Unfinished Tales

It’s barely even March and I am already looking ahead to summer.

This is not normal for me. I’m the person who, when given a choice between the blazing hot and the freezing cold, will take the weather that requires a coat, a scarf, and a chorus of “Walking In a Winter Wonderland.” After all, you can bundle up, but there’s only so far you can peel down. And when you’re looking at the chores ahead, snow melts, but grass grows. Right?

I’m not saying I’m a complete polar bear. Spring is when life wakes up, especially life that wears baseball gloves and purple uniforms and has one chance in a hundred of seeing the World Series this year. Fall is the time of great-smelling grills and gorgeous trees that no rake can ever keep up with.

But summer? Really?

As usual, you can blame my addiction to theater. On March 16, the Longmont Theatre Company opens a two-weekend run of “Leaving Iowa,” a show about the iconic Summer Vacation Family Road Trip. And this time around, I’m playing Dad, which means I get to invoke the Ritual Repeated Parental Warning: “Now settle down back there, or I’m pulling this car over!”

But it’s more than that, really. It’s also a story about family ties over the years. About how your perspective changes when you move from child to adult (and not just by moving into the driver’s seat). And especially about how you always think there’s more time to know someone until there suddenly isn’t.

That last one hits home. No matter what the time of year. But for me, maybe especially now.

***

A few weeks ago, many of you saw my column about the recent passing of our 21-year-old cousin Melanie. I know, because so many of you chose to respond and send your sympathies, whether through the mail, online, or in the newspaper itself. It was gratifying, healing, and even a little overwhelming to see how many people cared.

I appreciate it and I thank all of you. It brought a lot of love and warmth to a season that had suddenly become too cold even for me.

As much as I love winter, it’s become a little haunted for us. Mel left us in January. Last year, so did our long-time canine queen, Duchess the Wonder Dog. Four years ago in February, we said goodbye to Grandma Elsie. A few years before that, it was Melanie’s dad Andy – January again. Story upon story, soul upon soul.

Sometimes we had a lot of warning before the final chapter. Sometimes none at all. Always, afterward, there are the feelings of questions not asked, things not done, stories not told. It happens even when you’re close, and if there’s been any distance at all, it only magnifies the lost opportunities.

I once wrote about a folk song called “Kilkelly, Ireland,” where an Irish father and an immigrant son exchange letters across the Atlantic for 30 years. The father is always asking the son to come home to visit, the son never seems to – and by the time he finally is ready to, Dad has already passed on.

There will always be a Kilkelly moment. There will always be one last thing you meant to do or say, because as people, we never go into moments thinking they’ll be the last one. There will always be something more you wanted them to experience, whether it’s to see a great-grandchild arrive or to enter college and begin life.

Living stories don’t end neatly.

At the same time, as a kind person reminded me, they also don’t truly end.

We are all more than just ourselves. We carry pieces of every person we’ve ever loved, every story that ever intersected with our own. They shaped us, influenced us, colored the way we see the world.

And when they leave, that touch remains. We carry a little of their flame.

Their story goes on.

And so, when I mount the stage in a couple of weeks, I won’t do so alone. In fact, I’ll be carrying quite a crowd.

I just hope there’s room for all of us in the station wagon.

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.

Peace Together

My wife Heather is not a fan of January.

The antipathy goes back to her school days, when January meant not just returning to school, but returning without an escape hatch. She and her classmates faced a long, cold, bleak month without the enchantment of Christmas or the myriad minor holidays of February – indeed, hardly anything to break up the barren landscape of the calendar at all.

With, of course, one significant and recent exception.

I’ve written before that King Day is a curious holiday. It’s one of the few we have that’s dedicated to a person instead of an event. It’s a reminder of a fiery time, placed in the middle of a frozen month. (In many ways, the August anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech might be more appropriate.)

And it’s about the only time, other than Christmas, when we spend a holiday talking about peace.

Please don’t think that I’m just referring to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dedication to nonviolence. That is an important part of his legacy and one that might have even surprised him at the beginning of his career, when armed guards and weapons for self-defense seemed to be an option worth considering. As we know, he finally made a powerful and famous choice to walk a different path, one that still inspires people today.

But that’s not what I mean by peace.

It’s a complicated word, really. A couple of my friends – one a pastor, one an author – like to point to the distinctions between two of the “peace” words, the Latin “pax” and the Hebrew “shalom.” The first, they note, is an end to open hostilities, a basic lack of violence. Under that definition, so long as you do not have war, you have peace, regardless of how resentful or conflicted the setting may be otherwise.

The second is something else. A “shalom” peace is a wholeness, a restoration of balance. Under that definition, peace is what you get when things are restored to the way they were meant to be. It has the broader implications of the English word “harmony,” of differences not clashing, but creating a more beautiful whole.

That’s a much more difficult goal to reach. But also a more embracing one.

One can have the first kind of peace and still have injustice, hatred and fear. In fact, “pax” is often just a breathing space between wars, the sort of thing seen in Germany of the ’20s and ’30s, where peace exists mainly because one side lacks the ability to act on its anger … for now.

The second kind—that’s the kind that echoes through King’s words again and again and again.

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

“We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”

“If you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …”

Not just the absence of wrong. But the presence of right.

That’s worth advocating. And it’s worth remembering. Even in the coldest, bleakest month in the year. Maybe even especially then – when are we more aware of the need for heat, for light, for the warmth of friends and neighbors?

The power to redeem January. Now that’s something.

And if it’s still a little difficult to rise in the darkened mornings and slide back to work or school – well, so be it.

After all, peace is a great dream. But no one ever said it wouldn’t require snow tires.

 

The Smallest Flame

The coldest night I remember came a few years ago, during an outdoor candlelight vigil.

The outer desolation matched the inner feeling. It was about one degree at best, with the wind driving the temperature far, far lower. The sort of night when reporters carry pencils, so that frozen ink won’t stand in the way of a story. The sort of night where the air seems to turn to blue fire on every exposed piece of skin and no one, man or beast, ventures outside unless they had to.

This crowd had to.

There had been a death, of course. One of those car accidents that claims someone far too young far too soon. Now friends and family had gathered on almost no notice to light their small piece of fire and share one more memory, standing together shoulder to shoulder.

Someone started to sing familiar words.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

The melody, still soft, gained strength as others joined in.

Round yon virgin, mother and child,
Holy infant so tender and mild …

And then, united in a whisper-strong moment.

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

And for a moment, the cold didn’t matter at all.

***

I’ve always liked winter the best of any season. There are the occasions for family, of course:  the visits for Thanksgiving, the calls at Christmas, the chance to see and joke and marvel at how “She can’t be starting middle school now! Really?” Add in the lights and decorations, the music, and the snow that can transform an entire landscape — when it doesn’t rearrange your spinal column trying to shovel it — and you have a near-perfect team.

But I have to confess, it’s only recently that I’ve come to appreciate the cold.

Cold is the feared henchman of the winter season: silent, quick, often deadly. It lays siege to you in bed, dogs your steps when you venture outside, rides on a “lazy wind” and cuts straight through you. It doesn’t tolerate the ill-prepared  or the unlucky.

In my mind, it’s always been easier to fight than the broiling heat and humidity of summer since, as I’ve often joked, “You can always put one more layer on, but there are only so many they let you take off before calling the cops.” But that’s like saying it’s easier for a high school football team to play the Detroit Lions than the Denver Broncos — technically true, but you’re still in for a rough time.

I’ve always accepted it as a necessary part of a beautiful season. But there’s a hidden quality that makes it powerful, one glimpsed only in moments.

Cold, like crisis, unites.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it amplifies our best and our worst. We’ve all driven the major roads and seen the anger, impatience and desperation that result from even an inch of snow on the ground. But we’ve seen the better, too. This is the time for the volunteers that search the streets and staff the warming centers for those in need, for neighbors who shovel out neighbors, for crowds that stand just a little closer together to keep warmth from escaping.

Cold unites. It has to. Because no one can stand against it alone.

Severe need brings us together, whether it’s a 30 mph wind of solid ice or an act of unspeakable violence on a beautiful September morning. Maybe it shouldn’t take that much. Maybe we should know better how to join as the family we are, without the crushing power of mutual need.

For now, we are as we are. But winter’s chill serves as an annual reminder than we can be something more.

Maybe it’s not much. Just a candle against the dark. But candles can be enough, when held together. Enough for long enough.

The air is again blue fire as I write this. A warning, and a reminder.

Let there be candlelight.