Here, and Not Here, for the Holidays
Today we celebrate the winter solstice...the longest night of the year...the hope—no, the assurance—that the light will return to our lives...bit by bit.
By “celebrate” I mean that we mark the day as sacred. I don’t mean to suggest that we’re all happy today. Like every other day of the year we may have mixed feelings... only now our feelings may be intensified by the merriment all about us. Much of that merriment is real, some is an enormous public ritual, and some is contrived. In any case it tends to heighten whatever we are feeling.
Whatever you are feeling today, I invite you to join me in the “Ode to Gaiety” printed on the cover of your order of service...
Begone glum and grim
Off with drab drear and grumble
to come undone and come out laughing
time to wrap killjoys in wet blankets
and feed them to the sourpusses
Come frisky pals
Come forth wily wags
Loosen your screws and get off your rocker
Untie the strait lacer
Tie up the smarty pants
Tickle the crosspatch with josh and guffaw
Share quips and pranks with every victim
of grouch pomposity or blah
Woe to the bozo who says No to
tee hee ho ho and ha ha
Boo to the cleancut klutz who
wipes the smile off his face
freedom is a chastity belt
life is a wooden kimono
Come cheerful chums
Cut up and carry on
Crack your pots and split your sides
Boggle the bellyacher
Convulse the worrywart
Pratfall the prissy poos and the fuddy duds
Take drollery to heart or end up a deadhead
at the guillotine of the mindless
Be wise and go merry round
whatever you cherish
what you love to enjoy what you live to exert
And when the high spirits
call your number up
count on merriment all the way to the countdown
Long live hilarity euphoria and flumadiddle
Long live gaiety
for all the laity
CHILDREN’S FOCUS Henry’s Awful Mistake Robert Quackenbush
Summary: Henry the duck wants to have a special dinner for his friend Clara. When he sees an ant in the kitchen, he first chases it with a frying pan. When it crawls into a crack in the wall, he goes after it with a hammer...eventually destroying the wall, knocking out a pipe, flooding the house, and of course ruining the dinner.
So. How many of you are here today? And how many of you are somewhere else? And how many are both here and somewhere else?
For some, the Wausau area is home, and it’s a good place to be for the holidays. For some this is home but there are other homes that we long for: homes that are places, or homes that are families.
Going home, being home, making-a-home for the holidays is much more complicated than trip-planning and meal-planning. For many of us it’s a challenge just to figure out who or what or where home might be.
If “home” is “with family,” does that mean with our children, with our parents, with our stepparents, grandparents, grandchildren, or in-laws? And what if we don’t have any of the above? Or what if we’d rather not spend our all-too-rare vacation time with these people?
If “home” means “with those we love,” then how can we be home, with those we love, who have died?
For many, this church family is home, even for some who live in other states. And “homecoming” means being at the UU church for the holidays. But those who have been away since Christmas past will find that last year’s family is here ...but not all here. Last year’s family is gone but not completely gone. Memories of those we have loved and lost now sit snugly among new babies, new visitors, new members and friends. We are as beautiful as ever, and we will never be the same.
The innocence of Christmas past is also here-but-not-here. The innocence is here in our efforts to engage in childlike joy, and yet, even since our last trip around the sun we’ve entered a phase of life in which it’s hard to feel carefree. Regardless of whether we feel our war in Iraq is justified, it’s hard not to be emotionally torn when we hear ourselves say: “Peace to all (and thank God our enemies are on the run).”
Our minds and our hearts may be here today, but not here. Not here if holiday memories are too painful. Not here if our attention is pulled away by things left to do. Not here if we’re unimpressed with holiday glitz.
Resistance to holiday excess is probably necessary -- to sanely limit ourselves is to cry “enough” at some point. Does that make everyone a humbug? I like the reading we shared for our opening words--boo hoo to the fuddy dud humbugs. I can be one. So I need to be reminded to laugh at myself, to correct my mood, to prime the pump to enjoyment. Perhaps I’m not going to reach angelic heights of joy, but simple enjoyment is not out of the question.
But even simple enjoyment can be hard to conjure up on demand. Because the holidays evoke grand memories and hopes, unbidden. They remind us not only of what we might be thankful for, but also of what we long for. Holidays and family gatherings can trigger feelings that have been unresolved for decades.
Unresolved losses are prime examples of ways that we can be here-but-not-here for the holidays. Losses involving someone who has left without saying goodbye, or someone who said goodbye without leaving.
These kinds of “ambiguous losses” are an incredible challenge to cope with, because the grieving never seems to end -- or perhaps it never even gets started – because the relationship has changed, but is not completely over.
There are countless examples: a friend with a brain injury; a soldier unable to communicate with her family; a loved-one with a degenerative disease; a child given up for adoption. We experience ambiguous loss when someone becomes physically absent from our lives but remains emotionally present...or is physically present, but emotionally absent.
Even if the home you go to for the holidays is far away, you may have gone back there since the last holiday season if there was a funeral to attend. But if the loss that your family is facing is more ambiguous than death, then you may be going home this week for the first time to see an uncle who has had a stroke, a sister who has been divorced, or a childhood friend who’s partner now has Alzheimer’s disease. Someone is gone. But there has been no family ritual to acknowledge the change.
One of three U.S. families is touched by Alzheimer’s. Add to this those affected by depression and other mental illnesses, by layoffs, alcoholism, or over-commitment to work (now that we take our offices home with us, and even on vacation, it’s hard to tell if mom is sitting here eating dinner with us... or is she at work?...the truth is, she’s both.)
So it’s likely we all have something like this (here-but-not-here) in our lives. Maybe something as common as sterilization or vasectomy--you know: it's there, but it's not all there. For me it’s a 16 year old son who lives in Minneapolis. Out of sight. But not out of mind.
In each of these cases, it may be helpful to know that if we’re distressed it’s not just because of our inability to cope. Our distress is the result of a situation which is truly beyond our control.
Regrettably, we often respond to such situations as if there were a logical solution. Like chasing the offending ant with a frying pan. Or like ending the holiday dinner with an argument, just to make the transition a little easier.
Is there anything we can do to prevent unresolved and unresolvable grief from spiraling downhill? I think there are a few things we can do. Allow yourself, and others, to acknowledge the sadness if this is the first Christmas without someone.
Do the same if you suspect that this may be your last holiday with someone.
If possible, share your feelings with the people with whom you share the holidays. But if that’s not possible, call me, or call another friend. It’s amazing how much better it can make you feel just to tell someone that you’re a little sad. Don’t wait till you’ve torn the whole house down.
What else can you do in the face of holiday blues? Tell stories, look at old photos, laugh and cry. Instead of throwing out the family traditions that bring you face to face with semi-present family members, adapt the traditions to accommodate changing realities.
Don’t try to shield children and grandchildren from your feelings. They too are re-drawing their family pictures in their minds. It may be helpful to have them put their shifting mental images on paper. But let their pictures change from day to day. Don’t strictly define “family” for children, but let them know that they can include those living or dead, in the household, out of the household, or partially in and partially out. Don't pass on the myth that a person's absence or presence is the only thing that determines whether they are part of the family.
In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner speaks of the apparent absurdity of fate. Kushner believes in a loving God, but he refutes the idea that everything that happens to us in life is part of a complex system of cosmic justice, in which we get what we deserve. In fact Kushner believes that God is largely impotent, unable to prevent evil, unable to keep bad things from happening.
But in Kushner’s view, God is not entirely impotent. God acts by being ever-present... and thereby inspiring the loving acts of others.
So in the face of loss, especially an unresolvable loss that makes no sense, there is no point in asking, "Why is this happening to me?" or, "What did I do to deserve it?" The only meaningful question is this: "Now that this is happening, what am I going to do?"
For even in the face of loss we can find meaning, we can find understanding, we can find compassion -- for ourselves, and for others. And in our acts, we can find some healing. Thus our acts of loving presence can become the acts of a loving God.
Kushner lost a son to a childhood illness. Looking back, he knows that he has grown from this experience. But he writes, "I would forego all the spiritual growth and depth which has come my way because of [my experience], and be what I was 15 years ago, an average rabbi, an indifferent counselor, helping some people and unable to help others, and the father of a bright, happy boy. But I cannot choose.”
Many of us are living with new or ongoing losses this holiday season. Many of us have moved through such losses. We are not all merry, or we may be merry, on-and-off. And that’s ok.
Many of us will face an ant in the kitchen at some time within the next few weeks. We will see something that provokes an irrational response. It will be all we can do to look the other way. To swallow hard and allow the ant to be present...without allowing it to become overwhelming present. Your ant may be grief, it may be an irritating brother-in-law, it may be fruitcake, or conspicuous consumption.
If your ant is on the verge of becoming all too present, the last thing you may want to hear is the question, “How are you?” After all, you don’t want to lie, but you also don’t want to call attention to the ant, and risk spiraling into self-destruction. This would be one of those times when it’s best to look the other way.
But there may be other times to invite the ant to the party.
As is so often the case, I’d really like for my message today to be delivered to those who are NOT here, those who have given up hope of healing from their losses.
So. If you are not here...even if you are here-but-not-here, that’s ok. Soak in the loving-kindness of those all around you.
But if you are here — please pass this message on to someone who needs it. Be for someone the messenger of love. Be the savior, the Buddha, the spirit of forgiveness and hope entering the world in an unexpected place in an unexpected way.