I call it Joy, which must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted Joy would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures of the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is. – C. S. Lewis
Joy is the best makeup. – Anne Lamott
Oh, what a difference three years can make.
Three years ago, I declared a mental manifesto about the upcoming Holiday season.
I will not send Christmas cards. I will not buy presents. I will not spend THREE days decorating my house for a season that lasts TWO WEEKS only to spend another TWO DAYS to take it allll down in January.
I will not travel on Christmas.
I will not go to ten thousand holiday parties with people I don’t spend any time with any other time of the year.
Christmas wasn’t about any of those things, after all.
(That’s what I told myself, anyhow.)
The truth was, I wasn’t entirely sure what Christmas was about.
There were some things that stuck with me, of course, like tiny pieces of lint refuse to get brushed from a wool coat:
My kids’ choir production.
Hot chocolate and a cozy fire after a winter run.
The soothing click of knitting needles.
The Charlie Brown Christmas Album.
And of course, The Story.
That I was trying to rewrite the holidays – or at least how we went about them – might surprise some of you who knew-me-when.
After all, I was the girl with six strands of white lights in her dorm room – all year long.
I was the psycho who started listening to Christmas music on Thanksgiving weekend. (And lest you think that normal, I’m talking Canadian Thanksgiving. In October.)
I was the weirdo who tried to pretend I didn’t have White Christmas almost memorized.
I even wished for a sister so I’d have a partner for that ridiculous dance Rosemary Clooney and the-other-one does.
(Though I probably prefer the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye spoof.)
Bereft of such a partner in crime, I learned the “Sisters” routine by myself, rewinding the VCR enough times to perform it for an imaginary audience in my grandparents spare bedroom.
Elliana does this kind of thing now, when she doesn’t think I’m watching.
As an adult, the shine of presents-under-the-tree and imagining-every-thing-my-heart-desires fortunately transitioned into the more generous sparkle of good winter meals and giant puzzles with those I love most.
But every year those smiles-around-the-turkey felt a little more forced and a little less real.
What is happening to me?
I would say to David.
He would tell me something simple and true, like you’re growing up or life isn’t a movie or its okay, next year will be better because (x) will happen.
I would smile and say, of course.
But the restlessness stayed.
Until somewhere around the middle of 2009, the thought of Christmas filled me with dread instead of delight.
It wasn’t that it was going to be the first Christmas (knowing) I had cancer.
It wasn’t that I was taking chemotherapy instead of breastfeeding my baby girl.
It wasn’t that I stopped believing in anything.
I just. Didn’t. Want. It. Anymore.
I didn’t want the trimmings. I didn’t want the shiny baubles. I didn’t want the handsomely wrapped gifts or the charmingly baked cookies. I didn’t want A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life or anything else that reminded me of all that wasn’t anymore.
I didn’t want to keep pretending to be happy in a season that for years had only made me sad.
So I pulled out.
I volunteered to work Christmas Day.
It worked for me.
It became kind of a tradition.
These work people became another family.
And my kids loved it.
They would make the turkey or the pie or the stuffing and bring it in with Dad for a 2 pm Christmas dinner, around the team room tables covered with white tablecloths and Christmas crackers and a smorgasbord of food made by people who care about Christmas
and each other
and helping those who need help
even on the holidays.
We minimized presents.
We emphasized time, people, and quiet.
And it was glorious.
I loved the message this sent to my kids: Christmas is about more than just you.
In fact, Christmas isn’t really even about you.
Of course, it was also handy to tell myself the same thing.
If its not about me, then I don’t need to think too deeply about me.
I went to get my every-three-months blood work done yesterday.
I got the nicest, sweetest girl you could ever meet. She listened to me as I rattled off my complicated story and thanked me for knowing more about the test than she did and for waiting close to 90 minutes to take a test that tells me if I’m living or dying –
The test that
should be normal by now
but somehow still isn’t.
A couple of hours later I had two missed calls on my phone.
These were from the sweet girl.
‘Sorry, I’m SO sorry, but we need to do this again.’
It wasn’t that I had to go back and do all of this again today.
It wasn’t that I was already running a time deficit this week.
What built inside of me had nothing to do with the lab’s mess-up
and everything to do with something I’d almost forgotten.
I have a friend who I see maybe once every three years. In classic long-distance friend style, every time I see her we pick up exactly where we left off.
I love this girl.
I love the way her mind works. I love the questions she asks. I love the thoughtful, gentle way she asks me how I’m doing with things like music, Christmas, and my dad.
She asks about music because she knows its my outlet.
She asks about Christmas because
it was Christmas music I was listening to
as I studied for a Nursing exam
the last day my dad was alive.
It was Christmas music I was playing as my mom came downstairs
and told me that
Dad had vomited something … black.
It was Christmas lyrics I had stuck in my head
as I walked into Dad’s room,
saw the mess,
noticed him smile,
heard his weak voice say,
‘oh, you came to see me!’
and told Mom to call my brother.
I’d forgotten that till just now.
as I hung up the phone
after talking to the sweetest-lab-tech-on-the-planet,
I struggled to recognize the emotion rising in me.
I think it was something like anger.
Yet it was so long since it had visited
or threatened to take over
that acknowledging it only made me smile.
Let me explain:
That I felt anger yesterday and yet spoke words of grace to this girl who already knew she’d messed up,
that I almost laughed in the face of a simple lab test taking up two whole days of my life,
as it does every time I take it,
every three months
for the last seven years,
That I spoke words of truth and understanding to her and gently said I would see her in the morning,
That my husband was more angry about it than I was,
That my first thought was,
okay, I guess that’s what I’m doing tomorrow
instead of a diatribe on why my time is way more valuable than this
I’m not who I used to be.
Oh, I am so not who I used to be.
And it took the Worst Christmas Ever to do it.
Yep, you read that right.
Just as I was starting to make my peace with the cheery season, Christmas 2014 hit me with a sledge hammer.
The biggest problem is that I shouldn’t have been blind to it all.
I mean, I’d even walked into last Christmas with a plan.
I’d had this one, guys.
But never did I ever
imagine what was to come.
The plan didn’t work.
Instead, Last Christmas became a season of breaking. A mirthless day of melancholy mess, triggered by some of the worst words I’d ever heard spoken, let alone spoken to me,
that I couldn’t even breathe.
my soul, my heart was crushed,
torn beyond repair.
The vast emotional unknown ahead of me,
jagged edges of torn flesh
and broken bones
sticking out at every edge,
it was the last place I expected to find the pieces,
of astonishing grace.
But there they were.
Somehow the best part of being broken to the point where you can’t put yourself back together, is that when you decide to move on,
you have to start with entirely different pieces.
So this summer, I went hunting for some good ones.
Humility – the underused gem. Most of us aren’t too familiar with this one.
(It’s hard to be when there’s so much ME clamoring for attention.)
Imagine my shock to find
that thinking of everyone else and
all the really important things
freed me from the prisons of
Which is really idolatry.
Friends, these jails are so over-populated, they look like concentration camps;
wasting away the essence of all that once was humanity,
they could all use another storming (or two, or ten) of the Bastille –
the kind of storming that won’t be accomplished by the songs of angry men.
Fortunately, I found an escape route.
It led right through the tunnel of –
Forgiveness – a shockingly light but warm coat of grace that reminded me of all I’d been forgiven and all I used to be,
while covering all the exposed and recently-wounded places
as I learned to extend mercy
in the face of offense.
And after grasping how to use it, I’ve learned that Forgiveness is the sparkling accessory that must be put on every morning in order for my wardrobe to be complete.
Its the piece I am most complimented on,
the perfect outfit-maker my friends think I’ve only just gotten
when its been hiding in my closet for decades.
Every time I put it on
it wraps me in a gentle blanket of
Peace – the unshakable, unbendable, unmistakable warmth in the coldest winter.
Peace was the reminder that spring would come,
that I was not alone in the darkness,
and that I could be okay even when nothing else was okay.
Slowly but surely I have learned to pick these three essentials up with more ease.
They are becoming a part of me.
And it turns out they have quite the company:
Ladies, what if we could see these virtues for what they are? What if we valued them more than the most trendy clothes and the newest of new in-crowds and the best of all feelings?
What if we eagerly pursued these precious stones for friends?
I think there would be a lot more beautiful in the world.
I’ve found that the best part of having these values as part of my wardrobe is that,
like the best of friends,
even the worst circumstances
and the hardest days
do not prevent us from wearing them
-nay, showing them off –
like the royal robes that they are.
Only our hearts do.
Let me explain.
Ten days ago I went to store something in the crawl space and came back with the box of Christmas lights.
The year you were born,
I told Noelle,
I put these lights everywhere. You couldn’t stop looking at them. When your dad and I couldn’t get you to stop crying, we’d put you in front of the tree and you would stare at the lights for hours.
She smiled that full-hearted smile that only Noelle can.
-Why did you stop, Mom?
Instead of answering her, I got out the stool and started hanging them on the ceiling.
the girls handed me hooks and held the rest of the string
as the house transformed.
Then came the tree.
And another little one.
And the Silent Night sign I found at a Vintage Market last year.
–Mom, you’re really going for it this year! Elliana cried in delight.
I really am.
Last Sunday, as I lay on the couch with my puke bucket handy
(Because, you know, the flu shot and me really get along)
My family put together a puzzle as we watched Elf.
I used to hate that movie.
I don’t really remember why.
‘Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?’
Made me almost pee myself laughing.
My husband could barely contain himself.
You really are different, he said. Old Lana was too good for this kind of thing.
Last week I listened to a woman I love and dearly respect shared some of the pain of having a husband with Alzheimers. She has the wearying job of patiently staying the same as the man she loves steadily drifts away.
Yet in the middle of this poignant moment, she smiled.
Put her hands on her hips, and exclaimed:
–Ladies, I’ve made a decision to laugh with my husband.
Last weekend, our brothers and sisters in Paris were sitting in coffee shops, watching sports games, and listening to concert music as
paraders of hate
tore through their exquisite city of light
and painted it all black.
World leaders offered their country’s sympathy and pledges of support, but it was the response of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that stuck with me most:
“More than a hundred people lost their lives while they were doing what they loved, or spending time with their loved ones.”
They were doing what they loved,
With whom they loved,
When terror struck.
They were laughing, smiling, enjoying good food and soaking up beautiful night sky as the air got littered with bullets and bombs.
This kind of thing has happened to many of us, in a sense.
Just as we were tempted to think all is right with the world we had the rug pulled out from us.
And it makes us scared to sink in,
or let ourselves enjoy anything.
And isn’t that what all terrorists are after?
To make us nervous to leave our houses,
terrified to cross the streets,
afraid to go places,
scared to smile, laugh, or have fun,
without looking over our shoulder for the guy with the mask and a sniper rifle.
Or the guy with the heavily packed coat.
Or the swastika-bearing Gestapo whose rule so symbolized death they had a skull and crossbones on the lapel of their black leather coats.
The threat of terror reigns in every generation. The lurk of loss is present in every situation.
Our job is not to let it.
See, there was one virtue I’d forgotten.
It isn’t pleasure, or happiness, or fun.
It’s not feel-good movies, ignorance, passivism, or only dwelling on pleasant things.
This is gutteral, trench warfare,
that pulsate the blackest spots of our highlight reels and start to turn them
until there’s a tiny peek of
the color of my girls Thanksgiving slipper boots.
And one way our family will choose Joy this year
is by choosing Christmas.
It won’t be about lights.
It won’t be about presents.
It won’t be about music
or time off
or even the people we like the best.
Joy doesn’t depend on any of that.
It only depends on us.
On a decision
-a belief, really-
that light can come to the darkness
even though the darkness does not understand it.
So while this holiday season will certainly have work and tears and difficulty and all of the things that go with the reunions of those who don’t know or love each other as well as they used to
– or wished to.,
There will also be Joy.
I’ve decided it.
And this time, the Joy won’t be pretend. It will be a celebration of all that is good and every gift that has been given in a season that at first seemed to be covered in sooty ash.
It will be a recount of all
the tiny blessings
and little miracles
and transcendent life-changes.
It will be the laughter of my children as they beat me at Dutch Blitz.
It will be the childlike glee of my husband as he restrains himself from opening the girls Lego ahead of them.
It will be all the little moments that are stored up and joyed up to be played up
for all the Christmases yet to come.
Oh, what a difference three years has made.
I have learned the secret of being content in every situation. – Paul, to the Philippians
Find the Joy. Joy will burn out the pain. – Joseph Campbell
We’ve been waiting for you.