We are just going to eat out with my mother-in-law on Thursday. I might make the family-secret sweet potato casserole just to have leftovers. ” Her two-year-old babbles in the background, “I want to go that way. I have a raccoon sticker. I see a tractor.”
A year ago, the second child of my heart was on his way home from a land far away, new puppy in tow, ready to cuddle up on his favorite sofa, eat his favorite NJ pizza, and see his favorite friends.
“Just landed in Florida. I hope you have a wonderful week” lights up across my laptop screen on Sunday morning. He’s with his girlfriend spending the holiday with her family. I can’t even tell you what town he is in. Maybe somewhere near Palm Beach. Not sure.
I sit by my fire alone.
It’s strange here.
Feelings bubble to the surface, unlike any I’ve had before. I’m not sure what to make of them.
Thanksgiving has been together for 27 years. The three of us. Then the four of us. Then the five of us. Then the six of us. PLUS, a whole bunch (and I mean a WHOLE BUNCH) of other family and friends and anyone who wanted to join the mayhem.
Pies. Parade. Mashed potatoes. Dog show. Family-secret sweet potato casserole. Puzzles. Turkey. Football. Ham for those who hate turkey. Cousins. Gravy. Games. The famous jello salad. Beer-tasting. Pictures (the one at the top of this website being last year’s).
I sit by my fire alone.
It’s strange here.
No overflowing shopping bags filled with cranberry sauce and giant foil roasting pans. No beds being prepped for guests. No Costco runs for last-minute hors d’oeuvres. Not even one decoration in sight except a pumpkin candle burning slowly behind me.
My husband, away on business, calls in the middle of all the feelings. “You’re alone. How are you?”
“I’m okay.” I say. “I like it in many ways. I am glad for tonight. But I’m glad I will see you soon.”
Tomorrow, I hop on a plane myself to spend a few days with my parents. My man hops on his own plane the next day to join me. I won’t be alone for long.
But right now, this alone thing gives me space. Space to sit with my Savior and sort out this new normal I find myself in.
This new normal filled with sorrow that I am not seeing ANY of my four children. To shed the tears that need to flow.
This new normal filled with thanks that I am seeing my parents, my groom and a grieving childhood friend. To allow a warm smile to curl to my lips.
This new normal filled with bewilderment that this is actually where I find myself on the journey (I think Costco might send a search party). To sit quietly, a questioning “hmmm” filling my thoughts.
This new normal mostly filled with hope that I might have just done this mom thing okay. To embrace the idea that my kids are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing: building lives of their own, going on new-found adventures, loving those they are with and best of all, making family-secret sweet potato casseroles and famous jello salads.
I sit by my fire alone.
It’s strange here.
But it’s really good.
I am grateful.
Here I sit on one of your chairs, spending some much-needed time with you today. What a mess you are, strewn with apples just bought at the farm stand, my purse, books I am reading, an open cereal container, a dirty plate filled with the remains of eggs and toast, my phone, some unpaid bills and a piping hot cup of tea.
You couldn’t be more perfect.
I am so sorry that I am not bringing you with me next week when we move.
You have been such a strong, yet inviting friend to me. Out of everything I am leaving behind, I will miss you most of all.
I will miss choosing you at the furniture shop over 28 years ago, my thoughts of the future with you swirling in my head.
I will miss decorating you for every.single.reason. From apples to pumpkins to snowflakes to birthdays to easter eggs to whatever tickled my fancy.
I will miss babies being pulled up in their high chairs next to you, surrounded by faces of those who love them.
I will miss the spinning lazy Susan in your middle that holds napkins, salt and pepper, the standard balsamic vinaigrette, butter and some spicy seasoning I refuse to try.
I will miss dogs licking up all the crumbs off the floor beneath you.
I will miss spaghetti-faced toddlers “coloring” you with red sauce.
I will miss sheets turning you into a fort for Dad and his little ones.
I will miss the small missing piece on your leaf where one of us dropped something hard and you paid the price.
I will miss your chairs where each one of us sat in our “assigned” places.
I will miss dishes being set on you for large family gatherings where you became the “kid’s table.”
I will miss laughing and crying, listening and talking, whispering and yelling, all of it.
I will miss nails being painted, pumpkins being carved and homework assignments being mostly finished on top of you.
I will miss the dreams shared, the scoldings given, and the “you have to try it” mantra being repeated every single night.
I will miss friends throwing purses on you and coats on your chairs as hearts were shared in another room.
I will miss birthday parties with cupcakes crumbled in your crevices and balloons tied to your chairs.
I will miss Thanksgiving soup being prepared as veggies and turkey were chopped into tiny pieces on your very sturdy, formica (but wood-look) top.
I will miss the way you endured beer-sampling, game-playing and appetizer-eating on all those crazy extended family holidays.
I will miss arguments, raised voices and quieter apologies with you right there in the middle of it all, holding us together.
I will miss how you held Easter baskets, babies, fondue sets, games, legos and gingerbread houses, displaying for everyone to see.
I will miss flowers, invitations and decorations scattered all over you as showers and weddings were being prepped.
I will miss normal family dinners when someone got trouble for poking the person next to them. (NOTE: It was never Dad.)
I will miss how you watched from afar as silly pictures were being taken on the computer only a few feet from you.
I will miss Friday pizza nights when you were sprinkled with paper plates and plastic cups filled with everyone’s favorite drink of choice.
BUT what I will really miss is the way you stayed with me through six kids, four houses, one marriage, lots of hellos, many goodbyes, and all the celebrations and sadness that made up our family. You stayed with me.
How good and precious for me to be alone with you right now, just the two of us, saying our goodbye to each other. Thank you for being with me as tears sneak down my cheek, a lump forms in my throat and I not-so-secretly hate leaving you behind. I couldn’t be more grateful to you. Thank you. Thank you. You have held my heart well.
You have been a mess in the past. You are a mess right now. But you have been perfect. You couldn’t be more perfect.
I will miss you most of all.
“It’s not happy people who are thankful. It is thankful people who are happy.” (Unknown)
Several years ago, our women’s group (we call ourselves the Beautiful Mess, which couldn’t describe us any better) read and walked through one of my all-time favorite books, One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. The author had gone on a mission to find three things a day for one year for which she could find grace and beauty, gifts as she came to call them, and give thanks for them. By the end of the year, she had accumulated over 1,000 of these gifts (for you non-math people, that’s 365 x 3 = 1,095), hence the name of the book.
This began my journey of thanks. Since I am thankful-challenged, I downloaded an app simply called “thankful”, a private gratitude journal. I began to keep track of one thing a day because my phone buzzed every night at 7 pm to remind me and I received one of those red notification circles that forced me to get rid of it. (How many are on your phone as you read this? I have to get rid of them at all costs. It’s my mission in life.) As of today, I am at 385 (and to confess, it’s been about 3 1/2 years, and now it’s your turn to do the math).
This prodded me to take another small step, this time posting one “someone” each day this past November on social media for which I was grateful. It brought me great joy and kept me grounded during the holiday rush and gently reminded me of the people in my life that are true gifts (I can see you right now checking my Timeline to see if you might have been one of them).
My thanksgiving ritual extended beyond November as I started to share a “something” or “someone” each #thankfulthursday on social media. Still not having overcome my thankful-challenged ways, I set a reminder each Thursday at 12 pm to receive another one of those very annoying red circles (yes, I deem them the bane of my existence).
And now here comes the “giant leap for mankind” in my gratitude journey. After all, I do believe the quote above and certainly could use a little more happiness in my life. I hope to send some your way as well.
Now, with no further ado, and what you actually came on the site to read, my week of thanks:
- Headspace App (For those who have the same delightful disorder of anxiety that I do, this has been worth the cost. In fact, last night when I was awake at 3 am, this was a life-saver and a sleep-giver. Whoever you are, you British man with a soothing buttery voice, I could listen to you all day.)
- Clematis in full bloom (This beauty welcomes me every time I open my garage door for three blissful weeks in late May, early June.)
- Our Penguins winning the Stanley Cup (When we were getting married, my father-in-law was our best man. His toast was the following: “The three most important words in any marriage are the following: Pirates, Penguins, Steelers.” This has, I hate to admit, proven to be true. Congrats to Syd the Kid and all the rest. And to my adopted home city of Pittsburgh, PA.)
- Some of the sweetest words ever spoken in our home on Wednesday by my son Josh: “Sure Mom, I can make dinner.” Enough said.
- One of my “fifth children’s” bridal shower and having the privilege of mentoring her and her fiancee on their marriage journey. #marriedtothemax
- Hanging out at Lincoln Center watching my niece make our family look smart by becoming a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. You go Court!
- Lastly, all of you, my readers, my life-giving and hope-sharing readers (you just might be on this list every week).
You know the question I am going to ask today (and every Thursday for the future as we know it). What are you thankful for this week? Can’t wait to read all your comments below. After all, I long for this to be journey we are sharing and the gifts you have received in the past few days matter to me! I would be thrilled to hear them!