Bearing Hope

We are settling into February, which is a month with which I’ve always had a bit of a tenuous relationship. It is nearly always a natural low point for me, the downturn of grey and dust before the upturn of Spring and daffodils, but I have grown used to this rhythm. A few years ago in February I wrote this, and I find myself returning to reread it each year and realizing I believe it more and more each season, because this is a time, I think, when most of us are the poor in spirit, and the idea that ours (ours!) is the kingdom of heaven can seem particularly fantastic.

Fantastic, even completely implausible, and yet true. Ours is the kingdom. 

I am returning back to the base of things recently and more and more I find that when I dig down to that base through the litter and grime of this world and of my life and heart and mind, all the way down to the rock bottom, I find that that rock bottom is somehow made out of hope. Another implausibility. Hope is always and ever the ground I stand on. And more than that, I am learning that I bear it involuntarily on my shoulders–it drapes heavy over them from morning till night. Sometimes I am even able to see the way it lays weighty across the shoulders of those around me. It is uncomfortable, inconvenient, unavoidable, completely necessary. We bear hope with us everywhere, its train dragging behind us, through the ins and the outs of our days. We cannot shrug hope off, we cannot wipe its dust from our palms, cannot extract it from our guts. It hangs like an indelible banner over our heads–hope above and below, behind and before. We live, I have come to realize, in its very midst.

 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

A Back to School Entry

Right now my computer is nestled on an improvised little cooling pack I constructed from the hotel ice machine so that it won’t overheat. This is not a joke. I really want to write to you. Tomorrow morning I move in for my last year of college. I’m nervous—I didn’t think I would be, but I am.

Coming back to school after summer always seems a little unreal. Three months is just long enough that college has stopped feeling like a concrete part of my everyday life and become just a story I’ve been telling myself for a while—something to entertain me on slow days. Yet it’s a story I’m about to be thrown into. A story about a little apartment, and two final semesters full up with eighteen credits each, and stacks of pretty old plates bought from Goodwill, and a novel waiting to be written, and baking on a Sunday, and Latin to be learned, and Fam Pan pot luck dinners, and looking for a big-girl job, and a magazine of which, for some funny reason that I can’t remember, I’m going to be editor. Though I’m an hour south of its beginning, I still don’t quite believe it. It all feels so foreign.

But sometimes I do believe it—that I am going back tomorrow to places and people in which my own tears and joys have worn hollows. And then I am scared.

In seventh grade I went to a new school, a school that was not Caldwell. I cried the whole first day. They did not know what to do with me so they bumped me from one classroom to another.  I sat in the back of each by the little row of computers till the teacher tired of me, and my contemporaries craned round at me and asked curiously “What you cryin’ for?”  (For them, of course, it was simply the first day of school, not the end of the world as they knew it.) The second day, I was so frightened to go back that I threw up. My dad made me go anyway, and I made a friend.

A year ago, I was waiting to move into, not a new school, but a one which had already been mine for two years. I was as scared as my seventh grade self, though I handled the fear a little better, I think. I didn’t throw up, but I sat up for most of the night and read The Man Who Was Thursday in its entirety. I’m fairly certain I sobbed through the last couple chapters. After move-in, I was generally happy, but it took the anxiety weeks, maybe months, to wear away. (I don’t remember. I keep close track of many things, but not of that.)

As for tomorrow and this week and this year, what I am afraid of are the lurking disappointments, the weeks I cannot carry, the nights I cannot sleep. I am afraid because tomorrow, when senior year begins at last, it will no longer be my own pet fairy tale—Someone else will be telling it.

But then, He told seventh grade, and He didn’t do too poor a job. I made several close friends and we had long involved sleepovers. I learned nothing of academic value. I made up a secret language. I got my first dramatic haircut. I was beaten to death in a class skit about slavery. I was the star of the seventh grade cello section. My skin got a little thicker. I learned to loathe busy work. My fashion sense hit an all-time low involving oversized hoodies and ripped jeans. I made a couple cool dioramas. I was happy in a place in which I’d planned to be miserable.

He told last year too and I started winning at game night. I wrote a story I really liked. I watched in awe as friendships healed. I gave a paper at the Herbert conference. I went through a brief and unenthusiastic running phase. I fell in love with my classical ed class. I learned a little more about grace. Sarah and I made a “Things Done” list. I received my weight in Wall Street Journals and built a somewhat successful table from them. Dr. Messer asked me if I’d be senior editor of The Quad. I cleaned Dr. Brown’s house. I performed a scene in Shakespeare class while on the verge of fatigue and was told that I portrayed Imogen with a “kind of frail madness.” My God gave me so much beyond my desserts.

He will tell this year too. I don’t know what turns it will take, and I’m sure the denouement is beyond my comprehension, but if I wait upon Him He will renew my strength. He will walk with me. He will grow my fear to awe. He will show me Himself.

Letting Her Die

When I was a little girl I had all sorts of plans for the great lady I was going to be when I was grown up. I was going to be elegant and kind and sought-after and I was going to wear the best sort of clothes and have one of those bell-like laughs you read about in less-truthful books. I was going to be infinitely wise and glisteningly beautiful and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Sometimes, when I am having a good day or week or month, I flatter myself that if eight-year-old Alice showed up on my doorstep she would suitably impressed. She would think that I was Her. I get all warm and fuzzy when I think that and then a little voice in the back of my head says, “Of course, she’d be wrong.”

Because little Alice is pretty easily satisfied, really. Give her mascara and some sparkly stuffs and she’s delighted. The goal self, the dream self has grown since then.

She now knows everything worth knowing and has read everything worth reading. Her clothes now are not only good, but are completely singular and they never wear out or need dry cleaning. She never runs out of gas or leaves awkward voicemails and she always knows what to make for dinner. She is impervious to fire, water, poor grades, rejection, and heartbreak. She has a group of friends who are just diverse enough that they all still get along, and just talented enough that their abilities complement Hers. She never has to be brave because she is never afraid.

Her legend in my mind continues to grow. Even comfortable self-deprecation is just another round-about way of reminding myself of who she is and who I am not. And every time someone gives me one of those extravagant compliments—the kind you get from people who don’t know you well enough yet—She absorbs it. A friend says I am well-spoken? Well, I know I’m not, words only occasionally come out of my mouth in the right order, but She will be, along with brilliant, and beautiful, and best-selling (just to dip into the B’s).

During those good times when I’d like to have little Alice round for tea, I almost think She’s real—but then my own feet will trip over themselves and I’m back where I begun. One of the reasons Sophomore year hurt is that I was so clearly not what I should be. I was not Her. It’s not that She never cries, but She doesn’t exactly bust open at the seams and ooze anxiety for months on end.

This panic has been coming back to me in smaller doses this summer. I’ve struggled to write, because nothing I write is good enough—all of my words limp and plod, already weary after five minutes on the page. They do not measure up and neither do I.

So  then I turn to my reading, which is currently very overwhelming (I’m backlogged with four summers’ booklists) with books that I don’t think I’m going to enjoy very much at all, but I know I can’t possibly be Her until I’ve learned to.

And as for the music she is supposed to like I am so intimidated by the thought of it that I avoid listening to anything at all, except alone in my car. Every way I turn right now, She seems to have laid out expectations for me. She’s getting pretty pushy.

It’s time I stopped feeding the tyrant. My dream-self is getting fat with my own expectations for Her, anyway. Bloated. I do not know how to stop except to simply get up and walk away from Her, to spend my summer re-reading favorite children’s books and plugging away at my story, chanting quietly, “I’ll revise later. I’ll revise later.” That will do for a while.

But really, if she is to die, for good and all, like Ozymandias, I’m going to have to come before my God and let her be torn away. And then I will need to be washed and then I will need to begin to learn freedom like the widow bringing her mite, and the fear of the Lord like Paul. It’s a long, arduous process. But He has promised me that it is finished, that He has done it, and that He loves me. So I, like little Alice, will be satisfied.

White Nights

Hello, friend! My blog looks new today. Yesterday, I started going through my posts and giving them semi-helpful tags and then I had to find a new theme and then I had to mess with my menu and then just essentially go down the rabbit hole of the blogosphere, but I am back now, and writing to you.

It is Holy Week and I am home. Many of my readings from the Psalms this week have felt repetitive. In the midst of Jesus’ descent to hell, they have focused on suffering, distress, betrayal, and anguish. They have felt foreign to me. As I have read over old entries I’m realizing that it has been a long time since I have felt that way.

In high school I used to call the bad times “white nights.” I stole the term from the third book in L.M. Montgomery’s Emily series. I’m convinced that Montgomery must have been going through severe depression herself as she was writing it, because her Emily has a lot of white nights, and very few soft, dark, sleepy ones. White nights are the aching ones without rest, nights when everything and nothing is wrong, when it does not seem that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”

I do not know what they look like for other people, but for me there’s a solitary light, maybe a pen and paper, always tears a plenty, and a mirror, all the better to facilitate what my parents call “navel-gazing.” I say that lightly, but there is something terrifying about the wilderness of one’s own mind. My friend Hopkins wrote, “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.” At its most bleak, depression is a consuming beast, a lowering ceiling.

In my experience depression and anxiety are one part chemical (that’s the fact,) one part fear (that’s the temptation,) and one part narcissism (that’s the sin.) I say that not to discount the pain. Our God-given bodies are built out of chemicals, temptation can recolor our world, and sin rips and gnaws. I’ll give you Hopkins again for that. (He does know a great deal about it.)

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be

As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

But it has been a long time since my last true white night. Early last fall, perhaps? I seem to have come a long way since this time last year. I still get a sort of generalized anxiety, though.

A few weeks ago, I was anxious so I took a shower to calm down, which is my usual medicine if it is too dark or cold for a walk. I tried to remember the words to “Jesus Loves Me,” and I couldn’t do it. Through shaving my legs, shampooing, and conditioning, I could not remember the third line. I had to get out of the shower and look up “Jesus Loves Me” on the internet (oh, the shame.)

Jesus loves me—this I know,

For the Bible tells me so;

Little ones to Him belong—

They are weak, but He is strong.

I forgot belonging, I forgot that Christ’s perfect love means he is the Keeper of my soul, be it anguished or joyful. In fear, in gladness, in blindness, in sight, in the wilderness, and in Glory we are not our own.

We belong to One who was there first. Christ tasted bitter gall on the cross, and he had a white, sleepless night followed by an anguished, black noonday. He sweated blood. He suffered betrayal, mockery, and the only true loneliness man has ever known. His nail-pierced feet know well the paths of suffering.

He will light us out of the darkness of our sin-mired hearts, casting great stones aside that we may climb further up and further in to His new life.

Thunder

The first night of my freshman year, I was lying in bed in the throes of homesickness when I heard the train whistle. “There’s a train two blocks from me at home.” I thought. “They have trains here, too!” And I went to sleep.

I came into this year sick to my stomach with fear, much more irregular fear than two years ago. And over the past week we’ve had thunderstorms. We never have thunder here. Thunder makes me think of home and summer evenings and my front porch and dinner soon and we-should-walk-in-the-gutter-like-when-we-were-kids. Thunder, like a train whistle, means comfort. And I’ve rejoiced in that.

Comfort is not bad. My corner is not bad. But Christianity is not intended to be cozy. When Christ said “Follow Me,” he did not preface it with “Come along, children, tea and scones at the next inn!” He said “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

We hear this and we fear and we hide. We don’t want to touch our cross, don’t want to think about what our cross may be, and don’t even try to make us carry it. It’s a dreadfully common fear. T.S. Eliot even put it into the mouth of the chorus, in their last speech in Murder in the Cathedral.

Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man,

Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;

Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;

Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;

Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,

Less than we fear the love of God.

We acknowledge our sin, our trespass, our weakness, our fault:

(…) Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

I cower by the fire behind the shut door, but that is not as I ought. Tonight at church, Ethan quoted St. Basil. “If you live alone whose feet will you wash?” Whose indeed? I am not called to serve myself, to obey my own frightened, sin-riddled demands.

So even if the crosses we bear and hang upon are the crosses of ourselves, as Whittaker Chambers would say, even if what hinders us is our self-made, self-inflicted, self-devouring fear, we are still to follow. His is the only heel that can crush that fear, though it may “hurt like billy-oh.”

We preface the Lord ’s Prayer with “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:” If I can call Him who made me my “Father, who art in heaven.”  I can be bold to say and do so much else. I can stomp out the fire with a marshwiggle foot, open the shut door, and step out. The thunder is not only a comfort. It is a reminder, a call.

Rich Condition

A week and a half ago, during the drive back up to school I made this list of things I was thankful for.

Friends who periodically lose their voices

Birthday cake

The opportunity to read books and write papers

My sister’s slackline

My sister

Weddings

The south

Leaves on trees

Mille Bornes

My grandparents

Driving by myself

The promise of summer jobs

The perhaps of eventual teaching jobs

Storybooks

Heroes

Computer battery life

Sun

Pretty dresses

Mothers who sew things magically overnight like the tailor of Gloucester’s mice friends

Not wearing make-up

Growing up

Chairs that recline

Not going to the dentist

Mountains

Game night

The fact that there is a man named Roger Beverage running for Sherriff Somewhere in West Virginia

Small boys In Subway with bowl cuts

Scenic overlooks

The Family Pantry

Dinner

Double spring

The interim between then and now has contained some less than pleasant days, but let me tell you some nice things.

-Sarah and I are officially living on third floor West next year, with a bathroom all to ourselves. I will forever remember MEP with fondness, but can promise not to miss it in the slightest.

-I registered for classes last night, and (along with Pre-Calc and Baby Physics) am taking Creative Writing, Sacrament and Lit, and Fantasy Lit next semester. Wonderful, wonderful.

-Today I got up and dressed up for Friday for the first time in quite a while. Then, with the rest of my Educational Policy class, I went to Dr. Edwards’ lecture for the Vision and Values conference, instead of watching the movie he’d assigned us for our class hour. He sent us an email later which said “You all are very kind. Disobedient. But kind.”

-This afternoon Laura and I went on a walk down Pinchalong, and sat on the edge of a cornfield for about twenty minutes. The field was raised so right at eyelevel we could see the stubble of the stalks all crowded round with big bright dandelions, and behind them were barely-leafy trees and a grand blue sky. There was sun and wind and roosters from that one weird house crowing in the distance. We decided that it was almost like finding Nowhere.

-In a few minutes I have a date with Heidi and Maddie to discuss making a big old wonderful breakfast for the Family Pantry in a couple weeks. Then I’m going to children’s theatre, then to finally watch that movie with the girls from Ed Policy.

I can easily describe this year in one word: humbling. I can no longer seem be able to do anything the way I’d like, or be anything I think I ought to be able to be. I am incapable, broken. Sometimes I feel like those words must be written on my forehead. I know that this is God “breaking the back of foolish pride,” and it is good, but it has been long. Every time I think I must surely, surely have learned enough, something else I had been counting on breaks down, and I must run for cover to the Rock. I must keep returning to Him till I clearly see that all else really is sinking sand. The first verse of one of my favorite hymns ends in this way:

Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known;
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

That, I suppose, is the lesson of the year. My condition is rich. I have faithful friends whose goodness continues to bless me, I have truly wonderful parents who will love me no matter what, I have two wonderful homes (at the very least), I have clothes and books and papers and pencils which make me quite happy, and I’m getting a really good liberal arts education, for heaven’s sake! Yet I have all these things by the grace of God. They are His. And, by the grace of God, so am I.

Spring Comes, but Slow

Spring is here fast and well. Everything is budding and blooming. There are two trees on campus, one on the far side of Hoyt and one in J. Howard’s garden, that smell particularly like heaven. The magnolia with droopy pink blossoms outside our window is the most beautiful thing, though. We’ve had our window open and screens out for a week now—Liesel is in raptures. (While I was trying to take a nap today, confused bumblebees kept crashing into the glass and waking me up.) The jar of daffodils on my desk is regularly (and covertly) replenished. I do not own enough shorts or dresses or tank tops or sandals.  And the leaves! They are coming fast and lively, born tip-first out of knobbly twigs. As for my yearly measure, I can say with confidence that they will be here by my birthday. This is not a Pennsylvania March. This is not a North Carolina March. This is a March like nowhere on earth. It is the March I need.

There have been good days lately. Last night I went to the midnight showing of the Hunger Games (more for the company than for the show) and had a worthwhile, silly time. I’ve more than once played with Emily’s boys in the backyard. I interviewed my dear Grandpa for my Mod Civ paper.  I presented my poems for my Dorothy L. Sayers Class outside in the heat, and I’m adding a classics minor of sorts. There have been good days.

There are still sometimes bad days, though. Today has been one of them a bit. I came out to take a nap on the grass and woke up in a foul and frightened mood. I didn’t like the sun, I didn’t like the happy people enjoying it, I didn’t like the towel I was lying on. I went in and finally ended up in my friends Kelsey and Hannah’s room. I put my head down on Hannah’s lap and cried just a tiny bit as she rubbed my back and stroked my hair for nearly half an hour. I am thankful for undeserved and unconditional kindness.

Nature’s spring is coming sudden while mine “comes dropping slow.” But come it does, and come He does.

February

This blog entry started in a funny way. I saw this commercial, and it was weirdly affecting. It made me feel a little less lonely and a little more lonely, and a little more cold and a little more warm…it also made me realize that I’ve begun to massively overthink small bits of media.

In fact, it sent me to Wikipedia to look up the month of February. The root word is Latin: februum. It means purification. Ouch. Other historical names for it include the Finnish helmikuu, meaning “month of the pearl,” and two Old English terms, Kalemonath, after cabbage, and Solmonath, meaning “mud month.”

A couple weeks ago in Am Lit we read a Robert Frost poem called “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” We’ve had a mild winter here, so in some ways, it is already mud time. And though I love to quote Hopkins’ line about “dearest freshness deep down things,” I’m having a hard time seeing the life beneath. There are nights when the mudflats of my heart are interminable, refusing to even end at some horizon.

(I’m floundering safely in imagery. I can’t even express myself without borrowing a whole month to lean upon. Sometimes I just can’t find the words—I was reprimanded in class the other day for describing a love story as “nice.” Oh, how the little writer in me has fallen…)

I hope, I believe, that I simply can’t see the end of it because I’m underneath it right now. This bloated February is my ceiling.

Yeats, who is, perhaps, not the ideal poet to cling to in my distress, says that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”–truer word was never spoken, but for this: “The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of jackals, where each lay, there shall be grass with reeds and rushes.” (Isaiah 35:7)

There are times when that is easy to believe, and then there are times when just the suggestion, applied to my heart, is incredible. Why is abundance so hard? Isaiah 55:1 calls “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Why is it so difficult to come?

Emily lent me a book the other day called One Thousand Gifts, of which some of you have probably heard. In the very first chapter the author remembers the nation of Israel, wandering in the desert. “For forty long years, God’s people daily eat manna—a substance whose name literally means ‘What is it?’ Hungry, they choose to gather up that which is baffling. They fill on that which has no meaning. More than 14,600 days they take their daily nourishment from that which they don’t comprehend. They find soul filling in the inexplicable. They eat the mystery.”

Yesterday, I went to church twice, and took communion twice. I ate the mystery in the morning, and again in the evening. It was wonderful. I filled my soul with “the inexplicable.” And I simply don’t understand. His death for my life. My life. And what is that, pray tell?

On Wednesday, I got a bit of news which forced me to let go of my last shred of self-assurance, my last sacred imaginative territory. Which was good. I was unexpectedly relieved. It’s gone. I’ve been holding onto it for years, and more suddenly than I’d expected, it’s simply no longer allowed me. Oh, but it’s frightening. I’m left alone with only me. February, my blank mudflat heart, and me, awash in freedom.

So here, a prayer for my muddy heart and for yours, is a devotion by Charles Spurgeon that my 12th grade English teacher once read to us: “Come in, O strong and deep love of Jesus, like the sea at the flood in spring tides, cover all my powers, drown all my sins, wash out all my cares, lift up my earth-bound soul, and float it right up to my Lord’s feet, and there let me lie, a poor broken shell, washed up by His love, having no virtue or value; and only venturing to whisper to Him that if He will put His ear to me, He will hear within my heart faint echoes of the vast waves of His own love which have brought me where it is my delight to lie, even at His feet forever.”

Letter to Self

Having a hard time, dreariness, melancholy, feeling down, heartsickness, depression. There. I said it. Depression. You don’t frighten me!

That is why I have not been writing much. The writers I study in my english classes always  produce great masterpieces from the depths of despair (or at least produce something…), but for me it is simply not so. Perhaps it means I am not a real writer, or perhaps it means that my depression itself is “differently abled.” All I know is, it has certainly manifested itself in less productive ways.

I have spent a huge portion of time watching TV on hulu and generally neglecting personal hygiene. Cool. It is easier to forget how inadequate I’m feeling if I make no attempt to be adequate in the first place. It is easier to run and hide than it is to deal. Easier to pretend that the melancholic little thing I have become has never existed, and that these imaginary characters’ small stories in this next show have the power to infuse me with life again. They do not.

Neither do I really have the power to help myself. I know that. But, meanwhile back at the ranch, I’ve written myself a letter about “waking up and trying.” Because, while writing does not come eagerly right about now, the satisfaction in saying precisely what I mean is a warm, welcome relief.

Self,

I know you are having a hard time remembering about things like swelling opera and sloping fields in sunny Tuscany and the “giggle when a tickle takes.” You’ve been having an even harder time remembering about amazing grace and everlasting arms and Jesus, lover of your soul.

So let’s start with an easy question.

WHAT IS TODAY LIKE? Not only the color, but the texture, the scent, the tang?

How is it different from yesterday?

How is it better?

What do you miss and why?

That too much? No, don’t stare in the mirror and cry–answer me this:

How do you feel about your socks? Are you wearing socks? You ought to, we both know how cold you let your feet get before putting something on them.

Perhaps you ought to take a hot bath and sing a song.

Is it sunny out?

How about wearing a skirt today?

If you put on a skirt I’ll let you look in the mirror. Then at least there’ll be something worth seeing.

Why don’t you read something aloud?

Do you remember the sound of a good sentence snapping into place like brand-new elastic?

I bet you remember the man who wrote this:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Remember how he also wrote this:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean out Saviour;

How do you think he wrote both? I know we’re getting to the hard questions here, but stick with me. I’m going as slow as I can.

Do you remember in Persuasion when Anne receives Captain Wentworth’s letter which is “not soon to be recovered from,” and they walk along with “smiles reined in and spirits dancing in private rapture”?

Do you remember in the Great Divorce when the man let the spirit destroy his sin but instead of dying it turned into a magnificent stallion and carried him up the mountain?

Do you remember when Jesus had to tell Mary not to cling to him, because she was so overwhelmed to find her Lord alive, and would not let go?

What I’m really asking is do you remember joy and do you still think it’s worth waiting for?

Do you remember how “having done all, to stand”?

You must be just a little more than “patience on a monument.” Chin up, toots.

Affectionately,

Alice

Things Change

Really, they do.

I don’t think I’d properly begun to realize that until this semester, perhaps even this Christmas. You see Christmas used to be this great shining thing set gloriously at the end of the year. School let out, we opened all our presents and drank eggnog, then the next day we were off to my grandparents’ in dear old Brookfield, MO.

It was just us and my Aunt Amy’s family when we were kids. Mary and Peter and Jacob and I sat at the kids table and wreaked havoc. Grandma would proudly set out her little individual salt shakers, and we would spend Christmas dinner salting each other’s milk and making up stories about my brother George’s latest escapades. Even when it wasn’t mealtime we would sit at the card table playing long games of Mille Borne (Creve! Creve!) and Monopoly. Usually Monopoly. Peter was always the banker and he always won, Mary cheerfully came in second, I came third for lack strategy, and Jacob came dolefully last, because Peter always had it in for him. Thus began the illustrious cousin tradition of bending and even, yes, breaking the rules.

As we got older, and my Uncles Bill’s kids also began to descend en masse every Christmas, we played Mafia just to cheat and peek, and generally win unfairly. All part of cousin bonding, you know. There was also an official cousin basketball game, in which I was always the official photographer, a job I was very bad at. Here we are in 2007 after that year’s game.

As I remember, 2007 was a particularly red-letter Christmas. Emily brought her new husband André, and we took joy in initiating him and giving him the official stamp of cousin approval.

Some of these signatures are forged, but who’s telling which?

The other notable thing about Christmas 2007 was Poopsie. Billy and Hannah went into town with Grandpa one day for some inauspicious reason, and came back a couple hours later with a puppy. He (she? I can’t remember…) was very cute, and also entirely unhousebroken (thus the name…) It wasn’t until Christmas night, when Mary and Tina and Joe and I took him for a walk that he did his business outside for the first time and we rejoiced. Then, while star-tripping, Joe fell and got that business all over his jeans, and we rejoiced only slightly less. (“Joe! That was Poopsie’s Greatest Achievement, and you fell in it!”) Wonderful Christmas.

Since then we have had a few family reunions in hotels which have brought us to some truly marvelous locations, like this unique antique mall.

As you can probably see written all over my face there, that was the Christmas that eight of us girls crowded into one hotel room and stuck this sign on the door.

It truly was, my friend. Santa was spotted just down the hall.

Mostly, the thing about Christmas with cousins is that it is a lot of very tall people in a house with very low ceilings sitting on couches together singing carols and giggling.

Three or four days full of lots. Lots of jokes about pantyhose, lots of games of Authors, lots of re-watching of State Fair, lots of racing out to the cold breezeway to grab orange balls, lots of Christmas.

Here we are, last Christmas—grown, haven’t we?

BUT…

This Christmas we couldn’t get there till the 23rd. It was the McLellans’ year off, Uncle Jon (better known as UJ) had done his familial duty at Thanksgiving, and as for Uncle Bill’s—Hannah and Billy had to work and couldn’t come, and Joe had already left for St. Louis. We had a nice evening, sang carols and all, and the next day an attempt was made at a cousin basketball game, which I rather spoiled, and that was it. The rest of them left. We went ahead and did the present opening on Christmas Eve, just to get it out of the way, it seemed. Christmas felt like any other Sunday, except quieter. Even in our unusually small numbers, we more than doubled the attendance at my grandparents’ sadly fading church. Merry Christmas and all that…

The holidays seemed to have matched my semester a little too well—quite lost from what I thought it would be. It all leaves me holding fast to the things that haven’t changed:

When we spent the night in Nashville, and the question of the evening’s entertainment was brought up, Peter Immediately said “We could play Monopoly…” and we all said “NO!”

When asked to pick a carol George made a show of deciding and then grumbled “We Three Kings.” It used to be the only song he’d sing with us, even in the summertime.

There was still a card table in the breezeway piled with cookies and leftovers.

A Christmas Carol was read aloud in the car, and It’s a Wonderful Life lives in that glorious black and white.

There’s something else too, that hasn’t changed. However I feel about the day, whether or not I even remember that it’s Christmas, it’s still the day Christ was born. It’s still the incredible beginning of God’s plan of redemption. It is a day that means even in the dreariest, most disenchanted place A SAVIOR IS BORN. Even when I’m drowning in self,  and dull, adopted hurts, my God sent his Son as a baby, even more vulnerable and prone to tears than I am, that I might know hope. And that will not change.

Tomorrow is new day and a new year in which I get to serve a living God who came to save me. Please remind me when I forget. Please.