System Malfunction

It’s a balmy spring-like day, and I just came back from a walk. I needed to process the scenes from Florida. Once again, we’re shown footage of students filing out of a school with their hands up or on each other’s shoulders. An army of emergency vehicles and school buses parked helter-skelter around the campus. Frantic parents behind crime scene tape. Swat teams in riot gear. And then I keep imagining what the media mercifully doesn’t show you. A mother rocking in a fetal position in her teenaged son’s room, clutching his soccer jersey. Or the spouse of a murdered teacher, catatonic with grief, sitting at the kitchen table where she ate breakfast with her husband that morning.

This hits so close to home for those of us who spent our professional lives inside a public school. We know what a February afternoon feels like, right before the dismissal bell rings. Late winter is the armpit of the school year; the shine has long worn off, winter sports are over, spring sports haven’t started yet, standardized tests and final projects loom and June is barely visible on the horizon. The natives tend to be a little restless. I remember instances of fire alarms going off at the end of the day, occasionally pulled by a bored student, but more often accompanied by an announcement “Please disregard. There is a system malfunction.” Indeed.

We have a long history of violence in this country. The wars, including the one we fought with each other, the bloodshed in the western frontier, the gangsters and organized crime of the 1920’s, the bitter strife of race riots and now drug wars–it’s all horrible, but it’s the sad nature of the human beast.  I don’t condone any of it but at least there is some sort of ugly agenda. I will shoot you because you own slaves, or you didn’t pay your drug bill, or I want the land that belongs to you. What I cannot get my head around is the slaughter of innocent people for no apparent reason other than the shooter is hurt and angry or carries some stain that can only be washed clean by the blood of strangers.

I was bullied in school as I suspect most of us were, to some degree.  Whether we were too fat or too skinny, didn’t make the football team or cheerleading squad, were too bright or too slow, or maybe our family was poor and our clothes smelled bad—it didn’t matter. We’ve all sustained injury from grenades of pain hurled by our peers and most of us have probably thrown a few of our own.

I can remember a fourth-grade classmate who was vilified by the teacher every single day. Whatever went wrong, it was his fault, and he would just lower his eyes and take it when she lit into him. Looking back, that teacher should have been yanked from the classroom, but she was one of the revered grand dames of our elementary school and no one dared criticize her. The young man eventually graduated, shows up at class reunions happily married and successful, and to my knowledge, has never shot anyone with a high-powered rifle because he was treated like a pariah in fourth grade.

What’s different now? Is it because social media allows us no escape? Back in the day, we could at least go home and close our door and cry or scream or play loud music or do whatever we needed to soothe ourselves without seeing continued taunts and ridicule on the electronic device we’re connected to 24 hours a day. Or is it that we no longer have the resilience to accept that life can be bitterly cruel and terrible things happen to us that are not our fault and are therefore entitled to take out our frustration on others we perceive as more fortunate? Or is it simply because it’s harder for some of us to find a support system? Whether it’s within our own family or a church or an organization—we all need a place to go where someone will wrap their arms around us and say it’s going to be ok. If we’re out there flailing for too long, we’ll grab onto any lifeline we can find, even if it’s extended by the hand of evil.

It appears there is nothing we can do about slaughtering the innocent except voice platitudes, wring our hands, and wait for it to happen again. When we dare raise our voices in question or protest, we are like gnats smashed against the windshield of this giant stinking leviathan of corruption that purports to be our federal government. Someone told me recently that when he sent an email to his congressman, he got an automated response informing him that the site was no longer being monitored. Not even a “Duly noted. Thank you for sharing your concern.” No, this was “Sorry, but we can’t be bothered with your petty email because we are too busy pandering to political action committees and special interest groups and whoever else will guarantee us lots of money for re-election.”

I have been blessed to live a life of comfort and ease and although I faithfully vote in every election, I have never been terribly political. This sixty-year old moderately liberal retired school teacher is angry and frustrated about what is happening, but I feel helpless. The message is loud and clear that I can send all the emails and make all the phone calls I want, and it will do no good whatsoever. Dying children don’t stand a chance against big money and big power.

I was still teaching when we started code red drills after Columbine. We’d hear the announcement over the intercom, and I would close the blinds, lock the doors, and turn off the lights. My students would put down their instruments and we’d all crowd behind my desk, in awkwardly close proximity, away from view of the windows. The kids would snicker and whisper, and I would admonish them to be quiet, that this was serious, and we’d wait patiently for the all clear announcement. At the time it seemed silly and contrived, and we’d roll our eyes at the idea of a boogie-man coming down the hall to get us. And then at a neighboring rural school district in April 2003, a middle school student walked into the cafeteria and shot his principal dead in front of hundreds of his classmates.

Fifteen years later, we are still slaughtering the innocent. The system continues to malfunction.


Please Remain Seated

When we were cleaning out closets last week, we opened a box and found an old yellowed program from an “Alumni Revue” presented at what was then West Chester State Teachers’ College, dated May 22, 1943. My mother-in-law was one of the student soloists performing piano selections by Liszt and Chopin. A typical Saturday afternoon recital where I suspect the attendees were dressed in suits and ties and proper dresses and hats. Across the bottom is written, “NOTICE: If the Air Raid signal is sounded during the program, please REMAIN SEATED.”

I simply cannot imagine what it must have been like living at a time when you didn’t know if or when an air raid siren was going to sound. To have black-out curtains hanging in your windows. To have civilians manning towers along the nearby mid-Atlantic coast, searching for submarines. No cell phone warnings, no break-ins of network programming or that ominous fanfare NBC plays which makes you immediately drop what you’re doing and race over to the TV to find out where the latest catastrophe has occurred. No, just a simple “Please remain seated” and we’ll tell you what to do if we’re about to be bombed. Otherwise, enjoy the concert. Matter of fact. Fiercely calm. In today’s vernacular, “We’ve got this.”

lookout tower

We also discovered an album of pictures of my father-in-law’s war days. Blurry black and white shots of him squinting into the sun wearing a safari hat with his uniform, taken while he was stationed in Egypt, the pyramids visible in the background. He was trained as a meteorologist, so he never saw combat, but like so many of his peers, was a long way from his family’s farm.

Brian's dad safari hat (2)

Most of us have not lived with the threat of enemy aggression on our own soil. The wars of recent generations have been fought on the other side of the world. Korea and Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—bloody horrors in far-away jungles and deserts but not on our doorstep. No Pearl Harbors. No war bonds and rationing and air raid warnings on concert programs.

But that program and collection of faded pictures unexpectedly discovered on a mid-winter afternoon gave us a glimpse into what was the everyday reality for our parents and grandparents. A father in uniform standing in front of the pyramids.  A mother blissfully playing her Chopin etude while someone scans the skies over Philadelphia, Pennsylvania looking for German Luftwaffe to appear on the horizon. Powerful reminders of just how spoiled we are, how comfortable and secure a life we are privileged to live, thanks to the sacrifices of those who came before us.

In “Darkest Hour,” the current movie about Winston Churchill, there is a scene where Churchill rides the Underground in London and asks the commoners on the train to help him decide whether to fight or negotiate with Hitler at the onset of World War II. The passengers, astonished at seeing their prime minister riding public transportation, jump up from their seats, and respond with a vehement yes, that they are willing to fight and sacrifice and do whatever it takes. The movie makes me wonder, even these almost 80 years later, where we would be today if men like Churchill hadn’t taken a stand and the rest of us hadn’t set aside our differences and joined forces to support those leaders, who despite their imperfections, were men of integrity and vision. Who agonized over doing what was best for their country.


God forbid, we should ever be threatened again because I worry about how we would respond. We are so busy clamoring for attention for our own agendas, so focused on “me, too” in the general sense that we’ve lost touch with “us”. The cacophony of our voices is so loud we can’t hear each other. I doubt that it would be prudent for any of our current world leaders to escape their security team and hop on public transportation to chat with the masses, but if one of them did, I am afraid we would remain seated, headphones in our ears, eyes glued to our phones, oblivious to what is happening around us.



A toilet has taken up residence in our guest room for the last three weeks. The steps and second floor carpet are covered with plastic which the cat loves to prowl around on at night–crinkle, crinkle at 4 AM. Cardboard boxes filled with bottles of shower gel and shampoo, along with pictures and stacks of towels are piled on various beds. Our windows have been stripped of their curtains and wall switches stand naked without face plates awaiting the application of a new coat of paint.

We are remodeling our master bathroom, repainting rooms, and installing new carpet on most of our second floor. I know just the word “remodel” is enough to strike fear in the hearts of many. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Weeks of cooking in a microwave perched on a coffee table. Faucets that don’t fit the new sinks. Needed items delayed because of a dock-workers strike somewhere in the world. A new countertop just a centimeter too short. Supporting walls that don’t support. But this hasn’t been horrible. A little inconvenient, yes, but surprisingly painless. We’re not quite finished yet, so I hope I’m not tempting fate.

bathroom workspace

We built our home twenty years ago, and for the most part, it has served us well. Unlike some of our friends who are starting to use the “D” word, down-sizing, we’re not there yet. Good Lord willing, we plan to stay here for a while and have discovered that things which were all the rage when we built the house are maybe not so practical in the long run. Like the giant corner spa tub that we’ve used once in the last five years. (Not to mention having to stand on top of said tub to open the bathroom windows.)

So, we decided to lose the tub and splurge on a bigger tiled shower. Of course, once you start a project, Pandora’s box opens and beguiles you with “Well, maybe you should replace the carpet while you’re doing this and since the painter’s here, let him do the guest bathroom, too.” I will own these words, reinforcing the notion that I taught my husband how to spend money.

Every morning, at 7 AM, the foreman and his crew arrive at our door, work steadily without so much as a lunch break, and leave at 5 PM. They are efficient, professional, and utterly amazing. I have no mechanical skills whatsoever. None. I can tell the difference between a Phillips-head and a regular screwdriver and I know righty-tighty, lefty-loosey and that’s about as far as it goes. What these gentlemen can do, almost effortlessly, boggles my mind.


No one scratches their head and says, “Uh, I don’t know. Let me call someone and see if they can figure out what to do about this.” I doubt there are any remodeling problems that the foreman has not seen or does not know how to address. The man who laid the shower tile was truly an artist. The electrician said the original lights we picked wouldn’t work but he had some we liked just as much that would. The carpenter had to do some tricky finagling of the cabinetry, because the walls weren’t quite plumb, and it took some shims here and sanding there.

It is a privilege to be around people who model excellence and take pride in what they do. While it seems like we’re always complaining about being ripped off or being on the receiving end of shoddy workmanship and granted, much of that complaining is legitimate, it gives me hope to see that not everyone is on that page. That there are still folks who believe in an honest day’s work and in treating clients with respect and consideration. That impeccable craftsmanship is still alive and well. That it’s not always about money and greed and how much I can make with as little effort as possible.  

I am humbled and grateful to have had these workmen in my home to create a new space for us to enjoy. I have nothing but the highest respect for those who plaster walls and painstakingly arrange tiles and figure out a way for the towel racks to fit beside the mirrors. We’re thrilled with what these talented individuals have accomplished in a relatively short time. They, like the millions who bring their skills to the construction trade or the hospital or the restaurant kitchen, don’t get nearly the credit they deserve.

But I will be glad when this is all finished, so I don’t have to rummage through boxes to find shampoo and aspirin. I will be glad to say good riddance to that trampled down 20-year-old builders’ grade carpet that has sustained the abuse of four dogs and two cats. I can’t wait to use my fancy new bathroom and not be stepping on cat litter scattered on the floor in the middle of the night. It will be great to see the lovely Sherwin Williams’ “Oyster Bay” covering the denim blue and taupe walls I’ve woken up to for the last 15 years. And it will be wonderful to have the toilet back where it belongs.

bathroom vanity (2)



Sacred Service

I’ve spent a lot of time recently learning Hebrew. Well, not really learning it, but learning how to pronounce it. The clunky consonants, unusual vowel pronunciations and that “ch” sound that feels like scraping a piece of paper across the roof of your mouth have caused me to develop a whole new respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters who speak Hebrew fluently for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs. Even the word amen is pronounced differently. “Ah-Main” instead of “Ah-Men.”

The chorale that I sing with is preparing a performance of Ernest Bloch’s “Sacred Service,” written in the early 1930’s and described on the title page as “A Sabbath Morning Service according to the Union Prayer Book.” I think all of us were intimidated by a score of 90-plus pages of Hebrew, very little of which is repetitive, not to mention the fact that the music is rhythmically complex and just plain difficult. I sit with my laptop listening to a downloaded file that goes through the music phrase-by-phrase, first pronouncing the words slowly and distinctly, followed by a sung rendition from a somewhat wobbly-voiced quartet. Kind of like Rosetta Stone for Hebrew.


I’ve sung a lot of sacred works – masses and requiems and glorias, the great Bach “B Minor Mass” and “Christmas Oratorio” and of course, the “Messiah,” all of which have biblical texts but heavily slanted toward the New Testament. This is the first time I have ever sung music intended for, in the composer’s own words, “the congregation of the Children of Israel.”

It is heart-wrenchingly beautiful, holy music. A solo baritone cantor, requiring a truly virtuosic singer, soars above the orchestra and is interwoven with the choral parts throughout the entire work. The texts are powerful hymns of praise to God and interestingly, the translations not unfamiliar words— “We adore Thee and worship Thee, and we bow the head before Thee.” “He the King of the Kings of Kings.” “For all things in heav’n and earth are Thine.”

Ernst Bloch

Bloch, like us, knew no Hebrew when he was commissioned to compose the piece but according to program notes, “embarked upon intense study of the text” and intended to express “not only the literal meanings of the Hebrew words but their widest possible connotations.” He even insisted that one movement always be sung in the native language of the country where it was being performed to make sure the audience understood the message. He chose not to just skim the surface of the text, but present it in all its depth and complexity, and it is our job as choral musicians to do the same thing. We have our work cut out for us.

We spend hours of rehearsal time, grinding through the music, sometimes note-by-note, singing sections at painfully slow tempos just to get some grasp of the rhythm. We gather in small groups to sing excerpts as our director circulates through the room listening for wrong notes and hesitant Hebrew. We stand in circles so that we can watch and listen to each other, gleaning help from another singer when we falter and smiling with our eyes when we make it through a difficult passage without a mistake.

In mid-April, a combined choir of 120 voices will sing the “Sacred Service” accompanied by a world-class regional orchestra. Many of the choir members are local college students for whom this may be their first exposure to music, or anything else, representing the Jewish faith. That’s probably true for most of us adult singers as well. The orchestra conductor himself is Jewish, and I suspect the opportunity for him to present this magnificent work goes way beyond artistic interpretation of notes on the page.

We frequently hear about the power of music and its ability heal a troubled world, to help us figure out a way to talk to each other and more importantly, how to listen to each other. One of the articles I read about Bloch mentioned that he announced at the tender age of nine, “I would compose music that would bring peace and happiness to mankind!” If only it were that simple.

I must get back to practicing since I am still struggling with the fifth movement. I want to learn this to the best of my abilities. I owe that to the chorale, the music directors, the audience. I owe that to the faithful people for whom this work is their “Messiah,” their Vivaldi “Gloria.”  And, to be honest, it’s kind of cool to learn a foreign language and a different way of praising God from a piece of music.

There is something to be said for immersing oneself in new learning, not only to preserve artistic integrity but to respect another culture or religious tradition. It would be a travesty for the “Sacred Service” to be performed in English, and yes, it’s hard work to learn the Hebrew, but that effort places us in the temple, shoulder to shoulder and voice to voice with our Jewish brethren, all worshipping God together. We develop the skills we need to sing with those who may be different from us rather than standing in the corner with crossed arms and an angry face, steadfastly refusing to learn a new song.

 Jewish worship




Two Saints


They still walk among us, you know. The saints of God. Most of the time we don’t recognize them. We see them as just normal people moving in and out of our lives, but their sainthood is there, a phantom figure moving in the periphery, quietly changing the world for the better.

I was privileged to know two who have recently left us. One was a long-time member of our church who never stopped giving back to those around him. He cared for his mother who lived to be 104 and when his wife became ill, spent the remaining days of his own life caring for her. He led her to that communion rail every Sunday, helped her take the bread and the wine, even when she no longer knew she was at church. He was a part of nearly every outreach ministry and every organization in the church and local community. If he saw a need, he was there, no questions asked, no fanfare. He fed people with Meals on Wheels, drove them to appointments, and offered a ray of hope at the other end of a telephone hotline when they had nowhere else to turn. He saved lives because of the fierceness with which he lived his faith.

He could be an ornery character at times, opinionated and stubborn and several years ago, when my husband and I asked him for a capital campaign gift, we found out in a hurry what he thought of the cost of proposed renovations to the parish!

Yesterday, we celebrated his entrance into heaven with a joyful service of resurrection, the sanctuary filled with people whose lives he touched.  

I doubt that the other saint ever darkened the door of a church. But I firmly believe he was doing God’s work in his own way. Another tough cookie, a gruff exterior with the proverbial heart of gold, this man was a local veterinarian who cared for two generations of our family’s pets. His bedside manner was better with animals than people. I remember one of my mother’s friends was highly offended when Doc looked at her during an exam and said, “This dog is too damn fat. What the hell are you feeding her?

Years ago, Doc came into the office on New Year’s Day when one of my dogs fell off a bed and injured her leg. He would call you with lab results on Sunday afternoon or at 10 o’clock at night because he was always in the office. His home was next to his practice, (like in the old days of small-town family doctors) and you knew that when you had an animal in the hospital, Doc was there. His daughter, who now runs the practice, said he often slept in the hospital if there was an animal in critical condition. He never pulled any punches when he looked up at you over those half-glasses, but no one was kinder or gentler when it was time to say good-by to a beloved pet.

Doc and my dad were great friends, sharing a love of trains and history and good wine. He was the last person outside the family to see my father alive. I heard a knock at the back door and there was Doc with his scruffy beard, in his retirement uniform of wool plaid shirt and worn jeans, bringing my dad a bottle of wine made from grapes he grew himself. I took Doc back to the room to see my dad, he said good-by to his friend, and then gave me an uncharacteristic hug. Later, after the funeral director left, I gratefully sipped a glass of that wine.

There will be no glorious church service for Doc. Just a simple gathering of friends and clients at the veterinary office on a Sunday afternoon. But no less sacred.

In a world filled with people shouting about their accomplishments and abilities, we need to find our saints and treasure them and hold them close while they’re still walking among us, and maybe even attempt to emulate them.

Some days, I literally feel assaulted with brashness. Everyone clamoring about what they can do or what they have to sell or the best way to cook mashed potatoes. Quietness and humility do not trend on social media. I enjoy Facebook as much as anyone, but there’s a fine line between sharing joys and accomplishments and announcing to the world how wonderful you are. I find it utterly appalling that the current leader of our country believes it’s necessary to do this.

The pluggers are the ones who make a difference. They are our saints. Like Doc and the gentleman from our church, they just go about their business, putting others’ lives and needs before their own and vehemently rejecting any kind of adulation for their efforts. They are possessed of a drive to serve, a fire in the belly to do whatever it takes to help another human being. Or animal. To do the right thing regardless of personal cost.

We sang this hymn as the recessional at the funeral yesterday. A fitting tribute to two saints among us.


“Come, labor on, No time for rest, till glows the western sky,

Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,

And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,

Servants, well done.”


–The Hymnal, 1982


              sunset with field



Just Another New Year’s Eve

“…It’s just another New Year’s Eve, another night like all the rest. It’s just another New Year’s Eve, let’s make it the best…”

So go the lyrics of that ancient Barry Manilow song that became the “Auld Lang Syne” for my generation. It was a hit in my high school slumber party days when we stopped talking about our boyfriends long enough to gather around the TV and watch a seemingly ageless Dick Clark count down the last seconds before the ball dropped in New York City. I remember it from college, when most of us gathered at midnight were going to be married in the new year, anxious to settle into apartments stocked with Corningware dishes and towels from JC Penney. As I grew older and more cynical, my friends and I referred to it (and other syrupy, sentimental ballads) as “stick your head in the oven” songs—guaranteed to depress the hell out of you on a holiday already marked by enforced frivolity and over indulgence.

Times Square

New Year’s always seems like the poor little sister of the big three. At Thanksgiving, we’re reveling in roast turkey and pumpkin spice everything and by the time Santa waves to us at the end of the Macy’s parade, we’re ready to bring on the tinsel and glitter, throw out the pumpkins on the porch and hang the greens. Christmas is king, filled with glorious music and houses illuminated at night and presents and cookies and family all in a breathless rush. Then after that lost week between Christmas and New Year’s where you don’t even know what day it is, the tree starts dropping needles in earnest, the cookies turn stale, and we must take it all down and go back to work or school with nothing but the interminable monotony of winter reaching as far as the eye can see. And is there anything more depressing than Valentine displays in stores the day after Christmas? Arghhh…

New Year 2018

But I like to think of every New Year as the start of a road trip. We get behind the wheel, excited for the journey, but there are detours and traffic jams and sometimes even accidents and we don’t always end up at the destination we programmed into the GPS. Sometimes, we stop for a breathtaking view and the perfect song comes on the radio and we’re laughing with a group of friends in the back seat. Other times, we’re alone in the car for longer than we’d like to be and we’re not sure where we’re going, and we take a wrong turn. We’re lost and discover that we need to ask someone for help. And, if we’re lucky, further down the road, we’ll get an opportunity to help someone else fix their tire or find their way home.

I’ve gotten into the car for quite a few journeys into new years. I still love the ride even though I worry a little more about what obstacles may lie ahead, and about what’s happening in the world outside my vehicle. But I take a deep breath, and pull out onto the road anticipating new sights and stopping at new places. There are different people traveling with me than there were twenty years ago as well as some who have come along every year since I was a child. I treasure them all. My car will always have pet hair on the seats and snoot snot on the windows. I will find good restaurants along the way and eventually, I’ll end up at the beach. Choral music will be playing, and my copy of the Book of Common Prayer will be somewhere in the car as I joyfully set out on highway 2018.

road trip 2

I wish you a wonderful road trip into this New Year. Travel with those closest to you, crank up the radio and sing along with your favorite music. Keep moving and enjoy the ride.  And don’t listen to that Barry Manilow song.



Savoring Advent

The season started slower when I was growing up. No radio stations blaring “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” the day after Halloween. No one smugly announcing at the Labor Day picnic that all their Christmas shopping is finished. We celebrated holidays as they came, rather than racing ahead to the next event before the dishes were put away from the last one.

Instead of the Elf on the Shelf, I grew up with Advent calendars, those sparkly European-looking pictures with little doors you opened on each day of December’s dwindling light. The largest door was opened on Dec. 24 to a radiant manger scene, not a Christmas tree with presents. Advent calendars symbolized anticipation and patience. They taught me the meaning of waiting. I’m not sure what Elf on the Shelf teaches other than that questionable behavior is ok, as long as you don’t get caught. Sounds like the mantra of the world right now.

advent calendar 7 (2)

I was wound up from the day I opened the first door on the Advent calendar. In early December, my mother would unlock the closet built into the wall beside the stairs, and pull out boxes that said Fels Naptha and Rinso, which now held gaudy Christmas balls, rolls of wrapping paper and nubby half-burned candles. I loved unpacking it all again, while the music of the latest Firestone Christmas album played on our stereo.

Even as a child, I felt the underlying mystery, the sense that we were about to celebrate something beyond our understanding, and that excited me as much as the hope of seeing a turquoise Western Flyer bicycle parked in front of the tree on Christmas morning. Fifty-plus years later, I still feel that same sense of wonder, that same anticipation as I bring the first box of decorations up from the basement, noting that my knees are a bit creakier than they were last year.

advent wreath

Subtlety was not a priority in our decorating. We draped laurel around our front door, entwined with twinkle lights and topped with a trio of red plastic lighted bells we bought in Sears’ Christmas department. Our porch pirates consisted of neighborhood hoodlums who occasionally stole light bulbs from outdoor displays, but never more than that. (“Punk-ism is rampant in this town, just rampant!” was one of my dad’s frequent comments.) Red velvet wreaths encased in silver tinsel hung on the front windows above those ubiquitous 1960’s plastic candles with the orange bulbs. A glittery sphere suspended from the doorframe between our living and dining room held a sprig of real mistletoe. Our manger set came from Woolworth’s. A few of the figures still have their price tags that say 29 cents.

manger figure with label (2)

The tree never appeared until the week before Christmas because my dad, who sold insurance for living, had an inordinate fear of some indiscreet activity in the light connections causing our tree to burst into flames and burn down the house. Considering the condition of some of our light sets, his concern was legitimate.

In those days, trees did not have convenient little holes drilled in the bottom that magically slid onto a spike protruding from the stand. Oh no. These trees were placed in red metal bowls topped with a round bracket through which four screws were forced into the trunk. Not an easy process and one which my mother had to deal with since my father had no mechanical skills whatsoever. Rarely did this apparatus hold the tree straight so additional wiring into the wall was usually required. My dad would walk around muttering, “Next year, we’re getting a tree on a window shade. Pull it down in December and leave it rolled up the rest of the year.” Meanwhile, my mother rustled around under the tree saying more unpleasant words.

Advent calendar 1

Now that I’m retired, and not dealing with 20-plus holiday musical performances, the pace of the season has once again slowed a bit. We peruse the tree lot on a blissfully uncrowded Monday afternoon. I decorate our home over the course of a week. An old friend and I recently spent a beautiful winter day shopping for gifts in a nearby small town, enjoying lunch at a cozy restaurant, talking to the shop-owners and re-discovering that not everything wonderful can be found on-line.

advent calendar 2

Last week I took wreaths to the cemetery to place in front of the graves of those who used to gather around our holiday table. I remember coming here with my mother when I was a child, so I keep making the trek. At my parents’ grave, I tell them I am writing and working hard for the church and still singing and that I miss them terribly, but I’m healthy and happy and blessed. Before I turn to leave, I give the wreath bracket one final push into the ground to make sure it will stay anchored, straighten the bow, and wish them a Merry Christmas in heaven.

I no longer open an Advent calendar door each day (although that habit lasted into my young adult years) but I still savor these days leading up to Christmas. I like the fact that our denomination sings Advent hymns and that we don’t throw open the doors on full-blown Christmas until that fourth Advent candle has been lit. Our church is admittedly a bit austere during December but then when the greens are hung, and the poinsettias banked against the rood screen and the lights go up with the first opening chords of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” it is sudden and breath-taking and glorious, much like I imagine it was when that star first appeared to those long-ago shepherds.

Christmas sanctuary 1 (2)



My grandmother’s hand-painted ceramic crèche, (the “good” crèche as opposed to the one from the five and ten) is displayed in our living room on what was once her desk. She and my grandfather were great proponents of liturgical correctness, so during Advent, the manger bed remained empty. In an alcove of the desk rests a tiny Carolina soap box labeled “Baby Jesus” in my grandmother’s handwriting. On Christmas Eve, as close to the stoke of midnight as possible, I remove the baby from his womb of cardboard and tissue paper and gently place him in the manger. The Savior is born, the waiting is over, the world’s darkness has turned to light. Would that it be so.

Baby Jesus Box (2).jpg