Branching Out

Pinch, pull, twist. Pinch, pull, twist.

It sounds like the world’s strangest football chant. Or maybe a post-Thanksgiving exercise routine. (“And PULL and TWIST … c’mon, burn off that stuffing!”) Both wrong, although the second one’s close.

Namely, this was the welcoming ceremony for our new Christmas tree. An exercise in focus, patience and tedium second only to being a Colorado Rockies fan.

Perhaps I should explain.

I’ve been part of the Fake Tree Faction since childhood, when my folks decided that cleaning up pine needles (and dealing with pets who found the ones they missed) was not how they wanted to spend a significant fraction of December and January. The plastic pine they purchased – say THAT five times fast! – became part of family legend. That was partly because it also became a family journal, with each of us writing a short note about the year gone by as we unpacked the tree each winter.

So when Heather and I struck out on our own, a false fir was de rigueur. For a while, it became a pre-lit tree, with the noble intention of saving our none-too-good spinal columns from having to twist a strand of lights from top to bottom. But of course, a pre-lit tree has its own distinct evolutionary pattern:

  • Stage 1: “Oh, how beautiful!”
  • Stage 2: “Honey, I think some of the lights are out.”
  • Stage 3: “Honey! I think some of the lights are actually ON!”

After dealing with too many Stage 3 situations, we surrendered and bought an unlit pine this year. One that came with a warning that we’d need to spend some setup time to make it look right.

Boy, were they NOT kidding.

The branches on each level looked like sheaves of wheat or maybe rolled-up newspapers, tightly bunched around a central limb. Transforming it from “greenish hat-rack” to “fully-formed pine” would require shaping each branch – namely, by pinching the tip of a smaller sub-branch, pulling it free of the mass and then twisting it in the direction you wanted it to go.

Pinch, pull, twist. Over and over. For at least 20 to 30 minutes that felt like an entire presidential administration.

Remember what I said about preventing back pain? Don’t.

As so often happens, the result was worth the effort. When fully fluffed out, the tree stood tall and proud, a sentinel of the season. Especially that part of it called hope.

We use that word a lot this time of year without really thinking about what it needs. It’s not the magical expectation that a tree will leap to life from the box as soon as you cut the tape free. It’s knowing where you want to be and then putting in the effort to get there, no matter how frustrating or difficult it may become.

Hope starts with a vision. But it doesn’t end there. Real hope stays for the long haul, motivating and pushing until you cross the finish line. It’s the knowledge that “You can do this!”, not the illusion that “This will be easy to do!”

This season of the year is often about a culmination of hope, a promise that after a long darkness, light still comes. The waiting and endurance are still real. But so is the glimmer that waits at the end, shining in darkened streets.

Remember that. Hold on. Keep the vision alive and work to make it real.

And if your vision includes a simpler way to shape a plastic pine, I’ll be sending you an invitation to visit for the holidays next year.

Fir sure.

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.

All is Calm

The words began 200 years ago. They continue to whisper today.

Silent night, holy night,

All is calm, all is bright …

It’s the quietest of Christmas carols and perhaps the best-loved. Simple and pure, there’s almost no way to do it wrong. Whether it’s being sung by a single voice on a street corner, a massive choir on stage, or an old recording of John Denver and the Muppets, the heart comes through, tender and mild, warm and unforgettable.

As you might guess, I’ve got a soft spot for this one, and not just because it was the first carol I would whisper to myself as a kid after going to bed on Christmas Eve. (When you’re a child at Christmas, you stay awake however you can, and for me, that meant quietly pouring out every verse of every Christmas song and carol I had ever learned.) It’s a song born of need, a simple tune against a troubled moment.

The story that’s often told, though never quite verified, is that Father Joseph Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber to set a poem of his to music for voice and guitar, since the church’s organ was broken and couldn’t be repaired in time for the Christmas Eve mass. What is known is that when Mohr’s poem and Gruber’s tune were created in 1818, they came at a truly dark time for Austria.

Writer Dave Heller of Florida State University notes that just two years before, in 1816, the eruption of Mount Tambora had created the “Year Without a Summer” – plunging temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere caused by the massive amounts of material ejected into the atmosphere, killing crops and herds and kicking off the worst famine of the 19th century. Add to that the devastation of the recently-ended Napoleonic Wars, and Austria – like much of Europe – was in dire straits.

Mohr wrote the poem in the midst of that. Gruber created his music in 1818, when it was still fresh. And somehow, the simple song has endured long after the memory of war and starvation has faded.

In a time of grief, it became a lasting song of joy.

That may seem a strange word to choose. Of all the Advent virtues, “Silent Night” is usually most associated with peace, and that’s not wrong. The notes rock and cradle the listener, a moment of calm in a turbulent world. It doesn’t shout with exultation like “Joy to the World,” or march with purpose like “God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen,” or run a treadmill in your brain until you scream like “The Little Drummer Boy.”

But there’s more to joy than smiles and excitement. Joy isn’t dependent on circumstance. It does what it can with what it has. If what it has is a broken organ, it reaches for a guitar and a voice to create its beauty. If what it has is a land and a world that’s become shell-shocked,  it finds the tools of quiet, comfort and reassurance to lift spirits up.

It can be the bonfire against the sky – but it’s also the candle in the night. The pinpoints of colored light in the cold of winter. The song where no song should be.

And whether it’s 1818 or 2018, it’s still something that gives strength to the wounded spirit. And to a weary world.

We still need that sort of quiet joy. Maybe to face a holiday with an empty chair at the table. Maybe to survive a world still torn by anger and fear. Maybe just to keep it together for one more moment, one more step, when life is tired and at its lowest.

One more time. It’s still there. Even in the darkness.

All is calm. All is bright.

And at the end of a silent night, morning waits on the other side.

Lighting Hope

I’d gotten halfway across town when Santa Claus mugged me.

OK, not literally. There’s no need to call the fine folks of the Longmont Police Department and report a jolly old man with a fur hat and a blackjack, making a getaway in a reindeer-powered sleigh with one (red) headlight. The year’s been strange, but not that strange – yet.

No, this time Santa was part of a yard display that seemed to pop out of nowhere, complete with lights and color and holiday cheer. Normal enough for the holiday season. But a bit striking when it’s several days before Thanksgiving.

Missy, of course, was delighted. Our disabled ward eagerly plays Christmas carols in the middle of July. If Longmont were to break out in colored lights immediately after Labor Day, she’d probably break out in cheers that could be heard as far as Lyons – right before insisting on seeing every display, every night.

Not everyone is in her camp, of course. As stores increasingly deck the halls with holiday merchandise right after Halloween, I’ve seen the more-than-occasional post on social media, all of it set to a common theme: “What happened to Thanksgiving?”

I understand it, believe me. When I worked in the now-vanished City Newsstand bookstore, Christmas music and decorations were strictly forbidden until Black Friday. The dire penalties were never explicitly spelled out, but presumably included a lengthy spell on the Naughty list and a stocking full of coal.

But these days, I’m not really bothered by a chorus of “Oh, Early Light.” For a couple of reasons.

First, I figure Thanksgiving can take care of itself. Where other holidays cry out, Thanksgiving is about drawing in. It doesn’t require fireworks or dazzling displays, just a table to share and a spirit of gratitude. Its one garish parade, the Macy’s march, is really more of a start-of-Christmas celebration, with cartoon balloons and forgettable pop ballads mixed in. Thanksgiving doesn’t need to shout. It just needs a space to be.

Secondly, in this year of all years, I’m not about to refuse light and cheer from any source.

It’s been a hard one, with a lot of fear, anger and uncertainty that isn’t over yet. One (out-of-state) friend has had family threatened.  Another found a friend’s car had been covered with hateful graffiti. In so many places, online and off, battle lines have been drawn.

Mind you, election years are often divisive. But this one has taken it to a power of 10, not least because it’s left so many unsure of their future or fearful that they don’t have one. It’s a time when we need to be standing by each other and saying “You will not be forgotten” – as a promise, not a threat.

But threats are in the air.

I’ll say it again – we need each other. Every time we isolate, every time we declare someone unworthy of a place at the table, we weaken the whole family. Every time we turn aside from someone who needs our comfort, our support, our help, we break one more bond and undermine one more foundation of our common life.

If a few lights can remind us that joy drives out hate, I’ll welcome them.

If an early carol or two can send out the call for peace and understanding, I’ll join the chorus.

This isn’t about burying discord under a carpet of tinsel and plastic snowmen. It’s about recognizing the pain and reaching out to heal. It’s about seeing the darkness and driving it back so that we can find each other … and ourselves, as well.

There’s a Christmas carol I’ve quoted in this space before, taken from the despair and hope of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its final verses are worth evoking one more time.

 

And in despair, I bowed my head,

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,

‘For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,

‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

 

May we give that peace to one another and a true Thanksgiving with it.

May that be our proudest decoration.