Stuck on the Rox

Opening Day has always been a little special to me. A new baseball season. A fresh start. All the possibilities waiting ….

Wait a second.

How many runs?

Oh, dear.

For those of you who missed the disaster Thursday, you have my envy. An unnamed genius scheduled the Arizona Diamondbacks – holders of the National League pennant – to start the season against our Colorado Rockies, holders of national embarrassment after their first-ever 100-loss season. The results should have been predictable.

They weren’t. If only because no one could have predicted the third inning of our first game.

Fourteen runs. Fourteen runs. For the curious, that’s the highest one-inning total that has been recorded in an Opening Day game since 1900. It’s a baseball Titanic … except the Titanic at least had a chance of avoiding the iceberg.

The season has barely started and we’re already a team of legend.

Now, we’re not the first franchise to ever have an extended stay in the baseball doldrums. Back in junior high school days, I can still remember shaking my head in sympathy for a teacher who was a fan of the Chicago Cubs AND the Boston Red Sox at the same time. Both have since returned to respectability and even to glory within recent memory.

I can already hear the sighs of my fellow fans. Yes, our team still has to take step one: actually trying to get out of the basement. And even that’s not a fair statement. Everyone on the team –  as in, the folks in the gloves and ball caps – probably is doing the best they can with what they’ve got. The trouble starts higher up and we all know it, with an ownership that says it’s tired of losing but has taken few if any steps to address it.

But as our Rox muddle through their Rocky Mountain Low, we can at least take an example and a lesson. Because a lot of us are in the position of the Men in Purple: having to keep going day after day in a tiring situation that seems to have no end.

We all spend some time there. Some practically have long-term leases. And it’s not always clear how to get out.

Time and again, the same answer floats to the surface: not alone.

I keep a music playlist on hand for harder days. One song that keeps leading the pack is “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers, about a ship sunk by a drunken captain, abandoned by an apathetic owner … and raised by a determined crew. One of the final verses is one that I’ve quoted to myself and others many times:

“And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow,

With smiling b******s lying to you everywhere you go,

Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain,

And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again!”

The thing is, the Mary Ellen Carter couldn’t spontaneously rise by itself. It needed the help of the crew who loved it, the ones who had been saved by the ship so many times and who repaid it with their work and dedication.

That’s us.

Asking anyone to haul themselves off the rocks is a cruelty. We need to be there for each other, ready to lift and haul and repair. That’s how we rise again: through community and mutual strength.

None of us are in a position to raise up a baseball team with anything more than cheers (alas). But we can raise up those around us. We can be the love that helps them rise again and accept that love from others.

Set the example. Help it spread. Others will notice.

And if some of those others are in a position to move mountains – or at least Rockies – maybe the next Opening Day will be worth the wait at last.

Rock Doubt

Well, at least we’re not Oakland. 

Small consolation at the best of times, I know. But it’s all I’ve got left to offer. 

If you’re a fellow Colorado Rockies fan, you get it. And if you’re a fellow Colorado Rockies fan, I am so, so sorry. 

One. Hundred. Losses. 

And beyond, naturally. The count stood at 102 when I wrote this and may have added one or two more by the time our final out of the year was recorded on Sunday. But as usual, it’s the big round number that stands out, the mark of infamy that no Rockies team had ever before reached. 

One hundred losses.

We’re not the first team to ever get here, of course. We’re not even the first one this season. The aforementioned Oakland A’s (111 losses at this writing) had a year that almost gave the tragic 1962 Mets a run for their money. Lest anyone forget, that was the year manager Casey Stengel uttered the immortal words “Can’t anybody here play this game?” 

So yeah. We’re not the worst of the worst of the worst.  

Um … yay?

It’s not just the bad season, of course. Everyone gets them eventually. It’s that there have been so many for so long, years where even “mediocre” has seemed like an aspirational goal.  It’s been 16 years since “Rocktober” now. Only four of those have seen winning seasons. The last one – admittedly, one of our best teams since those brief World Series days – was five years ago. 

But even there, it’s not just that it’s happened. It’s how. Get any group of Rockies fans together for longer than ten minutes and you’ll hear the same grumbles. “The owners don’t care. They don’t have to. People keep coming … they could lose every game and still make money.” 

I don’t live in the Monforts’ heads, so I can’t swear to whether that’s true, though I have my theories. (That’s half the fun of being a fan, after all.) But the fact that it’s even credible is toxic. 

After all, it’s a problem that goes beyond baseball. A problem that can be summed up in four words. 

“It’s all about me.” 

It fills the headlines every day. We see it in political showdowns that play poker with people’s lives and well-being. We see it in collisions at every level, where the fears or ambitions of a few can run roughshod over everyone else. During the height of the pandemic, it was an opponent almost as dangerous as the virus itself, when all of us had to remember that our actions affected more than just ourselves.

To be honest, we’re better at that than we give ourselves credit for. Most of us know that we should be looking beyond our own skin, that our neighbors matter. But like a person standing in a doorway, it only takes a few to get in the way of everyone else – not just by what they do or prevent, but by building a feeling of despair that accelerates the cycle. When you start to feel like nothing can be done, you’re less likely to do anything.

Heavy thoughts for something as light as a bad baseball season, I know. But the answer’s the same. Awareness. Hope. Determination. Not to give up, not to wait for things to magically get better, but to act. To remind the self-focused – in the owner’s box or in the nation – that we’re here and we won’t be taken for granted.

Interesting stat – out of all the baseball teams that have lost 100 games, about one in eight had a winning season the next year. Even the “average” mega-loser made their way back to the playoffs in about seven years. Change can happen … once there’s the willingness to do it.

It’s time to play ball. Push hard. And remember, we’re not Oakland.

It’s not much of a battle cry, but it’s a start.   

For Just a Moment

“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the HOPE!”  

– John Cleese, “Clockwise”

Oh, my Colorado Rockies. You do know how to break our hearts, don’t you?

We go through an entire offseason remembering how bad things have been. We grumble at an ownership that sees .500 as a lofty aspiration – even while we know in our heart of hearts that that’s absolutely right.

And then you do it. You go out and win your first two games against a team that played for the National League pennant last year. Not just lucky squeakers, but actual, solid wins.

What’s a fan supposed to do?

I admit it. On Friday night, I was singing a certain score to the tune of “Cleveland Rocks”: “4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX! 4-1 ROX!”

“Don’t fall for the ‘opening days’ of hope,” a friend advised on Facebook. Cynical, but basically sound. Smart, even. After all, the Rockies are past masters of April Love: a beautiful opening month followed by a loud ker-SPLAT.

I pondered it. Considered it. And then rejected it.

“I refuse to let the present be poisoned by the future,” I wrote back. “Especially when it’s this much fun.”

We’re often advised to follow the classic Mel Brooks proverb: “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” It’s good advice. Aspirations should always be high, plans should always account for challenges and disruptions. But somewhere along the line, a lot of us lost the first half of that saying.

It’s so easy to forget how to hope.

Mind you, I’m not talking about tolerating abuse or a dangerous situation. I’m not even talking about waiting for things to magically get better instead of backing up your dreams with action (something the Rockies ownership has been accused of on multiple occasions). As I’ve said before, hope is optimism plus sweat.

This is something simpler. When you have a good thing, even for a moment, why not allow yourself to enjoy it? Even if it’s likely not to last?

Maybe especially then. That’s when it becomes all the more valuable.

It’s easy to get grim. Heaven knows the world gives us enough reason. Sometimes it inspires a drive to sally forth and make things better. Often it just inspires exhaustion from trying to survive one more day.

But when it inspires nothing but despair … that’s when it gets deadly. Because despair is inertia. it allows no joy, no effort, no hope. It expects nothing and then immediately fulfills its own prophecy.

I’m not making light of it. I get it. There are days that crush me under their weight. In a perverse way, I suppose that’s why I reach for joy when I can. It’s a way to take even one step forward, even if it’s at a limp.

And when a moment gives light – even something as trivial as a baseball game – I hold it close. Because we need all the light we can get.

By the time this appears in the paper, the Rockies may have fallen back down to Earth … or still be soaring. Either way, we had the moment, however long it lasted. And that’s something.

So have at it, my Men in Purple. Break my heart one more time.

At least for today, you’ve made it beat a little faster.

An Andy-dote to Dystopia

My tastes in science fiction have gotten extremely Weir-d.

You probably know Andy Weir’s work, even if you don’t recognize his name immediately. It hasn’t been that long since his first novel, “The Martian,” was all over Hollywood. The tale of an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet captured movie audiences as surely as it held readers spellbound with his struggle to survive (while keeping his ability to wisecrack intact, naturally).

Well, now Andy’s back in a big way. His latest book, “Project Hail Mary,” pretty much hijacked me for the night –“Sleep? What’s that?” – and left me with no regrets for the extra caffeine in the morning. It’s hard to say too much without giving everything away, since the story reveals its secrets one layer at a time, but suffice to say that waking up on a spaceship without any memory of who you are or why you’re supposed to be there is one of those situations that makes being a Martian castaway look positively comfortable.

Why do I get so into Weir? Part of it is because he’s a “hard” science fiction writer in an age where that’s less common than it used to be, a teller of tales where science and engineering are both key plot points and useful tools. A friend joked that Andy tricks people into reading textbooks by disguising them as novels, which is more complimentary than it might sound. Put simply, he makes science cool.

But there’s more to it than that. For me, what really makes Andy Weir stand out is that his stories are hopeful.

In an age where dystopia sells, that’s no small thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not interested in cotton-candy visions of the future where life is perfect and everyone has their own jet pack. (Well, maybe the jet pack.) In a world that’s gone through crisis after crisis – biological, ecological, political, social – stories of utopia sound hollow or even a little desperate. The trouble is that most dystopias are just upside-down utopias … which to me, makes them about as interesting.

I’m not alone in this. Isaac Asimov once wrote that the two were flip sides of the same coin: that the chorus of “everything is bad, bad, bad” was just as monotonous as the chorus of “everything is good, good, good.” Stories are about change, while utopias and dystopias are a sign of paralysis. An ideal society has no way to change except for the worse, while a dystopia has frequently lost the ability to change. (Indeed, the few in the genre that I do care for, such as “The Hunger Games,” are stories where the possibility of change and improvement are re-awakened.)

Dystopias have a use as tools – the alarm bell in the night of dangers that await if action isn’t taken. But a steady diet of them steals hope, implanting the idea that there is no action to be taken, simply pain to be endured.

And if that’s truly the case, what’s the point of a warning?

Especially when a story has the power to do so much more.

Stories are an evocation of who we are. They let us struggle with our fears and reach for our dreams. And yes, at their best, they teach hope … not that good stuff will always happen to those who deserve it, but that with work and effort, it’s possible to make things different.

That’s not the same as a guaranteed “happy ever after.” Some heroes fail. Some tales are tragedies. Some victories are won at a cost, for either the people involved or the world around them.  But the struggle is there. The possibility is there. In our stories and in ourselves.

In an often dark time, I’ll take that glimmer of light offered by Weir and others like him. It just may lead somewhere worth going.

And that’s an Andy thing to have.

Digging In

Everyone has their own way of pushing their limits. Some run marathons. Some climb mountains. Some adopt intense exercise routines that would make Captain America gasp for breath.  

Me? Shoveling out a Colorado spring will do just fine, thank you.

I know I’ve got a lot of company here. If you didn’t have a blower, a service or an ally last week, you got to have your own personal encounter with Nature’s own concrete. The sort of wet, dense, heavy stuff that has to be cleared out in layers, testing your spinal column with every scoop.

“GrrrrAAAAA!”

And of course, Colorado’s snow fights back. If you tried to get a jump on the situation last Sunday, you may have had the joy of turning around at the end of a fervent shoveling session to discover your path had been covered over again. Multiple times.

In my case, my brain and heart love snow but my back and knees beg to differ. So with a big storm, I shovel the way some people read “War and Peace” – many short quick bursts rather than one long stretch. (I also have the blessings of helpful neighbors doing their own part and then some, which I’m pretty sure you don’t get with Russian novels.)

It’s tedious. It’s exhausting. More often than not, you feel like you’re making no progress at all. But you keep going because you have to.

That seems to apply to a lot of life, lately.

For some, it’s a year of pandemic existence hitting the mind all at once as a vaccine starts to come into view. So much has been endured, and with a light in the distance the last laps suddenly feel so agonizingly slow.

For some, it’s yet one more shooting in one more city with one more burst of racial hate that shakes the soul with its vehemence. A cycle we seem to keep running like a murderous version of Groundhog Day, a little more fatigued and desperate for each repetition.

For some, it’s not the global but the personal. A stubborn health situation. A broken family relationship. A life that seems to keep pounding the same streets and hitting the same blocked alleys.

Maybe there’s progress, somewhere. Maybe you can even see it, if barely. But it just … seems … oh … so … slow.

You’re not wrong. You’re not crazy.

But you’re not hopeless either.

You’re still in the fight.

And even if it feels like carving Mount Rushmore with a toothpick, every scratch is something. Simply not falling off the mountain is something.

A 10-minute burst against the snow never looks like much. Especially when it keeps coming down. But if we keep finding another 10 minutes … however far apart … things can start to change.

 And when a friend or a neighbor starts to lend their own shovel (or even their blower), that next 10 minutes starts to look more possible.

Sooner or later, snow melts on its own. Most other problems aren’t quite as obliging. But if we persist – if we lend each other the strength to persist – we can make a difference. To ourselves. To our neighbors. Maybe even to the world.

It won’t be easy. It often hurts. But if we pick up the shovel at all, we’re saying it can be done. That even if we can’t do all of it, we can do our piece.

That’s hope.

And that’s an exercise that will make all of us stronger.

Space to Dream

In the midst of a cold and frozen week, a text from Heather sent me out of this world: “perseverance touched down on Mars ok.”

Over the next several minutes, I couldn’t have missed it if I wanted to. Images. News stories. Cartoons. And of course, posts up and down social media, all celebrating the same thing: The Perseverance rover had made a perfect landing on Mars and was already sharing its surroundings with one and all.

A big geeky smile spread across my face. For a moment, the impossibilities of the world didn’t seem to matter.

For just a moment, we were on higher ground.

My friends know that I’ve been a space geek for a long time. In grade school, I devoured books about the solar system and spacecraft, and then watched the moon eagerly with Dad through a Christmas-gift telescope. As I grew up, my heart was broken by Challenger, amazed by comet Hale-Bopp, and utterly overwhelmed by the images from Hubble. Even now, the Great Beyond has never lost its magic and wonder for me, from midday eclipses to fiery black holes.

And every now and then, I’m brought up short when someone says “So what?”

Mind you, it’s a seductive thing to say. After all, here we are, fenced in our homes, waiting for a vaccine to set us free – maybe. Here we are, in the depths of a bitter winter, watching much of Texas go dark in the world. It’s easy to be pulled “down to Earth,” easy to say “Don’t we have more important things to worry about?”

And yet.

For me, there’s always an “And yet.” It goes beyond the obvious, like the spin-off technologies from the space program that make life better on Earth. (Like say, those weather satellites that enable us to prepare for freezes like this.) It even goes beyond the notion that space and Earth are not an either-or, that attending to one does not automatically mean neglecting the other.

For me, it goes down to something deeper. More aspirational.

Moments like this prove that we’re capable of better.

They show that we can look beyond ourselves and our immediate needs to something grander.

They show that our perspective doesn’t have to be limited to our own doorstep.

They show that we can still ignite imagination, reach out with learning, and achieve wonders that once would have seemed impossible.

Most of all, moments like this show that we can hope. That we can dream. That we don’t have to be locked into a perpetual cycle of despair.

Looked at from that angle, the question isn’t “If we can land a vehicle on Mars, why can’t we keep Texas warm?” It instead becomes “If we can land a vehicle on Mars, what else could we possibly do?”

There are real and serious needs here on Earth. Despair won’t beat any of them. But if we face them with diligence, wonder, creativity and hope, we just may find a way forward.

We’re in a time now where even much of our science fiction – a language of dreams – is tied down in dystopic visions of grim survival. If we look out rather than burrow in, if we dare to give our dreams a chance, who knows what we might prove capable of?

Let’s set our hopes high. As high as the stars. And then labor to make them real.

After all, we’ve seen how that can put a world of possibilities in reach.

All it takes is a little Perseverance.

Moment of Truth

Every actor can tell you about the nightmares.

I don’t mean the ones that confine themselves to the world of sleep, like showing up for an audition and discovering it’s opening night, or picking up a script and discovering that all the words have turned into Esperanto.  Dreams like that are part of any high-stress situation – after all, how many of us have had the Final Exam Dream™ years after graduation?

No, these are the nightmares that turn into reality. A set that falls on you from behind. A prop that disintegrates in your hand. A costume that goes missing mid-way through the show. The best ones turn into “war stories” years later, proof that the show must go on. But there’s always the fear of the worst. The one that breaks you.

Long ago, the worst happened to Sir Ian Holm.

That’s when the freeze hit.

It sounds unthinkable now. To be honest, it sounded unthinkable then. When Sir Ian – who passed away Friday at the age of 88– took the stage in 1976 for “The Iceman Cometh,” he was already a respected actor, even a Tony winner. But all at once, the gears locked midway through the show… and one of the worst cases of stage fright on record set in.

“Here I am, supposed to be talking to you … there are you, expecting me to talk,” he remembered telling the audience in his memoirs. He fumbled his way past the actors, off stage, and all the way to the dressing room, where he was found curled in a fetal position unable to return.

That could have been the end.

Actors go to a strange place – an intersection where illusion meets reality, where the personal ties to the universal. It’s a beautiful bridge, but it can be a fragile one. And when it breaks, there’s suddenly nowhere to go but down.

Most of us know the feeling, I think. Even if we’ve never set foot on a stage.

And that’s because most of us have been at a moment where life completely fell apart.

The loved one that was lost.

The perfect health that suddenly wasn’t.

The job that went away.

The world that changed into something unrecognizable.

It may have come without warning or with a “check engine” light that went ignored for years. Either way, it’s devastating, and not just because of the crisis itself. As I’ve said before, we like to believe that we’re in control of life – that we can make plans, anticipate problems, set ourselves up for a good present and a better future.

When we’re reminded of how little control we really have, it hits hard. It’s terrifying.

And the scariest part is facing the question “What next?”

Are we just the circumstances that came before us, breaking when they’re shattered, melting when they’re dissolved? Or is there something more that can emerge and grow?

I’ve had to take that look at myself. Maybe you have, too. It’s not comfortable. But in that place of truth, when we stand stripped of what came before, possibility can be born.

It doesn’t have to be the end. Just an end. And therefore, a beginning as well.

Sir Ian certainly found it so.

It was years before he ever stepped on a stage again. But he rebuilt his bridge on the screen. From “Chariots of Fire” to “The Fifth Element,” from “Alien” to “The Lord of the Rings,” he won over entire generations who had never known him through anything but the movies. And whether he was a determined track coach or the legendary Bilbo Baggins, the truth of who he was and what he had to say shone through.

The freeze didn’t have to be fatal. For him. Or for us.

That’s a dream worth holding on to.

Making the Jump

At age seven, I had no doubt about it. Han Solo was the coolest guy in the universe.

OK, Luke Skywalker was the one I wanted to be – I mean, Jedi powers and a lightsaber, right? But Han didn’t need them. He was the guy who could do anything. Fly through asteroid fields. Talk to Wookiees. Ride into savage blizzards just to save a friend. Heck, he even tried to gun down Darth Vader himself. Sure, it didn’t work, but the man knew an opportunity, right?

But even cool guys have their moments. And one of Han’s has stuck with me down the years.

If you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back (so, most of you), you know exactly what I’m talking about. It was the film’s major running gag. Han and his friends are in a tight spot in the Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Han’s gained a little distance, and is ready to jump to light speed and leave trouble behind … and the hyperdrive fails.

Once. Twice. Even a third time, with a friend at the controls.

“It’s not my fault!”

I may have never had to fast-talk space gangsters, or outshoot stormtroopers, or snatch a princess from the Death Star. But I could surely empathize with that one.

You try. You try. And you try again. And it seems like absolutely nothing happens.

My wife Heather is the master of this. Over the years, she’s endured more chronic illnesses than Jabba the Hutt has bounty hunters. Crohn’s disease. Ankylosing spondylitis. Multiple sclerosis. A host of situations and medications that send my spell-checker screaming for help, or at least extra vowels.

Once in a while, we beat one, like the endometriosis that finally submitted to surgery. And sometimes, we get long quiet spells where life is almost normal. But then there are the other nights.

The ones where the current medicines don’t work. And the alternatives are all on the “allergy list.”

The ones where the “MS fog” is too thick to read a book. Or where the pain and fatigue make even ordinary task into Olympian ones.

The ones where you’re doing everything the doctors have said, everything your friends have suggested, everything you can think of yourself – and nothing seems to change.

Oh, yes. We’ve been there.

Most of us have.

Not necessarily with chronic illness. But we’ve all had the situation that refused to yield. Professional frustration. Personal grief. A family situation that seems implacable. Whatever it is, it leaves you running in place, wondering if progress is possible. Wondering if progress even exists. As Shel Silverstein put it, in his dark take on The Little Engine That Could, “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain’t enough!”

Funny enough, George Lucas himself had his own story there. He described his first six years in the film business as “hopeless.” His father had wanted him to go into office supplies instead, and for a little while, George may have been wondering if he was right.

“There are a lot of times where you sit and say ‘Why am I doing this? I’ll never make it,’” he said in an interview. “I’d borrowed money from my parents. I’d borrowed money from friends. It didn’t look like I was going to be able to pay anyone back.”

Then came American Graffiti. And a few years later, Star Wars – a film that almost everyone believed would bomb, including Lucas himself, until it spectacularly didn’t.

Stories change. Without warning.

Not without effort. Not without help – even Han needed a hand fixing the hyperdrive. And not with any guarantee.

But surprising things can happen if you give them the chance.

Heather and I have seen it. Not the magic “happy ever after” that leaves you with a gold medal, a space princess, and a three-picture deal. But victories that have let us grab back pieces of normality, and even become caregivers ourselves.

We dared to hope.

And hope, it turns out, can be a pretty impressive Force.

Ho-ho-humbug?

Every year, without fail, the holidays become a time of wonder.

“I wonder where we put the Christmas decorations?”

“I wonder why only half the tree is lighting up?”

“I wonder why Alvin wants a hula hoop anyway?”

You know – the important mysteries of life. The ones that go back to the first Christmas, when magi from the East came bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh because they were the only boxes that could be found in the basement.

But in the cold and the dark, it’s tempting for another undercurrent to start bubbling to the surface.

“I wonder how this season got here so fast.”

“I wonder how we’re going to make it through the month.”

“I wonder why we’re bothering to celebrate this at all.”

It’s easy to go there. Understandable, even. Especially in times when so many people are filled with so much tension for so many reasons. When the dark and the cold start closing in, a string of Christmas lights can feel like a feeble barrier with which to hold them back. What the dickens can anyone do about it all?

What the Dickens indeed.

***

My association with Ebenezer Scrooge goes back to elementary school. In sixth-grade, I played the tight-hearted old skinflint in our school musical, stalking and dancing around a hastily-constructed stage in the gym that shook slightly with every jump and thump. (I’m pretty sure cafeteria tables were involved somewhere.) It was a gleefully wonderful way to celebrate the season, to share in an audience’s laughter and applause, and of course, to learn just how long it takes to wash white shoe polish out of your hair when the show is over.

I saw a lot of old Mr. Scrooge after that. Who didn’t? After all, he’s a Christmas villain without peer (sorry, Mr. Grinch) whose story has been told and retold and recycled and transformed. Some great actors have plunged their teeth into the role. Alastair Sims. Michael Caine. Albert Finney. Mr. Magoo.

Of all of them, though, my favorite remains George C. Scott. His Scrooge never ranted, rarely sneered, didn’t flourish or posture like a comic-book supervillain. He was quiet. Even understated. There was no doubt there was steel beneath the surface, and you could feel the chill, but he didn’t have to raise his voice to make it known.

With a few quiet words, we could all identify with him. With a man who had been hurt and then scabbed over the wound, who pulled back from a time of year that seemed to mostly bring pain and expense without any recompense for either.

“What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?

Many of us are there. Even if we’re not quite ready to see every wisher of “Merry Christmas” boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.

But the reason the story endures – maybe one of the reasons we endure – is that it doesn’t stop there. It gets Scrooge to look beyond himself. He’s shown the people that once meant something to him. He sees the people he can help now. He even gets a glimpse of how much that help, or its absence, could mean after he’s gone.

Yes, he goes out and buys a goose, and joins his nephew’s Christmas party, and gives Bob Cratchit a raise, and all that. But those are just outward symptoms. The real change is that he’s acknowledged he’s not alone, that other people matter. The bills are still there and always will be (even if he’s better able to meet them than most), but there are still other people he can reach out to, and give joy to, and draw joy from.

That’s the heart of the story. And the season. And a little something extra to draw on when the world seems dark.

We do not have to stand alone. We can share our fears. Share our joys. And be a little stronger for it.

And isn’t that a wonder?

Hands of Hope

There’s an exhaustion that threatens to border on despair. I think a lot of us are there now. I know I am.

I’m tired of this.

What else can you be when you see the same situations play themselves out over and over again? New shooters. New victims. New settings, from Colorado Springs to San Bernardino. And exactly the same results.

I’m tired of our communities becoming a roll call of blood.

I’m tied of the wait to learn a killer’s name, tired of the endless gabble and chatter and theorizing when it’s revealed.

I’m tired of the argument that’s become ritual, as we raise the points we know so well. Guns. Mental illness. Terrorism. Rights. Needs. Like a tae kwon do training pattern, we pose and shake the skies, only to end up right back where we started.

To have this happen in a sacred season seems a grim joke. And yet it’s the time we need the reminder more than ever.

Now, most of all, we have to have hope.

It sounds kind of insubstantial, doesn’t it? Of all the virtues that get celebrated coming into Christmas, hope may be the most misunderstood. It doesn’t get the full spotlight that basks over love. It’s not directly celebrated in carol after carol like peace or joy. When it comes up in the season at all, it’s a quick mention, almost glancing:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoicing …

Respite in the midst of exhaustion. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

But how?

Let me make one thing clear. This is not optimism. A simple conviction that “Hey, everything’s going to be OK” will burn out fast in the face of everything besieging it. Hope has more than good feelings behind it. Hope is putting your sweat where your dreams are.

Hope is the soldier of World War II who can’t see the end of the conflict, but throws himself into it, convinced that his one life can still make a difference.

Hope is the civil rights worker of the 1950s, for whom the vision of freedom seems impossibly far away, who nonetheless keeps marching and speaking and battling to make it happen a little sooner.

Hope is what keeps the teacher at a classroom. The policeman on a beat. It’s what fuels the best of marriages, the kind that didn’t stop all their energy on the altar but kept pouring it into every passing minute and hour and day.

Hope means work. To paraphrase a favorite writer, once you say that problems can be solved, that better is possible, you have to get off your duff and do something.

That’s what can transform a “weary world.”

Despair is easy. You just sit back, let the world happen, and say “told you so.” Hope can wear you out to the point where it almost breaks you. But it’s also the only thing that gives any of us a fighting chance.

This last year has been a quest for hope in our house. Ever since my wife Heather was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, we’ve had a lot to do. There have been medicines to try, work schedules to balance, a life to somehow keep going in the midst of everything. And it’s tempting to just sit down and shout at the heavens “I CAN’T DO IT!”

Sometimes we do. Everyone needs to retreat sometimes. But eventually we keep going. We have to. Or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hope asks a lot. But it’s the only way to move forward. It’s the only way to move at all.

Are we ready to try it?

It means more than hand-wringing and pained pronouncements. It requires more than a hashtag and a Facebook post. If we’re going to break the cycle of death, we have to be ready to fix our eyes on a goal and shoulder our piece of the work. It may not be monumental. It may seem hopelessly insignificant. But drops become a flood. And a flood can change landscapes.

Will we? Are we ready at last to take up the burden of hope?

I’m tired of what we’ve got.

Let’s wake our world.