April (Snow) Showers

On Saturday morning, the landscape was made to confuse Bing Crosby.

“I’m … dreaming of a white … springtime?”

Some things just come with Colorado living. Like elevation signs at the city limits. Or a faith in the Denver Broncos that defies all evidence. Or – perhaps most of all – the roll-the-dice seasons that give you snow in April, even if it’s only for a day or two.

I got an early initiation into the wonders of Colorado weather, with a blizzard that closed my grade school and knocked out the power … in May. And of course, by the next day the streets and sidewalks were as dry as a bone. It wasn’t exactly a planned part of the curriculum, but it drove its own lesson home.

And yet, no matter how many times it happens, I can still get caught off guard by it. It’s like a weird version of Rip Van Winkle: go to sleep with green grass and weekend plans to weed the garden plot, only to wake up to the latest episode of Second Christmas. (“You’d better watch out …”)

It’s weird. It’s wonderful.

And more often than not, it’s exactly what we need.

OK, put down the torches, pitchforks and angry snow shovels. I know how long a winter we just had. Even for the Front Range, keeping snow on the ground from December until March is a tad unusual. And I know some of you became more than a little tired of it, even while others found a childlike wonder and glee and still others gave the mandatory chant of “Well, we can sure use the moisture.”

But I’m not talking about the snow itself.

I’m talking about the shakeup.

It’s easy to get into ruts and routines. Even when the pandemic hit, our world shattered in an eye blink … and then reorganized itself around a new set of precautions, habits and expectations. After all, it’s exhausting to constantly reinvent everything; slipping into the familiar frees our mind to focus on other topics.

But if we stay too familiar – if we introduce nothing new – we risk stagnating.

The mystery writer Lawrence Block once gave the example of a man stranded on a raft in the freezing North Atlantic. Every day, Block said, he burns a piece of his raft to stay warm. And sooner or later, if he doesn’t find any new material, he’s going to be in trouble.  

It doesn’t have to be huge. A book you’ve never read before. A place you’ve always thought about visiting. An experiment of any kind, even if it fails – maybe even especially if it fails, since that can allow you to learn more for the next time around. (“Rapid unscheduled disassembly,” anyone?)

It can be anything that opens your horizons just a little more and makes you consider something new. Because then a bit of you becomes new as well. And like snow in springtime, that piece can shine with its own unexpected beauty.

By the time this appears in print, the coats may be back in the closet  and the gardening tools back in play. That’s OK. If the unexpected stays too long, it becomes a new routine. Magic, to stay magical, can’t linger.

But the lesson can. I hope we remember it and put it to use.

And if we can, it’s snow wonder.

Deck the Halls With Heads of Holly

At long last, Holly Hobbie smiles at us from the Christmas tree.

And from slightly lower down, so does her long-lasting head.

This may take a little explanation.

Long ago, like many a little girl, my wife Heather had a Holly Hobbie Christmas ornament, the big-bonneted pioneer girl of many a greeting card. This Holly was designed to hang from a tree branch with arms open wide, gazing benignly at passers-by.

It was much loved. And like many much-loved things, she got broken a bit too soon. One Christmas, the family unpacked its ornaments to find that 90% of Holly Hobbie was missing – everything except her well-known head.

With normal people, this would be the end.

My wife and her siblings are not normal people.

Holly Hobbie endured. In fact, Placing The Head of Holly Hobbie became a cherished Christmas tradition. With many giggles, The Head would come to rest on a suitably flat bit of pine, looking as though orcs had visited the American prairie and left behind a sign of their passage.

When Heather married me, The Head came with her. And from that day forward, our Christmas tree has been a Head above the rest.

Weird? Maybe. But in a time of year where we plant trees indoors and eat food out of our socks, I don’t think the rest of us are in any place to talk. That’s what traditions are: weird things you don’t do at any other time. I mean, ‘tis the season for a reindeer with an LED nose, for Pete’s sake.

But even so, Heather kept a watch. And with the rise of the internet – and just as importantly, the rise of 1980s nostalgia – her dream finally came true. She found a source, made the contact, cheered as the mail arrived.

Holly Hobbie had come home!

Triumphantly, Heather placed the full-bodied Holly in the tree. Just a step or two away from The Head of the old one, gazing up at her new sister.

After a moment, we both laughed.

“Kind of looks like she’s been left there as a warning to the newcomer, doesn’t it?” I said, to more helpless giggles.

A Christmas tradition would continue. Stronger and weirder than ever.

And with it grew just a bit of joy.

Joy’s kind of weird itself. It hides in odd places, lurks around strange corners. You can try to cultivate it for weeks with ribbons and music and Hallmark movies without success, and then, bang! Up it pops without warning.

Sometimes it’s the sudden connection that a tradition makes between past and present, briefly restoring something thought lost.

Sometimes it’s the out-of-place detail that makes us stop, think and wonder at the world around us, a star burning where it has no reason to be.

Frequently there is no obvious explanation. It pounces like a tiger, ambushing us on a deeper level than simple happiness. It’s a sudden rightness, or an excitement that won’t be held back, or a warmth that colors everything nearby.

It’s an inspiration. And like many inspiring things, you can’t really force it – but you can leave yourself open to it so that you don’t miss it when it comes.

Eyes open. Heart open. Seeing and experiencing and reaching to those nearby.

It might mean changing the usual or daring to be thought strange. That’s a risk. But it’s one worth taking to break beyond the expected and really live.

So be alert. Keep your head up.

Hey … it works for Holly Hobbie.  

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.

The Hole Truth

Who knew that nothing could be so fascinating?

OK, technically a black hole is something. A rather large something, at that. But the image in my mind has always been a bit like the Nothing in The Neverending Story, an unstoppable void that consumes everything in its path. Inexorable. Powerful.

And apparently, beautiful.

Recently, humanity received its first-ever photo of a black hole – darkness surrounded by a burning ring of fire, as though it had been willed into being by a Johnny Cash fan. Millions stopped for just a minute to literally stare into space, and not just because they were still mourning the demise of their March Madness bracket.

Who knew that it would look like this?

I’m still trying to decide why it’s so fascinating. Granted, I’m a longtime space geek, so I find just about anything in the Great Beyond fascinating. But this has – pardon the phrase – a real pull.

Is it the unexpected beauty of it all, like the colors and designs once captured by the Hubble space telescope?

Is it the sense of perspective, the understanding that amazing and marvelous things are happening beyond our reach and influence, the same sense of momentary awe we get at a solar eclipse?

Is it the labor that went into it, the research and invention and collaboration involved? The final photo was a composite of several photos – parts making up the hole, if you will – and the path there required just as many pieces to fit together.

All of it’s true. All of it’s important. But in my own mind, the most stunning piece of all may be the novelty. We had literally never seen this before. We had theorized black holes, modeled them, knew that they existed and how they worked. But no human eye had ever looked on one.

Until now.

The mightiest pull in space does not belong to a black hole. It belongs to discovery. One of the most famous science fiction franchises of all time even has the concept embedded in its prologue: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Human curiosity is a restless thing, and we have boldly gone in a lot of directions in exploring our world and its phenomena. So much so that we sometimes to live in the midst of an age of wonder – and yawn. As a species, we’re sometimes on the verge of becoming the teenager that’s seen it all, for whom there’s nothing left to do. “Crossed the continents, explored the genome, created the Dairy Queen Blizzard. Oh, well, guess I’ll watch TV.”

But wonder doesn’t die so easily.  It waits, patient and timeless. And a good thing, too. If wonder ever truly ceased to be, that would pretty much be our end as a species – we might still exist, but we wouldn’t truly live.

But it still stubbornly flares to life, light and fire illuminating the darkness. It might originate from something as simple as a tale well told, or as grand as the first glance of a cosmic marvel. But it becomes a reminder that there is still so much to discover, still so much to see. That with a universe to experience, we’ve barely stepped beyond our front stoop.

That’s an exciting potential. It inspires hope that we can be more than who we are, that today’s world may only be the beginning. That the stress of the moment may eventually be consumed by the potential of the moment ahead.

That’s a lot to pull out of a hole.

But sometimes, Nothing really matters.

Beyond Count

There are numbers that are just too small to make sense. Like one potato chip. Or a two-day PBS pledge drive.

Or 30 books.

Thirty books?

Thirty books?

That’s the number that’s been quoted and misquoted all over the internet for the past few days, to varying degrees of amusement and horror. It’s tied to the organizational expert Marie Kondo of “Tidying Up,” who supposedly said that in straightening up your life, one should “Ideally, keep less than 30 books.”

Now, as it turns out, that started with the Rev. Jeremy Smith, a practitioner of Kondo’s method who was joking about his own tendency to accumulate books. It’s also something of a personal goal for Kondo herself, who mentioned in “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” that she keeps her collection down to about 30 books at any given time, though she never made that a formal requirement.

But it was too late. By the time, it hit the internet and became a meme, the damage was done.

“Thirty books?”

“She means per shelf, right?”

“Maybe per nightstand?”

“Good grief!”

While it’s a dismaying comment on our ability to fact-check (and yeah, I was sucked in for a while, too), it also says something very uplifting about our attachment to the written word.

I myself am one of the long-time practitioners  of tsundoku, and no, that doesn’t mean I spend all my time with number puzzles. “Tsundoku” is a Japanese pun that refers to the huge pile of volumes you’re going to read some day, honest. This usually isn’t from lack of desire – most creators of these literary mountain ranges are huge readers – but from the tendency to see a cover and think “Ooh! That looks cool!”

Presto! Three books in for every one book finished.

I started reading when I was about two and a half years old. One could argue that I’ve never really stopped. Between my collection and Heather’s, we now have … well, more than 30. If the Longmont Public Library decides it needs to open a north Longmont branch, we’re ready.

And despite my own speedy reading pace, yes, there are unread books on my shelves at any given time. Maybe on yours, too. And that’s OK.

Books have an inertia, a tendency to stay. New books are the potential of discovery, the chance to hear a new voice, encounter a new story, discover a new experience or a new facet of a seemingly-familiar one. Old books are the old friends that come back to visit every so often, whether it’s “I have to re-read this every year or so” or “I want to go back to my favorite scene, just one more time.”

But of course, there’s only so much time. No one can do everything, see everything, or (unthinkable as it may seem) read everything.

I’ll speak some heresy for a moment – it is OK to let some of that everything go. Everyone has that decision that seemed like a good idea at the time and now just hangs there. If someone else can get more joy from it than you can, let it go with a blessing. (If no one can get joy from it, let it go with high velocity.)

But it’s also OK to hang on to those dreams, literary or otherwise. Even if you can’t quite reach the unreachable star.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Robert Browning once wrote. If there’s always a dream to chase, a book to open,  a discovery you haven’t made yet, that’s exciting. After all, if everything could be accomplished, how dull would the remaining life ahead be?

To paraphrase Kondo herself, if that chance of discovery, of serendipity, brings you joy, hang on to it. Tightly. (And hopefully with adequate shelving space.)

You may just have a pleasant hour ahead of you.

Or even 30.

Following the Light

“Daddy, look!”

Missy bounced in the passenger seat of the car, eyes aglow. It had to be important. Missy has called me many things since Heather and I became her guardians over seven years ago – “He,” “Frank,” even “Mom” sometimes when Heather’s not in the room – but “Daddy” mostly tends to come out at moments of discovery.

And what a discovery!

Trees glowing with the lines and colors of Dr. Seuss. Lawns stacked with Grinches, with Nativities, with snowmen of every shape and size. Roofs blazing in the night like a multicolored landing strip made for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, or any UFOs that happened to be passing within 10 light years or so.

Her smile beamed brighter than any of the homes we passed. For Missy, this was the heart of the season – the regular Christmas light run, discovering new homes and new neighborhoods every night, shining with glory in the freezing air.

I smiled, too. And enjoyed. And with a little trepidation, looked to see which of the curving streets might eventually bring us back to a familiar road again.

Like wise men in the East, I could really use a guiding star about now.

***

Longtime friends and readers may remember that I don’t have the best sense of direction. And that may be putting it mildly. In the course of my wanderings over the years, I have wound up following ruts in farmer’s fields, or staring at a Denver-area dead end, or possibly discovering new lands in the name of Spain. I can find “down” without a compass … most of the time … if I’ve left a shoe untied.

Like any long-time Front Ranger, I know the rule of thumb: “The mountains are west.” Like any good 21st-century resident, I know the other rule of thumb: “Google Maps are your friend – except when they aren’t.” None of which helps when it’s too dark to see the peaks, you’re not exactly sure of your current location, and your eager passenger will become an impatient one if you pull over to check your phone.

Besides, on this night, in this place, it didn’t really matter. Tonight wasn’t about the destination. Tonight was about the journey, the traveling, the unexpected wonders ahead. Tonight was about wandering without really knowing what you were looking for, and allowing yourself the excitement of finding more than you expected.

This time of year, that sounds more than a little familiar.

***

From the beginning, Christmas has been about going places you didn’t expect and finding things you never anticipated. Whether the tale is sacred or secular, it’s a season of surprise. Shepherds being startled in the night and called to a manger. Grinches and Scrooges discovering joy and hope in a heart that had grown cold. Charlie Brown finding that just a little bit of love can make the scrawniest of twigs shine brighter than any aluminum Christmas tree.

It’s about breaking expectations. Seeing the world with new eyes. That can be hard to do, and even a little scary, because it means taking roads you don’t know and journeys that might be a little uncomfortable.

Most of us don’t like to do that. We like the familiar. And after a while, we stop seeing it. We go to places without really going through anywhere, exist without really living.

So when the sudden turns come, big or small, it’s easy to panic. But it also may be the first time we truly notice the world around us. And in noticing, wonder. Discover. And learn.

That’s a powerful gift.

So follow the roads. Trust the turns. Find the beauty that you never knew was there. It may take some searching on a cold, dark night. But it could be closer than you think.

Maybe even as close as Missy’s smile.

First Gifts

Every year, you could count on it. The Rochat Family Christmas Eve Parade of Nightwear was the most exclusive ticket in town.

You could tell simply by looking at the invited audience, a bustling throng of three people, max, plus assorted pets. The models were not under contract anywhere else. Heck, for much of its existence, the models hadn’t even entered secondary school.

No runway in New York or Paris could touch it. Not when it was Dec. 24, the first packages had been opened, and my two sisters and I were modeling our brand-new pajamas.

“Oooh! Aaah!”

My parents, reinforced by Grandma Elsie, were most appreciative. And well they should have been. After all, they had once again completed an amazing double act: they had gotten young children excited about receiving clothes for Christmas AND ensured that said children would look presentable in family pictures the next morning.

Amazing, did I say? They made it look easy. And maybe it was. After all, they had just harnessed the most primal forces of the universe:

 

1) The desire of a child to open a gift, any gift, before Christmas morning actually arrived. Pajamas and out-of-town presents were always the exception for us, and thus eagerly torn into.

2) The desire of these children – especially my sisters – to put on a show for their parents.

3) The raw power of accumulated tradition, where something becomes exciting and anticipated simply because it’s always been.

 

With those forces on their side, even the most mundane items could become something magical. Even wonderful.

That’s a power I think the holidays still hold, though sometimes I think we’re in danger of inverting it. At a time that can be so special, we risk turning the magical into the ordinary.

It’s easy to do. We hurry and we hustle, weighed down with stress and worry and the accumulated cares of the world. December can all too easily become an obstacle course, one more list of things to do and accomplishments to check off before breathing a sigh of relief and packing it all off into the attic for another year.

We don’t stop. And look. And marvel.

Each night, someone somewhere has put out lights. They might be a soft gleam or a Disneyland glare, but it’s a moment of beauty free to any passerby. So routine we don’t think of it anymore.

Each day, you hear music you hear at no other time. And yes, some of it is silly or annoying or cringe-inducing. But some of it touches hearts and memories, different strains for different people. With me, “Good King Wenceslas” and “Here We Come A Wassailing” still bring back my English grandma; “Silent Night” still evokes my family decorating the tree while the vinyl-aided voice of John Denver explained the song’s origins.

Somewhere, always, small acts of decency and kindness and hospitality are offered and accepted, just because that’s what you do. It may not always be visible in a crowded parking lot (all things have their limits) but even if the practice sometimes falls short, the ideal is known and at least attempted. A training ground, maybe, for something quiet but vital.

Before the first bits of paper are torn and the first ribbons cut, these things and a hundred other ordinary things like them are the first gifts of the season. And if we can see the gift, if we can anticipate the gift and even desire to share it, we can re-awaken the magic all over again.

Christmas is coming. Check your gifts. The ones without labels and bows.

If you’re really lucky, there might even be some pajamas waiting for you.

Putting In a Good Word

The text from home caught me by surprise. It seems we’d gotten a special gift, and not via UPS or the U.S. Postal Service.

Missy had added a new word to her vocabulary.

“We’re watching Christmas videos,” my wife Heather wrote me, “and the Hallelujah Chorus was on and she sang ‘Hallelujah’ clearly.”

I blinked. And blinked again. And smiled.

For those who are new to this column, Missy is our disabled ward. She’s my age, but can seem much younger, especially since she’s a lady of few words, some of which do double duty. “Book” can refer to our reading time, or to an inquiry about where her purse is. “I wan’ a pop” can mean that she wants a soda from the fridge, or that she thinks it’d be cool to have a fast food night.

Sometimes, when her emotions are high, the words get more numerous and clearer. (The most infamous was when she told her father, after a near-accident on the road, “Damn it, Frank, are you trying to ****ing kill me?”) And in the six and a half years since Heather and I moved in, we’ve noticed how much she really understands and seen some additions to the vocabulary.

But going from the usual words and phrases to “Hallelujah” … well, even for someone who loves Christmas as much as Missy does, that’s a big leap.

I’ll admit, when something like that happens, there’s a temptation to doubt the miracle. The little voice in your head starts whispering “It was a coincidence. You want to hear it. You’re just making assumptions.”

Except … that same night, Missy and I went out on our near-daily Christmas light run. And as we observed the golden trees, and the sparkling roofs, and the Santas dressed in hula skirts, a really sickly-sweet cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” came on the radio.

And as the chorus came up, Missy echoed “Hallelujah.” It was slightly swallowed in the middle, but unmistakable.

Did you know your jaw can get sore from dropping it too many times in one day?

In an odd way, this underlined what I love best about the holiday season – how a seemingly ordinary moment can suddenly become extraordinary.

Snow transforms a landscape you’ve seen a thousand times into something new and amazing.

Lights and decorations turn a row of ordinary homes into something that shatters the winter night and brings smiles or laughter.

And so many stories from so many faiths celebrate the same kind of transformation, whether it’s a seemingly ordinary flask of oil stretching to eight days of devotion, or a seemingly ordinary family that suddenly becomes the start of a message to the world.

Like presents under a tree, the ordinary holds surprises – and we’re usually not the ones who decide when to open them. The paper can fall away and the ribbons loosen at any moment, introducing something we never expected. Sometimes it’s just a moment’s reaction. Sometimes it’s life-changing.

I think we notice it a little more at this time of year. We pay better attention. So much is both new and long-familiar that we can slip out of our usual habits of thinking and see things that we might otherwise miss.

Sure, it’s easy to get too busy, or stressed, or maybe even overwhelmed with memories that hurt more than they cheer. But the moments are still there, whenever we’re ready to meet them. Sometimes even when we’re not ready.

Joy can ambush us from strange corners. It only takes one unexpected moment, and the day is suddenly new, and different, and wonderful.

And to that, I say hallelujah.

Now Starring

“Daddy, look!”

I smiled – with Missy, “Daddy” is more of a job description than a title – and came over to the table. She stabbed her finger eagerly at the coffee table book, before turning more pages, and then more.

“Look! Look!”

From the pages leaped star fields, the points of brilliance crowding the page like sand on a beach. And then nebulae … and galaxies …. and planets. Some of the beauty was practically next door; far more of it was farther away than could be traveled in a hundred lifetimes.

But all of it, every last photo in the book from the Hubble Space Telescope, had captured Missy’s eyes and imagination. Our disabled ward is often a woman of few words, but she didn’t need them this time. Her face said everything that needed saying.
“WOW!!!”

She had been ambushed by wonder.

I’ve been there. I think we all have. It might be while watching the Northern California ocean at night, or seeing a blanket of stars above the Rockies, or an unexpected strain of music that lifts you beyond every cloud. It might be something quiet, even ordinary to the outside world … but not to you. Never to you.

Those may be the moments when I unmistakably feel the strength of hope.

Consider. Except for a few primal things, like loud noises, most fears have to be learned. It’s why the toddler years can be so unnerving for any adults nearby, as the little ones reach out to explore a world with no awareness of routine dangers – the electric socket, the heavy book on the end table, the doggie that might not like having his fur pulled.

Some of the fears and cautions we learn are of that sort, the awareness that keeps our impulses from leading us into harm’s way. But we teach others that are less beneficial – suspicions, prejudices, hatreds that inflict pain rather than avoiding it. Almost 70 years ago, South Pacific sang out the truths we’re still dealing with now:

 

You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late,

Before you are six, or seven, or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

And then, there’s wonder.

It’s not something that’s taught, though a good teacher can lead one to it, and help shape it when it comes to light. You find wonder. You discover it. You come upon it and claim it as a gift.

At its most basic, wonder reminds us that we’re connected to something larger than our everyday view of the world. It takes off the blinkers, gives us perspective. At its most powerful, it can be a fuel for dreams and thus for reaching out, because few dreams of any size can be carried out by one person acting alone.

It’s not taught … but it can be sought. And in a world where fears try to crowd out hopes like weeds in a garden, it needs to be.

We build our walls high. So we need to be ready to climb. Wonder can come anywhere, but we help it most when we test our own limits – when we’re ready to risk a new experience, meet a new person, take our mind somewhere it hasn’t been before. Whether it’s the limitless reaches of space or the garden plot you’ve always meant to try out, all of it can serve as a step to something greater.

The clouds above are thick. But if we keep walking, we can find the stars.

Some of them are shining in Missy’s eyes right now.

Joy of the Moment

Missy stabs with her finger as the Christmas lights come into view. “Look … Lookit!”

She cranks the volume as high as she can when the Hallelujah Chorus comes on. “Yeah!”

She carts her hand-sized Christmas Bear with her everywhere, often cramming the poor red-and-white toy with glee into spaces it was never meant for, like a CD compartment or her overstuffed purse. It somehow soldiers on, its Santa hat hanging by a thread.

In short, if there were a job opening for Christmas Spirit, our disabled ward would be ahead of the competition by about three reindeer and a jingle bell. And it’s a bit infectious. Turn her loose on A Christmas Carol and not only would Scrooge redeem and Tiny Tim walk, but the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would be leading a chorus of “Feliz Navidad.”

That kind of joy.

That’s a word I don’t use lightly. To be honest, it’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, outside a few seasonal songs. We talk about happiness, we revel in fun. But joy is something deeper, more wonderful, less tied to circumstance. A toothache can steal happiness but joy can live even in the darkest of places.

It’s a quality we badly need now.

You’ve seen the headlines. They’re not the sort to linger over. Appeals to fear. Calls for division. Angry men with angry words about the dangers of a faraway people, too different to be trusted. Some of those angry men wear beards. Some wear three-piece suits.

They build nothing except walls. They give nothing except grief. And too often, people follow in their wake, pulled by the confidence of someone who seems to know where to go, how to get there and who to blame.

It’s a confidence born of arrogance. And it’s really the antithesis of everything that joy stands for.

Because joy, at its roots, is humble.

To truly “get” joy, you have to be able to be astonished. That’s less easy than you think. It means admitting you don’t know everything. It means abandoning cynicism. It means cutting free of past and future and allowing yourself to marvel in the wonders of now.

Maybe that’s why Missy does it especially well.

An outside observer might wonder what she has to be joyful about. Her physical disabilities means she usually takes slow, careful steps through life, balanced on an arm, a wall or a piece of furniture. Her mental disabilities mean that she’s sometimes four, sometimes 14 and sometimes 42 – in particular, able to understand a lot of what’s said to her, but with limited ability to communicate back.

But maybe those challenges have also made her blessings possible. Because she moves through life slowly, even small things can catch her eye. Because she has a “younger” perspective (I hesitate to say more innocent, knowing some of the mischief she’s capable of), those small things can be new over and over again, and acknowledged without any pretense. Patterns and traditions are often a thing of comfort for her, and few times carry more tradition than Christmas.

Put it together and you have someone constantly open to joy, giving it, receiving it and reflecting it.

I’m not suggesting all of us can or should live life exactly as she does. (For one thing, the number of intact Christmas Bears in the world might approach extinction.) But the general lessons remain viable, whatever our situation or level of ability. Take time to truly see what’s around you. Experience the moment as a moment, without the fears of the past or the dread of the future. Share the good you find without hesitation.

It doesn’t have to be a Pollyanna approach, sweeping all the bad stuff into a corner and pretending it’s not there. But over time, it can take away some of the power that bad stuff has. When even simple things can be a source of wonder, it’s harder to hold onto fear and anger. Harder to remain behind walls when you’re always running to the windows. Harder to stand apart when any new person could be a new chance to share the joy you’ve found.

In a world torn down by fear, joy builds.

So go ahead. Look around. See what you find.

The Christmas lights are waiting.