Why Lent?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this. I didn’t grow up in a church that observed Lent and I don’t have a degree in Biblical studies or Old Testament or New Testament or divinity or anything similar. As a kid, the most notice I generally had to Easter’s arrival was Palm Sunday. I heard reference to Lent but was under the impression that Catholic people observed it, and no others. Ash Wednesday was a Catholic observance; Mardi Gras was for New Orleans and a few predominantly Catholic countries.

As a high schooler, I had tried to observe Holy Week, in that I reminded myself it was Holy Week, read Scripture passages set during the week before Christ’s crucifixion, and wore black on Good Friday. This limited but well-meaning personal observance sparked during the spring break of my junior year. I was on a school trip to Madrid when I, two friends, and a chaperone observed a parade for “Holy Thursday”. Candles, marchers in hoods resembling KKK hoods, rugby-built men carrying a platform on their shoulders strewn with red roses, depicting Christ in a crimson robe and wearing a crown of thorns. The platform which followed carried a much larger, more elaborate representation of Christ’s mother, with painted tears, gold filigree crown, a green veil, and white roses placed around her robe. People rushed to this one to try to touch a petal, her robe, the platform itself.

Although I disagreed with the elaborate recognition of Mary in contrast to the stern, strained reaction to Jesus (although, it might have been appropriate considering that the procession mimicked Christ’s walk from Gethsemane to his trial), the observance and event made a deep impression on me. I recognized that Holy Week is honored and kept by Christians worldwide, and I wished to better observe it as well. I didn’t hear “Maundy Thursday” until I started working at the Christian publishing company where I work now.

So what is Lent? As best I understand, Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Good Friday. It mimics Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness and begins with Ash Wednesday, on which we remember that we are sinful people with no hope of redemption outside of Christ. That’s why people (not just Catholic people) get ashes put on their forehead in the shape of a cross, to remind us that we are dust, that we came from ashes and will likewise return to them. That’s what Lent is designed for, to remind us how miraculous and needed and holy and generous Easter is. Lent also helps us consider what it must have been like to be Jesus, every step on his journey to Jerusalem taking him closer to false accusation, torture, abandonment, and death. We know Easter will come, just as Jesus knew it, but that doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t incredibly hard.

Traditionally, people give up something—like sweets or social media—during Lent for a similar reason. To make the journey harder. To simplify your life so you can appreciate what you have year round. To remind us of Christ’s struggle to remain sinless in the wilderness, when he fasted and prayed. You’re supposed to make a change that costs something, and most people fast from something (obstain from something), but others add something. I’ve done both.

In the four years since I started working here, I have observed this aspect of Lent 3 times. One year I fasted from food every Wednesday. One year I got up early and watched a new video in a devotional series every morning. One year I gave up sweets except on Sundays. (Traditionally, Christians do not fast on Sundays because Sundays are the days set apart to remember Christ’s resurrection, which freed Christians from the hopelessness of sinful life.)

I noticed that the Lent I got up early to watch the devotional videos, my life didn’t become simpler as it was meant to. I enjoyed the practice, the discipline, and the videos themselves. But I was mostly lying in bed listening to other people worship and pray, trying not to doze off again. The videos become something else on my to-do list, and the mental weight of that left my insides more jangled than before. And jangled is not the point of Lent. Not as I understand it.

Why Lent? Because my heart needs to get quiet. I need to reach out for God, lean on God, rest in God, in an organized way. I used to be incredibly disciplined and focused in more-or-less every area of my life. Now, not so much. I was also very pharisaic in those days, exerting control over everything possible to help me cope with my many anxieties. So I want to recapture the good of my once prayer life—the devotion, the discipline—without also lashing in the bad—lack of understanding, inability to let go of control. But adding a new item to the list is the last thing I need.

This year, Ash Wednesday is on Valentine’s Day. It’s weird in the sense that a lot of people will be fasting from sweets or carbonated beverages on Valentine’s Day, a day hyper focused on both. Also, it’s a day hyper focused on romantic love. But in the sense of this being a day devoted to celebrating love more broadly, Valentine’s Day is the perfect day to celebrate Ash Wednesday and to begin simplifying and resetting our lives. I’m picturing couples at quiet dinners, dressed up, leaning toward one another with ashes on their foreheads. I’m imagining people with roses in vases, dancing to music and cleaning out their closets. I’m picturing people nibbling on chocolate as they clean off their desks and lay their Bibles in the center. I see people circling April Fool’s Day on the calendar and writing “Easter” inside.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, only Christ’s love for us can offer us forgiveness and hope. But for those of us who want to be in God’s community, who believe Jesus is both human and God, who have promised Jesus they will try to follow his example, Lent is a great time to reset our perspectives and lifestyles and motivations. It’s 40 days to make a change, to build your life differently, to learn to pray constantly. I hope the Lent can be that for you.

Here are a few ideas if you want to observe Lent this year but are nervous because it literally starts tomorrow:
-Do something creative every day while praying. Color, knit, fold paper swans, write new a poem one stanza at a time.
-Make Saturdays and Sundays social media free.
-Plan a special trip to help you get away, rest, and reconnect with God.
-Commit to studying a new psalm every day.
-Sit in a different place at church every week.
-Meet with friends every Tuesday to journal about Bible passages and write prayers.
-Fast from food once a week to remind you to rely on God for sustenance.
-Memorize one new Bible verse every week.
-Turn off your radio during your commute. Pray for strangers you see nearby or worship with just your own voice.
-Attend a different worship service during Lent than your usual.
-Pick a local organization to bless in a different way each week. (If you aren’t sure how, call their offices to ask for suggestions.)
-Fast from complaining, gossip, or another language-oriented sin.
-Bless each of your neighbors with a meal, yard work, or good conversation.
-Only read books by authors of a gender, race, or other identity not like your own.
-Send one encouraging message every day to someone who won’t expect it.

4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother isn’t. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you see your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

Memories of Being Read To

My mother’s reading voice is still one of my favorites on the planet—yes, including Morgan Freeman’s and Idris Elba’s. She was a stay-at-home mom for 22 years and always emphasized reading to my brother and I. For many years she thought that she read to my brother too much because he didn’t like reading as he grew older, though he’s come back around. But I always recognized the importance of books and her love of them.

I wanted to read long before I could. I remember the process of learning to read and was just precocious enough that I wondered how my reading relationship with my mother was going to change when I didn’t need her to read to me anymore. I love being read to, and was at times frustrated that I couldn’t read myself, but I did so love being read to.

However, my mother still emphasized reading with us by paying a lot of attention to our summer reading and what we were reading at school. She continued to read to us at times, too. The one I remember the best is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a summer reading requirement that was one of the first really visceral reading experiences I’d had. And mom made it clear that it was that way for her, too, wrapped up together under the afghan. Her example showed me that reading could just as immersive to adults, defying my previous idea that reading is only fun when you’re a kid. 

My 4th grade teacher, Ms. Harris, was one of the rockstar teachers at my school. At least to the kids. Everybody loved her and everybody looked forward to her class because she made a point to read to her classes every single day. And she was very good at it. Presumably, she still is. Some books were staples of every year’s class, like The BFG by Ronald Dahl and The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald, but she also read The Secret Garden to us and poem after poem in Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic.

Ms. Harris and librarian teamed up to get us excited about the brand new book that was making a lot of waves in the librarian and literary world: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember the librarian’s pitch to us during Library Time, as we were all trying to pick out our books for the week. And it didn’t sound all that good to me. I wasn’t really interested in reading about a boy who finds out he’s a wizard. I was much more interested in reading about Dorothy or a young woman named Kate who helped save a train full of people or more Little House books. Only one person in the class took that first available copy of Sorcerer’s Stone home with him. His name is Adam and I have no idea where he is but I cannot think about that book without also thinking of him. Ms. Harris and the librarian chose to counter our overwhelming lack of enthusiasm by making it the next book Ms. Harris read to us. By chapter 3, Sorcerer’s Stone had become our all-time favorite listen, even as we mispronounced most of the names. We would riddle Adam with questions, begging him to tell us what was going to happen next. Blessed soul, he never gave in. He preserved that reading experience for us.

I also can’t think about the early Harry Potter books without thinking about Alex. I’ve written about him before. He had relatives in England who sent him a brand new copy of The Chamber of Secrets when it came out. And we got to start it right after we finished The Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember seeing that colorful paperback cover for the first time in Alex’s hands. And when I think about that book, I don’t picture the cover of the hardcover copy I own and have reread many times; I picture that paperback book in his hands, blue car flying above the Hogwarts Express in the English countryside. I forgot, though, that Ms. Harris read it to us until years later when I was rereading the series ahead of the release of the 4th or 5th book. Professor Sprout house was teaching second years to repot mandrakes. As she instructed them, she indicated that she would give a thumbs-up when it was okay to take their earmuffs off. Ms. Harris’s thumbs would bent back extremely far in an almost double-jointed arc. And as she read that sentence to us, she had turned up her thumb. I read the sentence years later, I could see it in my mind. Her red jumper dress, her red nail polish, her tanned skin, sitting in her butter-colored wooden rocking chair, the arc of her finger under the projection of her voice.

Honestly, I think one of the reasons I love this series so much is because the first two books were read to me. However, I also find it important that The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite Harry Potter book, and one of my favorite books, and it was the first one I read by myself. It was my first step alone down the path of this series.

The last time I was read to corporately, shall we say, was in 8th grade. My 8th grade English teacher Mrs. Walker had also been my 6th grade teacher. I was at a relatively small Arts and Humanities magnet school, so the class hadn’t changed much in the year between. In 6th grade, our favorite book we read and studying that year was Holes by Louis Sachar. By the time we were in 8th grade, the movie was coming out. We talked about how much we loved that book, and somehow we came up with the idea of reading it again. But rather than trying to get copies and add assignments on to our existing load, she offered to read it to us during class. It was glorious. We loved to hear her reading anyway, and we loved her, and we didn’t care that we were supposed to be way too old to be read to.

I’m very grateful to report that I’m still be read to. I’m a regular subscribed to Audible, which has helped me read books I may never have gotten to otherwise, including A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford. I’ve listened to The Martian by Andy Weir three times because I love the narrator so much (I own a paperback copy, too) and my next re-listen will probably be the exceptionally well performed and well written The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater or the Grammy-winning The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher.

My best friend Kayla and I also like to read new children’s books, and occasionally the beloved books of our childhood, to each other. And we have no shame in that. Children’s books are good literature and a really good picture books are enjoyed by adults, too. That’s part of the point.

Kayla and I are further unique in that we also like to read longer works to each other. Kayla’s mind tends to wander with audiobooks, but she can listen to at least short bursts of me reading a novel to her. The first time this happened, I had just finished Kiera Cass’s The Selection. I called her and said something like, “Oh my gosh this is the most amazing book and you’re going to love it! When can you get it?” The answer was, “Not really any time soon,” and I said, “Okay, what if I just read you the first page though?” And that quickly became read the first chapter, one more, then the entire book. I did most of it by Skype, and we proceeded to read a few books to each other that way, including Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Just this past year, Kayla read the opening chapters of Maureen Goo’s I Believe in a Thing Called Love to me at Starbucks one Sunday morning. She then gave the book to me so I could take it home and inhale the rest myself. But I “heard” the words in her voice. And she was right, it is the cutest book ever.

We don’t always have time to do that anymore, and it’s all so much faster just to read a book yourself most of the time, but we still love it. It’s easy to feel loved when someone is reading a book they love to you. 

My current audiobook is A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab.
My next audiobook is The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish.

Buying (and Giving) Picture Books

The last few months have been spent buying and fretting over and giving gifts, and receiving gifts, via a variety of holidays. For me, this is especially so because my mother, my boyfriend, and two very close friends all have early January birthdays.

One of my favorite gifts to give is books. (Few of you are surprised.) But although I don’t always have occasion for this, children’s books are my favorite to give. And I have a lot of thoughts on what goes into a good picture book gift for a child.

I have five main criteria.

1. Is the book performative in some way? Is it fun for parents or other adults to read? (If so, they’ll read it more often.) Fun for the kids to get to learn to read themselves? Press Here, The Book with No Pictures, and the Pete the Cat series are good examples of this.

2. Is it relatively easy to read and to follow along? How many words are on a page? These books are relatively easy to transition children into reading themselves, are Mother Bruce, recommended to me by Judy Blume (no really), I Want My Hat Back, The Day the Crayons Quit, and the Llama Llama series.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is a staple of my gift-giving repertoire. Many people have discovered it in the past few years, which I am all about, but I still find that it’s a book I can give to new parents. Parents didn’t grow up reading it, so even though kids have adored it for almost a decade, new parents are delighted by it and not all have even herd of it. (If this is a second or third child, I assume they know the pigeon.)

3. Is the book diverse in some way? The Last Stop on Market Street teaches empathy in a city setting with diverse characters and is written by a person of color. I like to make sure white families have books with characters who don’t look like their child, as reading diversity teaches empathy. It’s vitally important that children of color see themselves in the stories around them and in their heroes. Furthermore, little boys need to learn that girls’s stories are important by being allowed to read books starring girls. (There’s no such thing as a “girl book” or a “boy book”. They’re just books. Fight me!) And I like to support diverse writers. Other good pictures books meeting this criteria include Jingle Dancer, What to Do with an Idea, and Ada Twist, Scientist.

4. Is it visually beautiful? Journey, Interstellar Cinderella, and Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich all make this list. Some have no words, some have lots of words, but all are striking. They encourage children to enjoy art, and provide access to the story even before kids can read for themselves.

5. Is it a stretch book? This is especially true for kids who can read. “Stretch books” are a little more difficult than the child’s ability, and can be a great motivator! I remember a copy of Twas the Night Before Christmas being that way for me growing up. However, because my brother is 3 years older, whatever books he was reading became my stretch books. The more beautiful or fun the book looks, the more enticing!

I’m happy to make book recommendations from babies to teens, so feel free to ask! I have no shame about learning from the Book community of Twitter and reading children’s and young adult books for myself.

Snowy Days

In my day, [grumble grumble] we didn’t have snow days. We didn’t have snow! I remember exactly 4 times in my childhood when I saw snow at my home on the southern coast of South Carolina.

We did have hurricane days. We built them into the school schedule because the Atlantic was pretty active in those years. One season, we evacuated five separate times. We could not wait for October! And we barely unpacked in between. Still, we didn’t suffer a direct hit. And we had minimal damage. Not so in the past two years. But I’m not here to talk about hurricanes.

I’m here talk about snow.

The first time I saw snow fall and stick, I was in college. It was also the first time I saw accumulation. I don’t even know that we got a full inch, but it felt like two or three. Statesboro hadn’t had snow since the last time my hometown had snow, which had been the year I was born: a 21 year gap. I made my first snow angel and built my first snow person. I got to witness my Bajan friend experience snow for the first time in the coat that I helped him buy.

I had seen more snow than that before, but it was at Snowshoe, West Virginia on a church youth group trip, and there was no beautiful powder to learn to ski on. Snowshoe’s fresh snow had iced over several days earlier, and only the snow machines were keeping a semblance of dust on the trails. Which dropped off into mud and trees. I know, because I careened off of one. But I’m not here to talk about that either.

The last time it snowed in Macon, my grandmother died. Not exactly at the same time.

Four years ago, it snowed. During every cold snap that winter, a friend stayed with my roommate and I because the house she was renting was crowded and poorly insulated and notoriously frigid. We refused to let her sleep at home in four layers and hat, so our spare bedroom became hers for much of the winter. The night it snowed, we three went out front with the dog, throwing snowballs and laughing in the driveway and stomping designs in the snow. Then we all came in for hot chocolate and warm, dry clothes.

The next day, the office was closed so I stayed in with my friend, crocheting and knitting and watching a little TV curled up on the couch with the dog. Morgan had to go to work, but when she came home we watched movies and ate chili in the coziness, after playing in the snow a bit more.

It took something like an hour to clean enough snow and ice off my car the next day that I could go to work. I was an hour or two late, and by that afternoon my grandmother was dead. She’d been in and out of the hospital for a while, so I didn’t realize this one was different. I didn’t know she was in ICU until we were under several inches of snow. There was no opportunity to get to her.

Her sister has been in the hospital for over a week now. This is my grandmother’s last sister.

I’ve been looking forward to the snow all winter. I was thrilled to wake up early to see it fall. My roommate’s dog from the previous snow has passed away, so this dog experienced snow for the first time. Watching her joy and confusion were my greatest joys of the day.

The roads are dry now, I’m back at work, and I’m trying not to be superstitious about things, but I’m also wondering if I’m going to get a call from my aunt or my mom. I’m wondering if I’m going to know even before I answer. I wonder if I’m going to rush out of the office and into a spare room, surrounded by discarded and antiquated computer parts to sit and listen to what I already know.

I hope not. But I don’t begrudge her rest and healing, whatever that looks like. She’s had a very hard life, and her sisters are gone.

I pray for her children. I pray for our family. I pray for everyone who suffers in the cold like this: those without heat, those without enough insulation, those with no home, those with disabilities that make cold especially difficult, those who are lonely. I pray for those who are more prone to slipping and breaking in this snow and ice. I pray for the families, friends, and coworkers of those who have died since the storm began.

Power, Institutions, and the Force

***Extensive SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.***

In the emotional climax between Kylo Ren/Ben Solo and Rey, Rey is tortured by Snoke, Kylo Ren turns on and kills Snoke, the pair defeat the red-clad guards, and now they must decide what will happen next. Both have entered this fight with assumptions about their end goals, and only now, when it’s just the two of them, do they realize how different these expectations are. Kylo asks Rey to join him in making a new order in the galaxy. Rey begs him not to choose this path of corruption.

They’ve been explaining their positions throughout the movie, but until this point they believed the other thought enough like them that the two of them could agree. And, honestly, I found Kylo Ren’s argument surprisingly relatable. All the only institutions are broken. Let them die, he says. We know how broken it all is. We can do things differently. We just have to let the broken institutions die. We have to let go of our ideas of how things have to be so we can build something better.

Even Luke, our dear, salty space uncle, is disillusioned with the institutions of the past and he makes sure Rey knows why they shouldn’t be resurrected. His unilateral decision about his nephew Ben’s darkness, and his power over him, is what pushed Ben to the dark side. Rey points this out to Luke, that his failure was a misuse of his power as the sole Jedi master as well as Ben’s uncle and mentor. By the red throne room confrontation, it seems Kylo has come to the same conclusion: the Jedi Order is just as broken as any other institution. His uncle tried to resurrect it and Kylo suffered, was nearly killed, because of it.

This morning on NPR, I heard a similar argument to Kylo’s, along with a guest asking young people, particularly millennials, not to completely abandon all the old institutions of government and civil service. The speaker agreed that institutions are fundamentally broken in many ways, but insisted that they serve a vital purpose: continuity. This is more of Rey’s philosophy. The First Order is tyranny. The Republic and it’s Jedi Order were also deeply problematic. But Rey doesn’t think others’ lives should depend on her whims, and in Leia and Poe’s arcs we see the need to pass on and learn wisdom so that the resistance and it’s members survive.

Kylo is willing to kill many people and to let many many more be killed for this purpose. And murder—since we’re talking about the rise of fascist regimes, it probably needs saying—is wrong. Including murders you allow to occur because the results will further your own purposes.

Kylo asks Rey to join him, to be his balance in the Force and in power, to let him be her balance and teacher. He asks that she accept that the existing institutions cannot be redeemed or saved. He asks that she give up on everyone who still clings to these institutions. He demands that she be complicit in the murders of hundreds of resistance members within sight of the late Supreme Leader’s command ship and the oppression of millions across the galaxy. After her experiences with Luke and Snoke, and confronting the truth about her parents and life on Jakku, he believes she will.

You don’t have to do it yourself, Ren says of the deaths. You just have to let it happen. Which is exactly how fascist regimes come to power, with the majority doing nothing so that, one day, they can hold more power. Even if that promise of power is a lie. I’d even say that it’s always a lie. Power corrupts. No one interested in sharing power with the masses wants loads of people to die in order to obtain that power. You can’t care about people’s freedom while not caring if they die.

I believe Kylo recognizes that he is a better person because of Rey’s influence. He wants Rey to be a part of this mission. He doesn’t want to be alone. But when she rejects his worldview and refuses to join him—refuses to accept the murders of hundreds and the oppression of millions in the name of one powerful person’s version of progress—Ren does not accept her decision and go about his mission on his own. He doesn’t wait out the battle on the planet or begin to dismantle the existing First Order power structures. He doesn’t wake up, fire Hux and Phasma, release all the Stormtroopers, and destroy the First Order ships. Rather, he lies about Rey and embraces again his existing power within the largest, most corrupt institution in the galaxy. Remember, this is minutes after Rey disagrees with his worldview, which is minutes after he promises to share power with her.

We don’t know Ren’s ultimate vision for the galaxy, but we are given a glimpse of possibility: a trusting and caring team, Rey and Ben Solo working together to eliminating oppression and bring balance to the Force. He is more dark, but possesses light. She is light, but possesses some darkness. Together, they can be in balance. If only she will accept oppression of others, but Rey will not. If only Kylo will work within the existing institutions, but he will not. Rey asks him to use his existing role of power to save lives, but Kylo wants them all to die instead so he and Rey can rule together, as they see fit.

Luke believes he’s right that the Jedi order should die when Yoda’s force ghost sets the ancient tree on fire, but that wiley master knew that the sacred texts, the building blocks of the Jedi and their understanding of the Force, were safe aboard the Falcon. In Rey’s choices, Yoda’s lightning, and even the final exchange of the movie between Rey and Leia, the filmmakers seem to be saying, “Yes. Tear down what’s broken. But don’t burn it all. Don’t hurt people to do it. Go back to basics. The basics are good. Start from there.” Considering the “Weinstein effect” presently gripping Hollywood, I find this argument particularly poignant.

Recently, a friend shared about a dysfunctional dynamic in an organization she belongs to. The person with the most power in the group felt threatened by anyone who disagreed with her and was actively discouraging discussion and making others feel small. This leader initially joined the group when only one person had a voice and only that person had any power. In her eagerness to dismantle that system in which she was voiceless, she created a new system in which only her voice mattered. She didn’t realize that she had helped created a system of oppression, just like the one she had suffered under, but this time she was the oppressor.

I read accounts of abuse, death, oppression, corruption, and listen to analysis of incompetence run rampant in the most powerful positions in government, supported by people claiming to value the opposite traits in humanity. I am tempted by Kylo’s message. I think the tired, jaded among us were meant to be tempted by it. Let it die. Just let all this horrible crap crash and burn. We’ll make something better. But power doesn’t work like that. Nor does creation. We must have honest group discussions, diverse voices, a populous that asks questions, leaders afraid of their own power, and checks and balances to both power and privilege. And I believe that we do need institutions. Not as they are at present, but institutions that will provide a framework of fair operations and protection of the vulnerable and marginalized so that no one is oppressed. I believe our rebuilt institutions should be able to survive in tact without its builders and leaders.

I don’t know where Star Wars is headed, if Kylo Ren will be redeemed somehow or not, if Rey will manage to create a freedom-oriented teaching environment for force-sensitive people. I come back to hope. I find more hope in a Falcon full of porgs and friends and mentors who work to give others freedom than in powerful people promising to forsake their power once they have a different kind of power. This year, as I call members of Congress and sign petitions and ask questions in response to diverse sources of news and commentary, I am leaning on hope. I am choosing to believe this country can be better. Rebellions are built on hope.

“My Winter Solstice”

To the tune of “My Favorite Things” by Rodgers & Hammerstein,
famously performed by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

Red stripes on white mugs and antlers on Tahoes,
Bright glitter headgear and fresh trees with fake snow,
Brown Kroger bags hanging from both your wrists,
How are you doing on your shopping lists?

New Starbucks cups and gingerbread castles,
Black boots and gift cards and sweaters with tassels.
Winter solstice is the darkest of days.
Just four sleeps til Christmas. Let’s all dash away!

Friends in short sleeves with ugly socks jingling,
Rainclouds that hide how Orion is twinkling,
Fog that socks in while the river flows on.
Welcome to winter! Look at all the brown lawns!

When the sun sets, when the dark reigns,
When I’m feeling SADs,
I simply remember I could live in Maine,
And then I don’t feel so bad!

The Last Jedi Reactions – No Spoilers

The following are my reactions to The Last Jedi, which I saw last night, in no particular order with no spoilers and absolutely no context.

It’s already dead, what’s the problem?

Her hair really is much better this time.

I swear, the Skywalker men are weak as hell.

Get it, Chewie.

Swoooooon.

This seems like a bad idea. This seems like a bad idea. This is a Bad Idea. What are you doING THIS IS A BAD IDEA?!

#squadgoals

Hey! They gave her more than 1 line this movie!

DOUBLE TAP.

Well, like, wait a second.

I really need to learn the name of this pilot. She’s awesome. And I remember her face from last time.

Okay, but like, how are you going to get more of those?

The swoops. Why the swoops?

Luke Skywalker, actual drama queen.

So pretty. So deadly.

Maybe it’s a purple thing.

Dang, son.

Why did you leave a man in charge!? He’s going to ruin everything!

It’s a trap!

Well that was… a thing.

Ooooo, it looks like blood!

Okay, but physics tho.

Shoot him again!

Actual queen, Carrie Fisher. Oh! I mean Leia. Well, both.

Why do they always mumble when they’re saying new things? Let’s bring back the cool lady that enunciates when she says stuff like “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

…I thought they were gonna fight.

I did NOT see that coming!

I TOTALLY EFFING CALLED IT.

What time is it?

It’s a FAMILY!

You could say sorry, you know.

Devil’s Snare meets that scary cave place.

Aww, not the green one!

What’s wrong with your face?

Luke must have a thing for round houses. Better than a thing for sand.

Finn looks like he just leaped off a horse in an Recency romance.

Was that really necessary, Disney?!? I might expect that of Lucas, but not you.

Wait, that was it?!

That sounded much better than in the trailer.

I want that ring…. And Leia’s from before. #spacejewelry

Salty old man Luke!

Yuuuuuuuuusss.

Ok, that’s just creepy.

Ooo, shade! Massive shade. Here for it.

They even sound pretty!

Blue or green? Blue or Green? BLUE OR GREEEEEEEN??

Bahaha! Rocks!

*cries*

Faith in Santa

***SPOILERS for a long-standing Western Christmas tradition***

In the 1994 movie The Santa Clause, Laura and her second husband Neil are worried because their son Charlie not only believes in Santa, but believes his father Scott (played by Tim Allen) is Santa. The audience knows that, within the confines of this fictional world, Santa and the North Pole and elves and all the mythology is real, but this concerned couple doesn’t know that. Nor do they believe that Laura’s first husband Scott is Santa. As they see his habits and appearance change as Christmas approaches, they assume he’s trying to play into Charlie’s fantasy and take legal action to have Scott’s visitation rights terminated. In the waiting room while the judge and Charlie talk, Laura and Paul recount to each other the occasions when they stopped believing in Santa.

Around the same age her son is now, Laura desperately wanted a certain board game for Christmas. She received “dozens” of other presents on Christmas morning, but not the game she’d wanted. Neil, at the ripe age of three, stopped believing because he, too, didn’t receive a whistle that he’d wanted.

It’s a heart-felt scene, meant to allow the audience to step back into themselves long enough to relate to these parents who, despite playing the villains in this fiction, want to protect their son. They acknowledge that belief in Santa isn’t bad in itself, and Laura questions whether they’ve been too hasty in condemning Scott’s encouragement of Charlie’s belief. This conversation also sets up the final scene, when Scott, as Santa Claus, gives them each the gift that they stopped believing because of. He’s literally flying in his reindeer-drawn flying sleigh over their heads, after having spoken to them in the house a few minutes before, then parachutes down the game and the whistle to Laura and Neil, as well as other toys to other people in the crowd.

You’d think they’d have let go of this already. You’d think, as adults if not as children, they would have appreciated their other presents enough that the absence of one wouldn’t have mattered so much. True, Laura declares that Scott really is Santa in the previous scene, but there’s still a sense of Santa making things right by giving these gifts. And that infuriates me because we don’t have to receive everything we want in order to have a good relationship with our parents, friends, significant others, bosses, or anyone else. Why Santa?

You’d think Laura and Neil would have had more faith.

The first time I saw the movie, around age 7 or 8, I thought, “They stopped believing when they didn’t get one present they wanted? Where’s their faith. It’s one present out of dozens! It’s one year out of their whole lives!” And even as a child, I knew the same could be said of people’s belief in God.

Santa doesn’t have to get you every single thing you want in order for him to be everything that children believe he is: good, generous, kind, magical, real. But Santa does give children gifts. Good gifts, unless your people belong to the coal-giving persuasion of Western society. And God gives good gifts, too. There are the obvious ones like life and people to love and a planet that provides for our needs, but also ones like a breeze when you’re indescribably hot and a call from a friend when you’re ready to break apart and the awareness of a gorgeous sunset you would have otherwise missed. So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him (Matt 7:11, NLT).

God is not Santa. You don’t ask God for whatever you want and God provides, predictably and lavishly, risking your disbelief if God dares to deny you anything. God does not always provide what you want, and that doesn’t make God less good, less generous, less kind, less supernatural, or less real. Much like a parent not making you fried chicken every single day, even though it’s what you want more than anything else in the entire world, we often don’t want what we need or what would be good for us. And, sometimes, we just don’t get to have the good things we want even though it seems that everyone else does. When a storm comes, literally or figuratively, God has promised to be a parent and to be good to us, but we might still lose a loved one, a home, our health, our sense of security, and more.

This has happened before. It happened to Job. And God didn’t come right away to account for Job’s loss or to answer his questions. God didn’t even answer Job’s questions when God did come. Neither did Jesus appear to Thomas right away when Thomas expressed his famous doubt. Job waited an entire book. Thomas waited 8 days. And I think you’ll agree that these people experienced genuine, painful loss. Job lost his children, home, livelihood, and health. Thomas lost his friend and mentor, his lifestyle, his hope for the future and his country’s well-being.

Santa Claus’s ex-wife not getting the board game that she wanted at age 8, something she wanted more than the dozens of other presents she did get, that’s not genuine loss. That’s entitlement. That’s pettiness. That’s a small view of Santa. How little faith! How unsubstantial a belief if you can lose it so easily over something so slight.

It would be easy to shake my fist at people for not having more faith than Laura did in The Santa Claus, but life is not so easy. If you’ve survived on the planet long enough to read this, you’ve suffered. Your suffering is not insignificant. Your suffering isn’t dismissible just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s.

December holidays, when the world and everyone you encounter seems to be screaming at you to be happy, is a painful time for those who have lost. A person, a pet, a hope, a dream, a self of self, a livelihood, a home, an ability. Maybe it was recently. Maybe it was during this time of year. Maybe your loss just hits you differently when “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is stuck in your head and the trees have shaken off all their leaves and red bows on green boughs drape the doorways you must pass through.

If you had faith before your loss, I hope you kept it. I hope your view of God was big enough to include the possibility of pain. I hope you have never thought of God as a celestial Santa Claus, existing only to give you good things. I hope you don’t see God as a Krumpus, either. If you didn’t have faith in God before, I pray that you will search for God. The Bible assures us “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). Search for God, and God will draw near to you.

God is good, but God is also so much more than we are. God doesn’t give us all that we want. God doesn’t “only give us what we can handle.” God doesn’t reward the wealthy with wealth and punish the poor with poverty. God demands we help one another, protect one another, seek justice for one another. God offers hope to all who suffer. God is very good and God wants to give God’s children good gifts.

Remember, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3). By faith, by faith, by faith.

Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

A Matter of Weight and Size

One of the best things about traveling is packing to come back.

Everything comes down to weight, then size. The weight requirements are rarely negotiable, the size often is. How much does this weigh, objectively, in the world? How much does it weigh to me? Does the size make it too big to fit in the remaining space? What can I move, rearranged, rethink so that I can make room for this thing that weighs a lot to me? The more you pack, the more you leave a place knowing it could be forever, the better you get at learning what something weighs to you.

That clock you bought can—even should—be wrapped in shirts and returned to its box and bubble wrap with a glove shoved into the almost-space remaining at the top. Shove the other glove into a crevice nearby. Definitely leave behind the cheetah print slippers someone gave you because she didn’t check the size, and which you used for months even though you find cheetah print disturbing, because the slippers were free.

I like to buy jewelry as gifts precisely because the pieces are light and small and understood. Scarves, too, make great souvenirs because they stuff into the weirdest corners until every seam of the bag stretches and groans, its largest version of itself, but the scarf itself objectively weighs very little. I once picked up rocks in every town or significant location I visited throughout 5 week study abroad trip to three countries, bagging and labeling them like a Martian astronaut. And after that level of commitment I felt I had to devote the weight and space to take them all back across the Atlantic with me. Where they have sat on a shelf in a cookie tin ever since.

The goal is to fit everything you personally find weighty in your luggage. For international return travel, I usually only take one checked back and one carry-on. I buy a cheap duffle in Barcelona or a London street corner and stuff it with souvenirs and new clothes and whatever else I want to come home with me. The return trip gives me two checked bags and one carry-on.

Checked baggage generally cannot exceed 45 lb each. Thus the night before I leave a place where I’ve spend any significant amount of time becomes a stressful exercise in declaring my priorities, and a test of strength and endurance as I repeatedly heave my bag into my arms as I stand on a scale and calculate the bag’s weight.

Sort. Weigh. Weigh. Arrange. Rearrange. Weigh and pray. Tell myself to “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Get vicious. Re-sort. Weigh. Rearrange once more. Pray. Weigh. Add something back in that you cut. Weigh. Make a pile of what I’m leaving behind. Finally go to bed. Barely sleep.

When you’re home again and unpacking all your treasures for all your treasured to see, pray you reasoned well. Pray you have no regrets about the contents of the pile you left on your bed back in Johannesburg!

Things I Have Left Behind:
Slippers
Coats
Notebooks
Cardigans
An AirFrance blanket
An inflatable neck pillow
Belts
Medicine
Umbrellas
Jar of Peter Pan peanut butter

Things I Have Brought Home:
Magnets
Socks
London A to Z(ed)
A fancy clock
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Stuffed animals
Boots
Rocks
Plastic shopping bags
Necklaces
A sword
A vuvuzela
Flags
Betty Crocker crepe mix

Things I Have Regretted:
Betty Crocker crepe mix
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
French- and Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Rocks
An AirFrance blanket
Coats
Cardigans
Plastic shopping bags

Maybe you tend to drive. Maybe most of your trips are just to your grandmother’s and back. Maybe your return trip is heavy a cooler of leftover ham and more pie than you could possibly eat, but you still have one fewer bag after Thanksgiving than you did before. Maybe you don’t bring as much back from your trips as what you leave, so it’s a net loss. For good or ill. Light on gifts, heavy on exhaustion. Light on patience, heavy on endorphins. This is still a matter of weight and size. What did you choose to unload and leave behind? What was taken from you? What was important enough that you made sure to bring it back?

My past two trips have been of the lighter-returning-than-leaving sort. The first instance confuses me, as I didn’t leave anything behind. Not even accidentally, as far as I can tell. And yet it was easier to pack, load my bags into the rental, check into security, and get all my stuff back to my house again after we landed than it was to get it to Virginia in the first place. On my most recent trip, I took a lot of food for Thanksgiving and some gifts, so I knew I’d be lighter on the way back. However, I also brought a good-sized care package home with me, so you’d think it would have worked itself out to about even. Not so.

Maybe I’m just much better at packing to come home than I am to go somewhere. After all, going somewhere is full of unknowns. Will it rain? When? Will I be caught in it? Is this enough socks? What if it’s hotter than expected? Maybe I should pack a pair of shorts, just in case. It’s November in Middle Georgia, after all. You’re as likely to sweat as you are to shiver. So I tend to pack for a number of possibilities and encounter few of them. On the way back, as long as all the essentials end up at my house eventually, it’ll be fine. I know what home holds. I know I can adapt to it.

Now that you’ve been traveling for a while and are getting really good at this, look deeper than the lists. What was important enough that you never took it to begin with? What do you somehow end up carrying back and forth every trip, but you can’t remember the last time you actually used or needed it?

I’m this way with hair dryers. I know that there is one at my parent’s house and one at my grandparents’ house and even one at my brother’s apartment, as well as at almost every hotel in the country, and yet I still find myself trying to justify its odd shape and bulky curves and never-ending cord to myself as I pack for each trip. And I almost never take it. I used to, but I’ve packed a lot since then.