Forward With Resolution

I opened our Christmas present from my brother-in-law and his wife … and started to laugh.

“Brad, Rena,” I told them, “you guys have to open our gift now.”

They did – and soon joined the laughter. Somehow, in a fit of holiday inspiration, we’d gotten each other the same board game.

“Good taste!” we agreed.

Somehow, it seems a fitting way to enter the new year.

I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s Eve festivities.  It’s not really my kind of holiday – I don’t drink, I’m not a huge party-goer, I already stay up past midnight, and the whole year-in-review business, while kind of fun, reminds me too much of work.

But the core of it all – and you knew this was coming – are the resolutions.

Those famous, impossible resolutions.

A lot of us make them. Almost none of us keep them. I’ve seen one set of statistics that suggests a 90 percent failure rate; frankly, I suspect that’s on the low side.

We keep doing it, of course. After all, it’s a new year, a turn of the calendar, a roll of Father Time’s odometer. Perfect time for a fresh start, right?

Until it isn’t.

So why do we blow it so badly?

OK, some of it might be the natural collision of willpower with won’t power. But I think there’s something more.

I think we overestimate our foresight.

I’ve known my brother-in-law for 14 years. We’ve got a good idea of each other’s characters, our likes and dislikes, a little bit of personal history. Armed with all that, we still couldn’t predict that we’d wind up with matching gifts.

If I can’t even anticipate that, how the heck do I go about predicting what I’ll most need to do for an entire year?

Like a lot of generals, we fight the last war. At this point last year, I had decided that my main goal was going to be to write for myself a bit more, maybe even get something published. A worthy enough goal, certainly within my abilities.

Since I’m writing it in this column, you can guess what the result was. And I don’t mean a No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

But the thing is, the year was far from wasted.

This was the year of a new home, a new family. This was the year Heather and I became guardians for her young aunt Missy, a role that’s led me to be a combination parent, big brother, and friend.  It’s a year where I got to enjoy the role of “Uncle Scott” to my infant nieces and nephew; a time where I continued to write in the midst of an often topsy-turvy industry; even a time where I got to be part of one of the best shows the Longmont Theatre Company has ever produced (he said modestly).  I celebrated at a relative’s wedding and then cried at her husband’s funeral before the year was out.

Almost none of that could have been anticipated on  Dec. 31, 2010.

It’s said that every general fights the last war. I think we do the same with our lives. We think next year will be last year with minor revisions. Sometimes it’s true. More often, there’s surprises.

And in the face of that, all our resolutions and plans go out the window.

Mind you, it’s not a useless thing to set goals. But the best resolutions are those made every morning, not every year. They’re the ones where you can look at the day ahead, look at the life that faces you, and decide “This will be the best day it can be.” And then do your best to make it so.

A year is a long span. As you cross it, remember that each day is a gift.

And  no one else will unwrap one quite like it.

Sounds Off the Season

When you live with Missy, the holidays start early.

Like, say, April.

You see, Missy has her own particular music tastes. Sometimes they incline to country, sometimes to classic rock, and a great many times, it runs to the Face Vocal Band. But it’s a rare trip with Missy The Great that doesn’t result in her reaching for a Christmas disc at least once.

Adeste fidelis, laeti triumphantes, the Robert Shaw Chorus will belt, just in time for Easter.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Rowlf the Dog and John Denver will croon as school children get out for the summer.

“Gee, I don’t know where I put that Dillard’s Christmas disc,” my wife Heather will tell her right around Independence Day. (Funny how we found it in time for Advent.)

Please don’t get me wrong.  My wife and I are huge fans of holiday music. Well, most holiday music. I do agree with Mom that – except for the Muppet version – “The 12 Days of Christmas” is the December equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Heather will search for earplugs at the first pa-rup-pa-pum-pum of “The Little Drummer Boy.” And while I enjoy playing it, I sympathize with a friend who has heard “The Carol of the Bells” one too many times, to the point where I wrote her an alternative version:

Can’t stand the song,
Playing so long,
Gone round the bend,
When will it end?

What once was sweet,
Now just repeats,
Hearing it tolled,
Gets pretty old …

But for every quickly-dodged “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” there’s a much loved “Silent Night” or “Peace Carol” waiting to greet us. Heck, the John Denver and the Muppets “Christmas Together” album has been mandatory tree-decorating music since I was in grade school. Many sounds of the season are old familiar friends.

It’s just that, before we became guardians of Heather’s young disabled aunt, those friends had never taken out a long-term lease.

You might think that would get wearisome after a while. You’d be right, to a point. But only to a point.

And that point ends where the smile on Missy’s face begins.

It’s funny.  Every year, someone brings up how the spirit of Christmas should survive the whole year round. They don’t mean the lights, the trees and the crowded parking lots, of course, but  the joy, peace and wonder the season was meant to instill.

But even with the best of intentions, it all gets drowned out by January. The humdrum and the everyday take over and we head back to our safe, familiar ruts to set our safe, familiar course for the rest of the year.

Until something happens to shake us out of it. And make us pay attention.

This year, Missy was a rut-shaker in a big way. There’s nothing safe or familiar about taking up a guardianship. You find a lot of surprises, a lot of lessons, a lot of joy in simple things.

It’s like finding “Silent Night” in the middle of baseball season. Unexpected. But still beautiful.

Still capable of re-lighting the spirit.

This year, I think the Nativity spirit really will last. We can see the excitement every morning. We can feel the joy every night.  Even in the hardest times, the peace will endure.

Especially if we remember to expand Missy’s CD collection.

Just a little.

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell Rush

This used to be where the panic would begin.

“Scotty, do you know where the other suitcase is?”

“Hang on, I’m still getting stuff out of the dryer. Did you get that refill called in?”

“Oh, no!”

Christmas chaos, Kansas style.

Now you could say that Heather and I were upholding one of the oldest Christmas traditions of all. I mean, Mary and Joseph not only hit the road for Bethlehem, but they were doing it at a time when everyone else was on the move, too. Throw in highways, cars, and an SUV stuck in the breakdown lane, and you’ve just about got the modern holiday picture.

Of course, our own December odyssey had nothing to do with a decree from Caesar Augustus. Like millions of others, we were heading home – and for seven years, “home” was an eight-and-a-half-hour drive away, from Emporia, Kansas to Longmont.

A lot goes into planning  a drive that long. Especially when you have to account for a dog that has to come with you, a bird that has to stay behind, a wife’s back that has to be accommodated, a dozen medicines that have to go into the bags without forgetting a one ….

What’s that? Presents? We’ll buy those when we hit Longmont. We’re on a schedule, here!

A part of me can still hear this entering the hymn book:

Field and fountain,

Moor and mountain,

Following … oh,crud, did we leave the oven on?

The net result was usually a late arrival in my parents’ driveway, the excitement of the season still in our hearts – somewhere – but the exhaustion of I-70 still in our bodies.  (I’m still not sure how Santa manages 24 hours in a sleigh; his chiropractor must be a rich man indeed.)

Grueling as it was, it had this advantage: you never had any doubts when the Christmas season had arrived. You might be passing through it like Clint Bowyer at Talladega, but those bells had been well and truly jingled by the time you were done.

Now? Now we’ve been back in Colorado for four years. The season comes quieter. Softer. More gradually.

And if in the frenzy, there was a kind of joy, the calm brings with it a touch of peace.

Even in our busiest years, that was always my favorite part of the season – the chance to find a special, even sacred moment, set apart from normal life. “All is calm, all is bright,” as the old song has it.

It’s precious in the midst of chaos. And it’s still valued now. It’s a chance to see the extraordinary behind the ordinary, to keep “normal” from becoming “complacent.”  To not just find the balance, but consciously notice it.

A Kansas pastor of mine once said that peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. It’s when everything is as it should be.

This December, as I look at Heather, at Missy, at all the changes that have come in such a short time, I realize how much is as it should be. And how much more is growing.

And I’m grateful.

There’s still bustle if we truly need it. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of energy as I struggle to wrap the last gift or as we hurtle down the road to my father-in-law’s in Aurora. But the heart of the holiday isn’t in the rush. It never was.

And now, as I think ahead, I’m really looking forward to getting a peace of the action.

Al In The Family

“Is everything OK?” I asked Heather as she talked on the phone.

She shook her head hard. Reaching for a pad of stickies, she scribbled a quick note.

It said simply AL DIED.

I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

Regular readers may remember Al, the man who married our Grandma Marilyn early this year. He was in his 80s, she her 70s; living proof that love can happen at any age.

Now he was gone.

I tried driving on an errand. On the way home, I made at least four wrong turns.

They never even got an anniversary, I kept thinking. They never even got a Christmas together.

It seemed monstrously unfair.

Two people couldn’t have been better suited for each other than Al and Marilyn. She had the energy, he the quiet strength.  She could draw him out; he could calm her down. It had been one of the great pairings, a perfect fit.

I’d gotten to know him some, while they were dating and after they married. Kind smile, easy laugh, a South Dakota gentleman of the old school. We’d lifted furniture together as they moved from her house to his and gave us some of the excess. I’d listened to some of his family stories; he’d listened to an original song of mine on the piano.

I had played at their wedding and thrilled to the joy on both their faces. A love ready to last a lifetime, however long the lifetime might last.

“I’ve been happier this last year than I was for the entire lifetime before it,” Marilyn told me as we talked.

Thinking back on that, in the midst of a painful, confusing day, I realized I’d been wrong.

They had had their Christmas. Every day, they gave themselves to each other, then woke up to find the gift anew.

They had had their anniversary. Every day had been a celebration, a fresh commitment, a resolve to take that first day and make it even stronger.

The calendar on the wall wouldn’t agree. But the calendar in the heart knew it all along.

Less than a year? Yes.

A small piece of eternity? Yes.

Time enough? Never. It never could be on this earth, not if it were half a century.

Timeless enough? From the first hour of the first day.

It’s easy to get drowned in the “nevers.” We never did this. He’ll never hear that. I’ll never get a chance to say this. On and on, in a downward spiral of depression, each turn causing a little more pain than the last.

Or you can reach to that calendar. Remember the warmth. Recall the love. Not “getting over it,” as the crude phrase would have it, but moving with it, refusing to let the pain of now take away the joy of then.

There’s an Al-shaped hole in all our hearts. There probably always will be. But the hole doesn’t have to stay empty. Not if we don’t let it.

Thank you, Al. For everything. And especially for the light you brought to Marilyn’s life.

A November-December marriage may face its winter all too soon.

But it also means that from its start, the holidays have already begun.