Why Christmas Eve Is More Magical Than Christmas Day

There is magic happening, right underneath our noses. To find it, we need only get still long enough to catch the scent, and follow it where it leads us…

Christmas Eve

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Ten years ago, my family celebrated Christmas Eve in a massive church, with thousands of other people. It was electric and exciting and when a thousand hands held up candles at the end of the service, it was breathtaking.

Five years ago, we celebrated Christmas Eve in a smaller church, but there were still hundreds in attendance and we wedged ourselves into pews with friends and family and the celebration was joyous. When the hundreds of hands held up candles at the end of the service, it didn’t take your breath away. But the flickering flames did calm it.

This year, we’ve moved to a small town and we’ve been attending a very small church. Every week, our family can count on our ten hands the number of people in attendance. I expect the Christmas Eve service will be no different. And I’m grateful for that. Because this year has been teaching me something I’ve been trying to learn for a lifetime: getting quiet and still and small brings us face-to-face with the ordinary.

And the ordinary is where the magic is.

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The Two Kinds of Gratitude (And How to Cultivate the Lasting One)

There are two kinds of gratitude. The first one—the kind that happens when the tables are piled high with food and the shopping carts are piled high with gifts—is real and good. But utterly flimsy. The second kind is solid and steady. It doesn’t arise in the midst of passing things; it carries us through them…

gratitude

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Five years ago, on a Friday afternoon, I was on a golf course in Wisconsin.

Summer was just beginning to tip into autumn—the sun was warm on your skin, but you couldn’t sweat if you tried. Golf had been my favorite hobby for twenty years, and I was playing well. The course was uncrowded and the round was relaxed. I was with people I loved. I was overwhelmed by gratitude, and it took the shape of this thought: I’m lucky to be here; this is perfect.

The thought also haunted me, though, because how long can perfection last?

A year later, I blew out a disk in my back, and I haven’t played golf since.

Gratitude, it turns out, is awfully fleeting, if we’re grateful for fleeting things.

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A Little Inspiration for Parents, Dads, and Everyone Who Needs a Bit of Kindness

It’s just an ordinary Thursday afternoon.

But, somehow, the veil hanging over the face of the world gets ripped right off.

I’ve taken my kids to a secluded park along the edge of a languid river, because they love the single slide and the lone merry-go-round that reside there. Maybe the autumn light is slanting just right or maybe the painted leaves are just the right amount of incandescent. Whatever it is, as my kids run and laugh and climb and laugh and slide and laugh and spin themselves into an orbit of energy and joy and abandon, the edges of the world get sharper and the light gets brighter. In the still, crisp air, a single leaf float-rocks its way to the ground in front of me and everything snaps into focus:

We’re all leaves, on our way from budding to dying.

My kids are six, eight, and twelve and they are, each of them, like leaves in the springtime, erupting into life, caged energy unfurled, color exploding, anticipation bursting, and joy expanding. They have an entire cycle of life ahead of them. They are promise and possibility and every unlived moment just waiting to happen.

parenting

These days, I feel a little more like a leaf at the end of a long summer.

The days are still long and there’s still plenty of sunlight, but the hot, dog days of the season have sapped some of my initial energy and strength. I’m a little more dry. A little more brittle. These are good days. My edges haven’t yet begun to shrivel and my colors have only just begun to change, but that changing season is not as far off as it used to be.

My wife’s grandparents visited recently. They are almost ninety, and they traveled halfway across the country to see us. They are raging against the dying of the light, like autumn leaves that refuse to give up their color, refuse to release their hold upon the branch which has born them, refuse to give in to the winter that’s coming.

Perhaps it’s because my children are frolicking on the same playground upon which I played as a kid. Perhaps it’s seeing the me-I-once-was in them and wondering if, someday, they might stand in this very spot while watching their own kids come to life. Whatever it is, time and space fold in upon themselves and every season of my life is present at once. All of it. From the budding to the dying. And I decide to enjoy the end of my summer by being a witness to their springtime. While I can.

In a quiet park in the middle of nowhere, a late-summer leaf watches three springtime buds.

And it is, for a moment, almost more peace than I can handle.

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Don’t Try to Be More Extraordinary (Just Try to Be More Human)

mindfulness

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We’re riding our bikes through the dead.

Our new town is a lot hillier than I remember it, and the cemetery is the flattest ground we can find for a family bike ride. The day is sunny and just the right amount of warm, as we wind our way on the one-lane asphalt road, through the fields of tombstones. My kids don’t even seem to notice, but I can’t take my eyes off the names and the dates on the weathered graves. Some have been there for more than a century, names I don’t know and names that, perhaps, no one can remember.

Some are more recent.

Less than two years ago, the judge who I trembled in front of during elementary school mock trials stepped off this mortal coil and into the mystery of what comes next. It seems like yesterday he sat above us—youthful, healthy, powerful. Time undoes all of these things. We’re riding through the dead and the awareness of it does to me what it always does:

It makes me want to seize the day.

I think of that scene in Dead Poet’s Society—the young boys looking at the pictures of young men long since passed, Robin Williams leaning in amongst them, in a ghostlike whisper exhorting them, “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The urge to do so seizes me. Like it does every time I’m faced with my mortality.

But then I’m faced with my reality.

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3 Words to Keep You Sane During Back-to-School Month (Or Any Month)

The school year is a sleeping giant and it’s about to awaken from its slumber. Three words are going to keep me sane in the midst of the onslaught of activities. Maybe they’ll keep you sane, too…

back to school

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I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

It was the first annual community picnic for my wife’s upstart pediatric development center. Employees and families were invited, and six families who had already been served by the project were planning to attend. There was a hayride scheduled. And a cookout. And volleyball. And an array of other outdoor events. But right when it was scheduled to begin, the skies opened and flooded the land.

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Then, ninety-minutes later, as the rain continued to fall, we got a text saying the people had gathered anyway. Surprised, we piled into the car and, as we fishtailed down a muddy hill into the campground, we saw a small band of employees and families gathered beneath a pavilion. I did’t see a hayride, the volleyball court was a mud pit, and it looked like the festivities had failed.

I met the director of the center and told her I was sorry her first picnic got cancelled. She looked at me and smiled pleasantly and said, “Oh, it wasn’t really cancelled. Four families showed up and during a break in the rain, we went for a walk in the woods, down to the river.”

I just assumed the picnic was cancelled.

Because I’ve been seduced by programming.

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Reflections on Beauty (From Main Street U.S.A.)

Beauty. There’s an entire industry dedicated to it. But what if beauty isn’t something you can buy or paint on or put on? What if beauty isn’t even something you can create? What if beauty is a reality we cultivate and something in which we participate?

beauty

Dixon, IL (July 15, 2015)

I’m walking down main street in the small, rural town that was once my hometown and is, as of two weeks ago, my hometown once again. It’s my first official day as a writer in our new home. I’ve just dropped the kids off at camp, and there’s a conflict playing out within me.

I’m feeling pressure to race home and write something beautiful.

But up the block, there’s a coffee shop where people are gathered and laughing, and I haven’t had my morning dose yet. And one block further down the street is my wife’s new pediatric development center, Florissa, which I haven’t yet visited. And lining the sidewalks, from here to there, are hanging baskets, with thick cascades of pink and purple petunias.

Bountiful.

Beautiful.

It’s a July day that has dawned like the best kind of September day. Baby blue sky, mashed potato clouds, sunlight that kisses your face instead of slapping it. It’s the kind of day on which you don’t really need a breeze, but it feels just right anyway. I’d been planning to rush home to capture some beauty in words, but here, ambushed by beauty, I’m reminded:

You don’t capture beauty. It’s too big to be caught and too wild to be grasped. You don’t even discover beauty; you slow down, take a breath, and you let it find you. You make yourself available to it. You bear witness to it.

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Where to Find Peace When Peace is Elusive

Progress is a good thing, but not the best of things. The best things are timeless things, because though they may not bring us change, they bring us peace…

mindfulness

Rehoboth Beach, June 16, 2015, 5:41am

A month before we move, I give in to the sentimental thing at the center of me, and I spend a day touring our old haunts in the suburbs—the claustrophobic apartment in which we spent our first lean and tumultuous year in Chicago, the town surrounding it where we lived and loved and laughed and fought, the little townhouse we bought a couple of towns over, a sequence of daycares and restaurants and parks and the nooks and crannies of several different suburbs. I’m planning to see these old familiar places and then let go of them with a tear or two.

But it doesn’t happen.

Instead, I’m confronted again and again with how much changes in a decade. Buildings have been torn down, trees cut down, and businesses shut down. Very little remains the same. In a way, the trip serves its purpose: it helps me let go by reminding me the things to which I’m attached are already mostly gone. Yet, it gives me something new to grieve.

I grieve the death of timeless things.

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How to Look Fear in the Face and Say, “I Just Don’t Care”

“The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go.”

–Henri Nouwen

gratitude

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On the morning we boarded a plane for the TODAY Show, I woke up in a panic. The house was February cold and the morning was February dark. I sat alone in my office and shivered.

I wasn’t shivering because of the cold.

I was wondering what I’d gotten myself into and how I might turn back time and not agree to go on national television. I meditated. I prayed. I couldn’t find peace. But then my prayers were answered by a still, small voice inside saying the strangest of things:

Glitter in the air.

I reached for my phone, played the song of that title, and the lyrics I’d forgotten were a blessed reassurance: 

Have you ever thrown a fistful of glitter in the air?

Have you ever looked fear in the face and said, “I just don’t care”?

It’s only half past the point of no return,

The tip of the iceberg,

The sun before the burn,

The thunder before the lightning,

And the breath before the phrase.

Have you ever felt this way?

For the rest of that surreal weekend in New York and at 30 Rock, as the fear would creep back in, I’d imagine our family with fistfuls of glitter thrown into the air and floating down around us. Crazy. Messy. A little bit out of control. But beautiful. Alive. Awake.

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Why It Takes Courage to Look Inside (And Why It’s Totally Worth It)

Life is a lost-and-found, and we’re all rummaging around for the thing that’s gone missing. But what is it and where is it? The good news is, you don’t have to look far. You only have to look deep

emotions

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“Are your new shoes in your closet?”

My wife is trying to make my youngest son look presentable for a Christmas concert. He usually refuses to wear anything except athletic pants but she has somehow, miraculously, talked him into a pair of corduroys. The finishing touch will be a pair of shoes that don’t look like they have been through a semester of playground wars.

He looks up from the book he’s reading. His face is deadly serious as he responds, “Yeah, but I’m not going to look for them. It’s a jungle in there.”

It’s a jungle inside my son’s closet.

And it’s a jungle inside our hearts.

Which is why we don’t go looking for the one thing we all need to find.

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Dear Dad, You’re Doing It All Wrong (A Letter to Myself)

parenting

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Dear Dad,

You’re doing it all wrong.

Eleven years ago, the doctors handed you a little, pink bundle of vulnerability. You were twenty-six years old, and you walked out of the hospital entirely responsible for a brand new human being. A whole person. As if that were a totally sane thing to let you do. It scared you. They eventually handed you two more little people. It was supposed to get a little easier each time.

It didn’t.

You never got less afraid. You never got more certain about how to be a dad. So you decided to make it up along the way. You can stop feeling bad about that—it’s what everybody else is doing, too. The problem is, you improvised by listening to the voices in the world around you, instead of listening to the voice coming from the world within you. You can forgive yourself for that, too. The voices around you are loud and persuasive.

They told you achievement matters most. So you stressed about school districts and kindergarten homework and guitar recitals. You secretly kept score in your head at first grade soccer games. You thought scoring goals was the goal of life.

But can you remember?

Can you remember what it was like to be just a few years out of diapers and to score a goal on the soccer field? You didn’t care about the score and you didn’t start planning for your future soccer scholarship. No, you whipped your head around to be sure they were looking. The real goal was to be seen. The real goal was to have someone to celebrate with.

Dad, you can stop spending all your time trying to get them into school, and you can start taking the time to walk them to school.

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