One of those really good Christmas memories

Last week, I went to coffee with some friends, and we ended up chatting about Christmas and presents. We were reminiscing about Christmases past and all the things we’ve asked for and the best gifts we’ve received. That fuzzy feeling Hallmark movies mistake for “the real meaning of Christmas” came over me as I recalled the year I really, really, really wanted a kitten.

It was years, really. I’d wanted one since my best friend got one when I was in the second grade. Four years later I got up the courage to ask for one. No, that’s not quite right. I got up the courage to write it down on a slip of paper and pass it on to mom when she asked for our yearly wish lists. And then mom sat me down and explained to me in her kindest tone (the tone she always reserved for winning me over, because she knew I was above all else eager to be helpful, reasonable, and responsible–but I was stubborn, too, and would get resentful if I felt bullied. I have a very wise mother) that we simply couldn’t afford another pet, but maybe when I was a little older we’d look into it again. So I swallowed and said I understood and proceeded to try to get excited about books and clothes and whatever else my wonderful family might see fit to give me.

I did understand. But that doesn’t mean a little, guilty ache of disappointment didn’t settle into my gut. On Christmas morning I resolved to be grateful for everything, and I truly was. My siblings and I squealed and laughed as we ripped open our presents, there were hugs all around, it was a joyous morning. And since I’d been prepared, I wasn’t too disappointed that no kitten sat waiting for me under the tree with a bow around its neck.

When all the presents were opened and we’d started bagging up the shreds of wrapping paper, my dad suddenly asked me if I could run outside and get something he’d left in the car. I don’t remember what the something was, but out I went, still in my robe and slippers, and ran shivering across the front yard to the van. As I reached the sidewalk, someone called my name. I looked, and there came my friend and her parents and her sister, marching down the sidewalk (they lived three doors down) in single file, still in their robes and slippers, and carrying (in order): a beautiful white kitten, a cat kennel, a litter box, and a bag of cat food.

It took me a full minute to figure out that it was all for me.

If you’ve ever been there, you know what it’s like to want something so bad you don’t want to think about it, because you know you won’t get it, or worse, because you know you don’t deserve it and you feel a little silly even for hoping…and then you do get it.

Love is truly an outpouring.

So last week, as I sipped a chai latte and shared that memory with my friends, it came over me in a whole new way that I learned something about the generous, joyful, playful, sweet love of God on that cold December morning back in 1997.

He really does want to give us the first item on our list. And while it’s true that sometimes we don’t get what we think we want, ultimately he tells us to ask…in order to receive. May he bless our asking and purify our desires, in order to grant us the desires of our hearts.

May we all grow in our confidence that he wants to, and he will–in his own time.

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Always carry a car charger (for your phone)

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

–Blanche DuBois, Streetcar Named Desire

The above is absolutely not true of me, and if you know me at all you’re probably laughing just thinking about it. I don’t rely on strangers for anything. If the ugly truth must be told, I hardly rely on friends. I am in fact always (always) shocked when I bump into well-meaning, kind-hearted strangers. At some point between my third and fourth birthdays I came to the conclusion that human beings are a fickle species at best, wisely kept at a safe distance until they’ve passed the necessary vetting process. And even then, don’t pin too much hope on them.

So whenever I find I’ve run out my own resources and will have to turn to someone else for help–especially when I’m far from home and that someone else has to be someone I don’t know–I panic. Yes, this is a control issue, and could probably be helped with serious therapy. Don’t judge. We all have issues.

This long-winded self-focused introduction leads to a story. This year, I decided to spend Thanksgiving in Vermont, with a very dear friend. And because it’s been an adventurous sort of year, I decided I’d drive it by myself. Armed with her address and an iPhone squawking directions, I started off for the great White North about an hour later than I meant on Tuesday morning. Long about 3:00 I discovered why people own car chargers for their iPhones. Not to worry. I pulled off at a rest stop, plugged in, drank a Starbucks coffee and scribbled notes to myself for a story I’ve been working on, all the while doggedly fending off the advances of a heavy-set fellow with a thick African accent and very big yellow teeth who looked about 20 and kept trying to get me to admit that I was a student.

In case you didn’t know it, iPhones take a very long time to charge. I had to unplug it at about half battery life and just pray it all worked out. I did have the foresight to write down directions, just in case it died on me later. A very wise precaution, no?

Another thing you may not know: it gets dark a heckuva lot earlier up north than it does here in DC. By 4:30, as I rolled along somewhere in the upper regions of New York, it was pitch black. At about 6:30 the phone gave out again, and I thought with relief of the written directions lying next to me on the seat. I followed them with care, off the main highway and onto a dark, rural road that wound through hills and forests and I hardly know what else since it was so dark, until I came to my next turn. My next turn would have taken me onto yet another rural highway, which was supposed to lead eventually to a ferry. Yes, there was the road. Yes, there was a sign for the ferry…except–horrors!–this sign was covered by a garish orange sticker that read simply, “CLOSED.”

I pulled off the road and sat on the shoulder to think about things. I don’t own any maps. Stupid, yes, but I only think about them when I need them, and that’s never when I’m in a position to buy them. Even if I were able to a phone and call someone, I only have three phone numbers memorized: my family’s home number, which is no good since they’re in Hawaii; my grandmother–also no good, because she’d freak out; and my high school best friend’s parents’ number, which is ridiculous, because she hasn’t lived at home in eight years. So I’m useless without my electronics. So sue me.

I took stock of my surroundings. The nearest indications of civilization were a few dismal houses with rusted cars cluttered about the front driveways and tall grass in the ditches. I’d passed an exit with signs for gas stations about 25 miles earlier, though the idea of back-tracking after nearly 10 hours in the car made me want to kick something. And there might possibly have been a gas station or something close to the exit I’d just taken, but I couldn’t remember for sure. Realizing at last that sitting by the side of the road wouldn’t work as a long-term fix, I turned the car around and headed back the way I’d come.

Thank goodness, there was a MacDonald’s just off the exit, parked next to a little white church of the non-denominational variety and a locally owned feed-n-seed store that sported a sign boasting all sorts of great things for horses. I planned my entrance: Bring cord, bring book, walk in and order something (I’m not a huge fan of fast food, but we have to make do), find outlet, and sit down like you mean to be here.

It would’ve worked great, I’m sure. Except that this MacDonald’s had only one outlet, and that outlet happened to be surrounded by every teenage boy within a 15-mile radius of the place, and all those boys’ laptops. They were noisily engaged in some game. My heart sank.

I cleared my throat and put on my best professional face and asked the kid sweeping up near the cash register if there were any other outlets I could use. He gave me a sad look and sort of shrugged and said, “I think we only have that one that’s out there” (jerking his head back at the whooping crowd of boys).

I don’t cry in front of strangers. I’m happy to report I didn’t cry now, but I did sort of tear up, and holding up my dead phone and its charger I just lay it all out there. No more pretending everything’s okay, I thought. Just freakin’ ask for help.

“I’m lost,” I said, and I laughed with more volume than I intended. “I had directions, but the ferry is closed. I have to charge my phone. Please–“

He cut me off, looking a little desperate, and called for a manager.

People, this manager was amazing. I mean, I could have hugged her, and if I were a more demonstrable sort of person I probably would have. Not only did she find an extra outlet back behind the cash register where I could power up, but she even stood there behind the counter and wrote out a detailed set of directions for me to the next ferry, which was still open, and then assured me I could stay and wait for my phone as long as I needed. I was so grateful I bought french fries. I hate MacDonald’s french fries.

I suppose from her perspective it was a small act of kindness to give a little assistance to the frazzled city chick with her stupid dead phone who clearly doesn’t get out into the boonies much.

But from my end, her assistance was everything. Had I not found her I would probably have gotten back on the highway and ended up in Montreal (no joke) before I knew exactly where I was. I mean, assuming they’d have let me over the border. I didn’t have a passport with me either.

Which leads to two points that just seem very appropriate for this time of Christmas preparation:

1) Even the smallest actions can have real significance, even if we never see it ourselves. That woman (her name, by the way, was Jen, and if I ever figure out her store number MacDonald’s Corp. is going to hear about this) probably doesn’t even remember me. And here I’ve devoted basically a whole blog post to her.

2) We can’t do everything on our own. Sometimes you just have to let down your guard, trust the goodness of people, and ask for help.

You already knew both of those things, didn’t you? I did too. Only now I know them better, because I’ve experienced them.

Knowing the gift of God

“If you only knew the gift of God.”

This came over me Sunday afternoon, when one of my roommates suggested the household take a few minutes to pray together. We’d pulled out the Christmas ornaments and were knee-deep in boxes, bubble wrap, and strands of lights, but we let it all go and sat down and laid out a lot of the things that have been going on in our minds and hearts over the past several weeks.

It’s been a difficult time for many of my friends, and we’ve all felt it in our little household. Between one friend getting into a pretty awful motorcycle accident, grandparents passing away, difficult family issues, sickness, break-ups, job situation worries, anxiety, and people being just plain old depressed, it has been tough (at times) to see God’s hand in everything.

Yet as I prayed with these wonderful women, I was overcome with the realization that even the crosses we’re being asked to carry right now are gifts. You hear and read all the time that God is close to those who suffer, that he carries us through our difficult times, that throughout the darkness he loves us, though we can’t feel it. Sometimes it can be so hard to believe.

There’s a story that John Paul II once had the door of his “pope mobile” slammed on his fingers, and one of his aides heard him whisper, “Thank you, Jesus, for loving me that much.”

This story never ceases to amaze me. It’s a beautiful reminder that sufferings are often the way God chooses to love us. Our first reaction is to pull back, to run away, to reject the unpleasantness that must come our way at times. As my spiritual director once told me, that’s human–like putting our hand on something hot, we immediately yank ourselves away. It’s a protective mechanism. We want to think of God as always warm, always quiet and smelling slightly of candle wax and incense, the place where we can always find rest. We want to receive good things from him, and when we do, we love him. It’s easy to love him then.

Being a Christian has to involve the cross, though. Christ went off to deserted places to rest and find solace with his Father, yes; but he also took the cup and drank it, took the cross and carried it … and died on it.

Sometimes we have to step back from our lists of wants and needs, we have to let go of our preconceived notions of who God is and how he ought to feature in our lives and just recognize the gift of God in even the nastiest situations. It’s the daily challenge. In good times and in bad, in the most profound moments and in the simplest, to find God.

And in the midst of your darkest times, look around to see the spots of light he gives you–whether it be a moment of peace, a beautiful song on the radio, or four beautiful women to pray with for ten minutes on a Sunday afternoon.