The Time Between

Nobody has perfect 20/20 foresight. Not even John Adams. 

Full of excitement at America’s independence, he predicted in a letter that there’d be a great anniversary festival. He saw how future generations would celebrate it with “pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” 

He also predicted it would be on July 2. Whoops. 

To be fair, the world looked very different when Adams wrote home on July 3. The vote to break with Great Britain had been yesterday. The vote to approve the Declaration would be tomorrow. Few people knew what had happened; fewer still could guess what it might mean. 

A moment of transformation. No, make that a moment IN transformation. A change in process, with the past behind and the new present not yet formed. 

Exciting. Terrifying. Uncertain. 

And oh, so familiar. 

The technical term is a “liminal moment,” meaning a moment on the threshold. We experience a lot of them, as individuals and a society. They’re not a comfortable place to be, not least because they hold so many questions from the inside. 

“Am I an adult yet?” 

“Are we in or out of a pandemic – or does that mean anything?” 

“Am I over the threshold or still in between?” 

We don’t like uncertainty, of course. So we try to set boundaries, definitions, signposts. (“Why, you’re an adult when you’re 18. Except for the parts where you’re 21. Other terms and conditions may apply.”) We want to move ahead and get out of the fog, finding our way to firmer ground. 

But please. Don’t rush too fast. 

That time in between has value. 

You can’t live there, of course. But you can make a life from there. It’s a moment of discarding old assumptions and shaping new ideas.  When tomorrow doesn’t have to look just like today with better cars and smaller computers. When we can choose who we are and what we want to become. 

Treasure that. 

Sure, we’ll be wrong about a lot of things. We’re human. It happens. But if we live these moments unafraid to be wrong – aware, adaptable, open to wonder – then even our mistakes can lead somewhere pretty amazing. Maybe even revolutionary. 

So here’s to Mr. Adams and all his heirs. Perhaps, in his honor, we should commemorate July 3 as well. Not the day of decision, nor the day of declaration, but a day of possibilities with all the world open. 

That’s certainly something worth writing home about. 

Lost Treasure

There’s no pile of riches. No treasure map. Certainly no One-Eyed Willie. But shiver me timbers if “The Goonies” didn’t actually have a glimmer of truth to it.

In case you missed the news, National Geographic recently reported that a dozen timbers from a 17th-century Spanish galleon – the Santo Cristo de Burgos – were found off the Oregon coast. That by itself would be pretty cool since the ship had disappeared after leaving the Philippines in 1693.

But the news coverage exploded thanks to a Hollywood connection. Tales of the shipwreck survived among the Native Americans, with later settlers spinning off legends of sunken treasure. Those in turn inspired Steven Spielberg to make “The Goonies,” the 1980s movie about children hunting pirate gold.

Confession time: I’m not a huge Goonies fan, which will probably cost me my “Child of the ‘80s” geek cred. But the connection between a 1690s ship and a 1980s film fascinates me.

You see, in the words of a young Sean Astin, “Goonies never say die!” And apparently, neither do stories.

In a day when so much can be researched, pinned down and verified, it’s easy to forget that stories have a life of their own. They’re strands of memory that defy the line between fact and fiction, often taking a seed of reality and spinning it into something unforgettable.

But as the legends and myths and heroes rise, the piece that started it all becomes a buried treasure:  lost, forgotten, maybe even denied to exist. Was there a British war leader that set the tales of King Arthur in motion? Or a highway robber with a sense of style that kindled later legends of Robin Hood? Even in less time, it’s easy for memory to change to make a better story: the psychologist Ulric Neisser famously told how he remembered hearing of Pearl Harbor attack during a radio baseball game , only to realize decades later that no one plays baseball in December.

So when the treasure of truth suddenly reappears, it’s almost magical. You can start to see how the story began and what grew from it, making both a little more wonderful. It might be the ancient city of Troy, rescued from mythical status by a 19th-century archaeologist. It might be the Santo Cristo, giving reality to a vessel that had long sailed the imagination.

And years, decades, centuries from now … it might even be us.

We live our stories now. Each of us shares and shapes memory, building our perceptions of the world into a personal tale that  explains the world around us. And even in our own lifetimes, we see those stories evolve and collide and change … though we don’t always realize how much they’ve changed until we find ourselves struggling with an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit the narrative.

When our own time has passed, how much more will those stories transform?

It’s a little humbling to consider. And yet, it can be comforting as well. Even if our copious records become lost or meaningless to a far-future generation, something inspired by us may still fire the imagination and grow beyond what we can see.

And maybe, just maybe, some timbers of truth will wash onto the shore.

Or does that sound a little Goonie?

At A Time Like This

It somehow feels wrong to feel normal.

I know. “Normal” exists on the washing machine, not in the world. If the last few years haven’t proved that, I don’t know what will, between pandemics, protests, wildfires and … well, you don’t need the litany from me. We’ve all lived it.

And now we have a war half a world away. Demanding attention. Stirring up its own bizarre mix of feelings.

Part of mine come from old memories – those of my generation and my parents’ – of the old Cold War flare-ups. Like a standoff in a room full of nitroglycerin, you had to wonder if any sudden move would have devastating results.

Part of it is the same helpless feeling I get in the wake of another school shooting, where the alarm keeps going off with no clear way to answer the call.

On top of it all sits the clash, the collision between peril and mundanity. The little voice that whispers  about how frivolous, even silly some of my thoughts and activities are. Maybe you’ve heard it too: “How can you even bother doing (x) at a time like this? Don’t you know what’s going on in the world?”

If so, take heart. You may be doing more than the voice knows.

I’m not advocating a callous denial of reality. The world doesn’t need another Nero fiddling while the world burns, or a Scarlett O’Hara complaining about how war is ruining her social life. It’s not about locking out another’s pain to make yourself feel better.

But we’re complicated beings. We’re capable of attending to more than one thing at a time. And when we turn to something that doesn’t have to do with either a crisis or a day-to-day need, it’s not necessarily because we don’t care.

Many times, it’s a release. One acquaintance of mine dances in times of stress. Others turn to music, or to books, or to a mile-long walk to free the anxiety that has nowhere else to go. Engines can’t run hot all the time, and the soul needs cooling down and maintenance just as much.

Sometimes it even goes beyond that. It becomes transformative, channeling the fear and anxiety and anguished hope into something that lifts up instead of presses down.

One of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien, took this above and beyond. A veteran of World War I, he mingled old battlefield horrors with his love of language and nature to produce a mythology that’s still giving people hope, inspiration and release today.

Naturally, he also had his “times like these “critics – after all, with so many real problems to address, why waste time on fantasy? His pointed response was that “Escape” could be a virtue … except, maybe, in the eyes of jailers.

“Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” Tolkien noted in a lecture. “Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

Regeneration. Transformation. Hope. These become especially vital in hard times – not in denial of them, but to better grapple with and endure them.

Don’t turn away. But don’t fear the ordinary, either. It doesn’t have to be a dereliction of duty. It might even be just the thing to make you readier than ever.

Even in times like these.

Points of Light

It’s Birthday Month at Chez Rochat. And that usually means something special ahead.

First, a point of clarification. We don’t actually celebrate the entire month. That tends to be September, the golden month that seems to have kick-started half of my wife’s family, including Heather, her sister, her late grandfather, one of our nieces and possibly her fairy godmother for all I know. (If anyone’s seen that fairy, by the way, would you mind having her give us a call? I’m pretty sure she’s holding our lottery tickets.)

No, Birthday Month belongs to Missy, the developmentally disabled aunt we care for who’s been the star of many a column here. She’s an October lady, but the date we celebrate tends to jump all over the map. Still, she knows that when we hit this time of year, special things happen.

There’s been the Year of the Pink Bowling Ball, which Missy unwrapped and joyously lifted to the sunlight, both of them glowing like the climax of a fantasy novel.

There was the Bieber Birthday, when Missy’s temporary obsession with a certain Canadian pop star was rewarded with a cardboard stand-up at the party.

And of course, there was the Day of the Dancing, when a certain milestone birthday (never mind which one) turned into a musical marathon. Missy spent 98% of it on the dance floor, while the rest of us just tried to keep up with her.

Some years have been quiet, others have received NASA-level planning. But there’s always something to remember.

This year, it might just be the Lite Brite.

For those who haven’t met that old classic, Lite Brite is a children’s light board with colored pegs for creating pictures and designs. Missy got a set this year from her brother Jeff and his wife Meg, who know her far too well.

You see, as I mentioned a couple of columns ago, Missy likes temporary art. And few things are more temporary than a Lite Brite paper template. You fit the paper onto the screen. You punch each peg into its spot on the paper, like “B” for blue. And once you punch through, that spot is gone. The result is a beautiful design and a thoroughly perforated former set of instructions.

From all this, you get two basic results.

First, you learn to appreciate each point of light as you create it. You might not be able to do it the same way twice.

Second, unless you’re really good about stocking up on refills, you’re eventually going to have make your own designs.

Simple lessons. But lasting ones. Especially these days.

If we’ve learned anything in these last couple of years, it’s that change can come quickly. Old ways of doing things get transformed, old assumptions overturned. It’s been a time of uncertainty as we look to see what comes next, and that’s never a comfortable place to be.

In times like these, we become aware of how fragile our moments are. It becomes more important than ever to see them, notice them, appreciate them while they’re there.

And if we want to perpetuate them, we’re going to have to find the patterns ourselves.  Working point by point, not always sure if the image we’re making will be beauty or chaos.

But each step is another point of light in the darkness. Hopeful in itself, helpful in what it may become. And that’s a gift to cherish.

Maybe even one as marvelous as a pink bowling ball.

Has Anyone Seen My Normal?

After this week, I think I’m stuck in the doorway of “normal.”

Step on through and I’ll show you what I mean.

We began the week on the playing fields of Clark-Centennial Park where, after a long COVID-related hiatus, the Niwot Nightmares finally returned to the softball diamond. Long-time readers may remember that this is the home team for our own Missy, part of a “Softball For All” program for the disabled that warms the heart every summer …. along with warming everything else, given the Colorado heat.

It’s here. It’s familiar. It feels like it never went away.

Yay, normal!

And the end of the week? We spent that celebrating the high school graduation of my wife’s youngest sister, the one who used to come over for sleepovers when she was seven years old. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, we’ve moved from building marble runs and shooting self-produced living room videos to making plans for UNC and a possible future as a social studies teacher.

It’s here. It’s unfamiliar. It feels like everything is moving at high speed.

Uh … yay, normal?

Oh, and in the midst of all this, of course, there was a tornado that popped into the area with almost no warning, narrowly missed a major power station, brought some damage (though thankfully no deaths) and then nipped back off without so much as a “see ya.”

Uh … yay, normal.

And if that’s not the last few months in miniature, I don’t know what is.

Ever since March 2020, when everything got frozen in amber for several months, most of the attention has been focused on what we’ve missed, what we’ve lost, what we can’t wait to restore. We’ve talked about rebuilding normal like it’s a tornado-struck building, where we can unroll the blueprints, get the materials, maybe fix that carpet we’ve always been meaning to adjust and then pick up life where we left it.

The trouble is, of course, that normal is a moving target. Some of the familiar won’t come back. Some of the new won’t go away. And plenty of things will stay in motion and change, whether it’s as predictable as a girl growing up or as out of the blue and disruptive as a summer storm.

The fact is, we don’t know what “normal” is going to look like. Any of us. The outlines have started to form, some of the colors have been filling in, but the picture that will emerge and the reality we’ll have to fit into is still uncertain. And it’s not going to be wholly comfortable.

This isn’t the calm experience of walking out the front door. This is standing on the edge of the airlock, with scattered reports of the alien world beyond, but no firsthand experience. We can’t stay. But we’re not sure what we’re going to.

These are the moments of discovery. Of our world and ourselves.

A friend recently recommended a book to me about “liminal experiences,” the in-between moments when an old identity has been lost and a new one is still emerging. They’re not easy. They’re not comfortable. But they’re also unavoidable. And if we let them, they can be a special moment of transformation.

It requires trust and discernment and no small amount of courage. Walking in the dark – or at least in the fog – always does. But as unsettling as it is, we have to go on.

And when the new has fully emerged, we’ll be shocked at how quickly it becomes “normal.” It always does.

I’m glad for what’s returned. I’m curious for what will be. A season of discovery is ahead.

And while I’m waiting, I even get to watch a little softball.

Yay, normal. 

Learning Normal

“Scott … he’s not letting Potatoes near the seeds again.”

I sighed. This had been a running theme of our first day or two in the Finch Family Revival. We’d finally managed to get a pair of birds, Potatoes and Molasses, named for a silly song on a favorite cartoon. On arrival, they were everything two finches should be: cute, energetic, curious.

But they were also not the matched pair we’d been seeking. Potatoes is a society finch. Molasses is a zebra finch. For those of you not steeped in the intricacies of Birdie Lore, that’s the Odd Couple: the quiet-living, polite individual suddenly asked to be roommates with Mr. Pushy.

Most of the time it didn’t seem to matter. They’d quarantined together for a week at the pet store and seemed appropriately friendly and affectionate when it came time to discover the strange new setting of Chez Rochat (or at least a comfy cage within it). But when Potatoes would land on the seed tray, Molasses would get uncomfortably close. “Ahem. Excuse me. You know that’s MY spot … right?”

And off Potatoes would go, putting off her meal until later that night.

We tried a separate dish. Results were … ambiguous at best. We weren’t taking them back – we’d never returned a pet in our marriage and we weren’t about to start now. Reluctantly, knowing how social finches were, we bought a second cage and began putting it together. And then we gave it one more day, partly from hope and partly from the knowledge that moving just ONE finch out of a cage is like trying to catch a single specific fly out of a swarm: a matter of grace, delicacy and no small amount of luck.

Something happened.

Potatoes grew a backbone.

Molasses hadn’t stopped coming over with his “Watcha doin’, why’re ya here, lemme see, lemme see.” But Potatoes stopped retreating. And faced with that, Molasses didn’t push it. Before long, the two were eating together at the seed tray like old buddies on lunch break.

They’d had to relearn what normal meant. And they pulled it off.

That gives me hope for the rest of us.

About 100 million of us are now at least partly vaccinated from COVID-19 (including the Rochat household). With that, the rules of “normal” are starting to get rewritten again: how to travel, who to visit, when the masks can come off and when they still need to stay on. We’re finding out once again how to live with each other, especially during this transition period when some are protected and some aren’t.

When the dust settles, it’s highly likely that some pieces of how we live and work won’t look anything like they did before. (And sadly, as we saw recently in Boulder, some pieces of it may be all too familiar.)  But one thing will be just as true as it was in 2019 – or, for that matter, as it was during that oh-so-chaotic 2020.

We still have to do this together.

That doesn’t mean rolling over for the demands of the callous and the cruel, any more than sharing a cage meant Potatoes had to starve herself. But it does mean remembering what we learned during the Great Pandemic, or should have: that we all depend on each other, that small acts of compassion can make big differences, that it’s worth giving a little to get a better world.

That when the world changes, we can change with it. And remain neighbors through it.

A finch can learn it. Maybe we can, too.

Meanwhile, anyone need an unused bird cage?  

The Best of the Worst

Written Nov. 30, 2019

From one moment to the next, chaos reigned upon the stage. Maybe it was the panicked baby angels and intimidated shepherds. Or Joseph rallying the Wise Men to put a beatdown on Herod. Or Mary wanting to know why she couldn’t name her own baby, anyway.

Missy giggled. I guffawed. And the audience at the Longmont Performing Arts Center rang the rafters with laughter and applause.

The Herdmans had never been better.

If you haven’t yet met the rampaging Herdman children, I have some wonderful remedial reading for you. They first came to life in the children’s book “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and have since stormed their way across stages and television screens around the country (including the current Longmont Theatre Company production). Whatever the adaptation, the core of the story remains the same – the worst kids in town invade the local church Nativity pageant and turn it upside down.

It’s been a favorite of mine since grade school, and not just because of the crazy antics. This is a story that gets the heart of the holiday absolutely right.

Maybe I’d better explain.

Few things are as powerful at Christmas as tradition. There are songs we always sing, decorations we always put up, fights that spring eternal from year to year. (“I told you, the stockings get emptied after the presents are opened, you weirdo!”) That can be a lot of fun – but it also risks changing a wonderful holiday into something routine.

Christmas was never meant to be a china Nativity set, standing peacefully in the corner, unchanging and undemanding.

It’s meant to be transformative.

Disruptive.

Even a little terrifying.

It’s a story of being cold and tired and needing the help of strangers.

It’s a story of having a calm night shattered by visions you don’t understand, and beings that have to remind you “Don’t be afraid.”

It’s a story of having friends you never expected and enemies who fear you without ever having met you.

Most of all, i’s a warning that routine doesn’t last. That the world – that our world – can be transformed in the most ordinary of places, at the least expected of times.

That’s hopeful for all of us.

On the surface, we get it. We see snow transform a familiar landscape into something new – and maybe a little unnerving if you have to drive it. We put out lights that turn cold darkness into beauty for anyone passing by.

But it goes deeper down. Or it should.

It’s not a season that demands perfection, like a pageant where the manger has to be exactly so. But it does demand perception. It calls on us to see that there’s more to the world than our expectations. It asks us to truly see the least of these, even when it’s uncomfortable, and to go where we’re needed, even when it’s inconvenient. It challenges us to see how the worst may be the root of the best.

Even if it’s kids like the Herdmans.

Maybe even especially then.

And if we miss that opportunity in favor of what we’ve always done, then we’ve treasured the wrapping paper and thrown away the present.

Be uncomfortable. Let go. Step out of the usual dance. It may mean that life is never the same. But that can be the most wonderful and hopeful possibility of all.

And if it comes with the chance to laugh your head off at a warm and hilarious story – well, call it an early present.

And then watch that present carefully. The Herdmans may still be around.

A Hairy Moment

There are masters of illusion and concealment in this world. Artists who can make anything from a handkerchief to the Statue of Liberty seem to vanish without a trace.

Toupee Man is not one of those masters.

Who is Toupee Man? The Spanish police haven’t released his name, but his genius is surely one-of-a-kind. After all, there can’t be that many individuals who have hit upon the mind-bending idea of smuggling 17 ounces of cocaine into a country by … well … hiding it under a toupee.

Needless to say, said hairpiece and its cargo were more than a little obvious. Which is something like saying that Elton John was just a bit unrestrained in the 1970s.

“There is no limit to the inventiveness of drug traffickers trying to mock controls,” the police wrote in a statement reprinted by Reuters, one of the many news agencies to report this.

Inventiveness. Yeah. We’ll go with that.

It’s easy to laugh. Heaven knows I did. But like a lot of life’s humor, part of the laugh comes from familiarity.

We’ve seen this before.

Oh, I don’t mean we’ve all witnessed awkward items being smuggled under unlikely formations of hair, unless anyone has had the opportunity to live next door to Marge Simpson. (D’oh!) But we know the routine of trying to conceal the undeniable.

We’ve seen the prominent figure who “walks back” an outrageous statement, trying to explain why what he or she said wasn’t really what you heard.

Or the celebrity at the center of a scandal who tries to deny, to evade, and then to excuse.

Or anyone, great or small, who finds themselves in the midst of something unpleasant and tries, for just a moment, to “make it not have happened.”

There are a million terms for it. But it’s an urge as old as humanity. Hide the bad stuff. Make it appear normal. Even when it’s as obvious as trying to slip an Uzi under a baseball cap.

From the tale of Cain to modern playgrounds and politics, it’s always born of fear. And the answer is the same one that every kindergarten teacher knows, and that ever PR firm today teaches for crisis control.

Don’t hide.

Acknowledge the mistake. Admit the harm that was done.

Apologize. Sincerely.

And then make it clear how things will change going forward.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. There almost certainly will be. After all, if it was harmless, there wouldn’t have been an urge to hide in the first place. Trust gets weakened. Customers leave. Policies can founder and elections be lost.

But invariably, owning your actions causes less damage than trying to bury them. Ask Mr. Nixon sometime.

The last step, of course, is the most important of all – how will things change? That’s where transformation can occur, if we let it. C.S. Lewis once noted that if you’re on the wrong road, the fastest way forward is to first turn back.

No wigs. No disguises. Just coming clean and taking the first step to do something different.

We know this. It’s why we get so angry when someone we know – famous or otherwise – refuses to learn, refuses to change, refuses to acknowledge that they have anything to change. And why we get so embarrassed when we catch ourselves, from time to time.

And it’s what makes it so wonderful when the change truly comes.

It starts with self-recognition. With empathy. With the recognition that other people matter, and that when we wrong them, we need to make it right.

Because if we don’t, there can be hell toupee.

The Road Less Familiar

The pickup appeared without warning, moving past its stop sign and straight for the side of my car.

BOOM!

The doors took the shot. The air bags thumped into life. And everything came to a sudden, twisting stop.

“Are you all right?” a voice called from outside.

I was, mostly. My car, not so much. As I looked at the tears, scratches, and dents in the doors – including one chunk that was missing altogether – I realized two things:

1) I had been very lucky in my unluckiness.

2) I was going to be much later coming back from lunch than I thought.

***

Even when everyone walks away (thank heaven), something like that shapes your week. Phone calls, paperwork, Tylenol, and more become an unexpected part of the schedule, reminding you that what you planned and what you find can be two very different things.

Funny enough, what I had planned was to figure out a birthday present for my oldest niece, Ivy.

Ivy is turning 9 and has discovered epic fantasy. The bedtime reading for her and her younger brother Simon has lately included The Chronicles of Prydain, the Welsh-inspired adventures of an Assistant Pig-Keeper named Taran. One day, he chases after a panicking prophetic pig (say that five times fast) only to find himself in the middle of dread hunters, ancient magic, desperate rescues and – of course – the fate of the realm.

Did he expect any of it? Of course not. But a moment’s break in the routine transformed his entire life.

Fantasy is famous for that kind of thing. Bilbo Baggins finds 13 dwarves and a wizard on his doorstep, looking for a tea-break and for someone to rob a dragon. Lucy’s game of hide-and-seek finds a wardrobe that contains a lamppost, a Faun, and a kingdom bound in enchanted winter by the White Witch. In tale after tale, it only takes the slightest turn of a corner to turn a world upside down.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, gong out of your door, he used to say,” Frodo Baggins says in The Lord of the Rings, remembering his famous relative Bilbo. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Maybe that’s why those tales of magic and adventure still hold so much power now. They remind us how quickly the ordinary can become extraordinary, how the dull and everyday has no obligation to stay that way.

Sometimes they’re moments that echo the rest of your life. My own was forever shaped by a conversation in a nearly-empty bookstore – a chat that led to (so far) 21 years of marriage. And again by an unexpected death on a quiet Friday that rocked me, Heather, and all our family. The best and the worst, with the same power to ambush.

They’re not the moments you choose. They’re  not the moments you expect. But they are the moments that re-set your choices and your expectations, that reframe your thinking and remake your life. The moments that can break your heart or make it powerful beyond imagining. Maybe both.

Those moments can be personal. They can be national. What they can’t be is easily dictated.

That’s not comfortable.

We want to write our own stories, to have full control of the plots. And when the twists come, it’s unsettling at best. You can’t see where the tale’s going. You can’t skip ahead. You just have to travel the road as best you can, with all its unexpected burdens and blessings.

And when each turn arrives, it forces us to think. To break out of the usual and look. To actually see the world around us, and not just a far-off destination. To learn what we value and what we’ve taken for granted.

That’s something I’ll try to remember on the road ahead.

Hopefully with a working set of wheels.

A Dickens of a Tale

Standing in the dark on Friday night, I listened to the buzz of the audience.

A noisy crowd before the curtain is an actor’s favorite fuel, and this one kept building … and building … and building. The entire stage seemed to resonate, ready to light the cast up like a Christmas tree. One step, and the most unstoppable chain reaction since Trinity would be underway.

Not for a world premiere. Not for a screaming-hot “Hamilton” or a Disney-powered “Lion King.” But for the Longmont Theatre Company performing one of the most familiar stories in the Christmas canon.

Mr. Scrooge, you’ve still got it.

***

If there’s anyone who doesn’t know “A Christmas Carol” by now, welcome to Earth, and I hope the trip from Alpha Centauri was pleasant. For the rest of us, the basic plot has become part of our cultural DNA. Even on TV sitcoms, if a character makes the mistake of falling asleep on Christmas Eve after a grouchy day, we know to expect three spirits, a moral lesson, and maybe even a chorus of “God bless us, everyone!” as hearts warm and the audience applauds.

It’s a reflex. A tradition. And after 175 years, it still has power.

Why?

It’d be easy to say it’s just one more stock story. Easy to turn it into predictable melodrama. Easy to just say the familiar words and go through the motions.

But when it’s at its best, “A Christmas Carol” goes through the emotions instead.

This is somewhere we’ve all been.

Scrooge is faced with missed opportunities. With old wounds that become fresh again. With the fear of leaving the world unnoticed and unmourned, having spent a lifetime pursuing the wrong things, until the things are all that remain.

Those regrets still hit home today.

More than that, Charles Dickens gave us a tale of reaching out and truly seeing the people around you. Scrooge’s nephew Fred is joyous because he can see people opening their hearts to each other as the holiday approaches, and he can’t wait to share it himself. The Cratchits overflow with warmth and love because they constantly reach out to each other, turning even the most meager situation into a chance to be a family. Scrooge himself begins as a lonely youth who reaches out for love – and then loses sight of it, and himself, and the rest of the human race.

It’s not about a man who hates Christmas. It’s about a man who’s become closed off and needs to be reminded that other people matter, and that he can matter to them. That the rest of the world isn’t just “surplus population,” but neighbors with faces and names and needs that can be met.

And most of all, it’s about hope. That what you’ve been doesn’t have to be who you are. That while there’s life, there’s a chance to become something new.

Not without effort. Not without pain and reflection. But the best presents are the ones you work for. And this is one that all of us have needed, then and now.

It doesn’t take three ghosts and a visit from Jacob Marley (though a good night’s sleep never hurts). But it does take empathy. Self-awareness. Self-transformation. And it all leads to a perspective that opens doors and tears down walls … not least, the walls within ourselves.

So we revisit the story. We relight the hope.

And maybe, just maybe, we awaken a Christmas spirit that’s all our own.