My Father’s Hands

Sofia’s hair has recently become long enough for tiny pigtails and dainty barrettes. It’s wildly curly and needs to be thoroughly wetted in the morning so that it transforms from a crazy collection of fluffy cowlicks to an adorable set of tightly curled ringlets all over her head. I love combing it and watching the curls bounce into place.

A couple of days ago, I came across a little tangle in her hair. Tugging to get it out, I lost control of the comb, and it slid down across her ear. She flinched away, of course, and I chuckled. I couldn’t help laughing — I’d suddenly remembered my own experiences with ear-combing.

When I was four, my parents, residents of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, decided to join another family who’d recently moved to a trapline in Northern British Columbia. It was a remote, beautiful place next to the Stikine River. Our family lived in a tiny cabin right next to the river, and we used the larger cabin up the hill as communal headquarters as well as living space for the other family.

Back on the commune, making breakfast was a chore shared by all the women in turn. Around the time we left, the population of the commune was about 200, so there would have been somewhere between 20 and 50 adult women to shoulder that task. On their mornings to cook, they would get up early, tiptoe out of their individual family homes (or dormitory, if they were single back then), and go to the main building to prepare the meal, which was served at seven. With so many women sharing the job, each woman only had to make breakfast once every couple of weeks. But on the trapline, there were only two women, so my mother would leave the house early about every other day, leaving my dad to get my brother and me ready for the day.

My dad is a gentle, creative man with craftsman’s hands. Those hands can achieve just about anything. Chopping down trees, smoothing the bark off the logs, building them into a shop. Creating his own lathe inside that shop, spinning wood on the lathe into delicate shapes: handles, round picture frames, jewelry boxes, a family of dolls for me. Those hands could sketch wildflowers, create an embroidery pattern, and make delicate stitches on fabric. They can execute a skilled pen-and-ink drawing, form a silly comic, make a detailed charcoal scene. His hands can coax music out of any instrument he picks up — a guitar, a recorder, a banjo. He made his own fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer. Truly, my father’s hands can do anything. Anything except comb a four-year-old’s hair without combing over her ears.

It would start off well. He’d ask my mom for pointers. She’d show him how to hold the hair in one hand, combing tangles out of the ends first, working upward. He’d try so hard to be gentle, starting on one side, successfully avoiding the first ear, working around to the other. We’d be almost done. I’d finally relax, positive that this time my ear would be safe. And then, RIP! The comb’s teeth would scrape over my sensitive ear, I’d wail, and he’d slump in defeat.

The rare times that my dad would manage to get all the way through my hair without combing my ear, he’d succumb to an even worse pitfall. Just above my ear on the right side of my head, hidden under my hair, is a wen. It’s a bump that used to be small, before it was built up with all the scar tissue from having its top ripped off with a comb, over and over. My dad would be so focused on avoiding my ears that he’d forget about the wen. The comb’s teeth would catch the top and rip off the fragile skin. Blood would seep out, matting my hair. We’d arrive at breakfast with one side of my hair still bedtime-fuzzy, stuck together with blood, and my mother would sigh and shake her head. And then for days I’d flinch anytime a comb came close to me, because while combing my ear was painful, combing the top off the wen was agonizing.

It’s funny, though. Having my hair combed by my dad hurt back then, but now, that sudden memory is heartwarming. I’m so glad that I have the memory of my father’s strong hands cradling my head, working a comb through my hair, making my hair shine despite the awkwardness that came from the unaccustomed task. And now it’s my turn to do the same for my daughter, feeling her baby hair spiral around my fingers, finding tricks to get her head in the right position, gently easing tangles out, and remembering how hard my father tried to be just as gentle with me as I try to be with my own little girl.

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A Lying Liar and a Singer Sewing Machine

Recently I read (and watched) a story about the first lie the author ever told as a child. Years later, the author — now a teacher — still vividly remembers the experience. Reading his story, I realized that my own first lie is just as indelibly branded on my memory.

I was four years old. It was my family’s first year living in a tiny cabin next to the Stikine River in British Columbia, where we trapped furs for income, hunted and fished for meat, and grew a huge garden full of vegetables that we preserved for winter food. In that remote place, there was no electricity, unless we used precious fuel to run a generator — something we did only on laundry days to run our ancient cylindrical wringer washing machine.

My mother’s sewing machine was a worn but elegantly beautiful foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machine with a wooden cabinet and a painted metal head, which I called the “horse.” She doesn’t have it anymore, but I found a picture of a nearly identical machine (this one has a wooden cover that’s shown in a different photo; my mother’s allowed the top to rotate down into the cabinet) at Copycat Collector:

A beautiful Singer sewing machine.
A beautiful Singer sewing machine.

I loved the whir of the flywheel and belt and the rhythmic thump of the treadle when my mom sewed. But most of all, I was fascinated by the shining blur of the speeding needle.

My mother had been sewing one afternoon while I watched, when she found she needed something outside. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. “DON’T TOUCH THE SEWING MACHINE.”  I had just learned how to time one minute on the clock. I sat myself down on a chair below the pear-shaped wooden clock my dad had made, and kept my eyes fixed on the second hand. It went all the way around one time, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I’d been mistaken in my attempt to count off a minute. I watched again. Still no mother. Clearly, she had gotten lost and was never returning.

Tears welled up, my chin wobbled, and I opened my mouth for a hearty wail — which was stopped, abruptly, by my realization that I was not just motherless, I was unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted. I could…I could…

I could touch the sewing machine.

I approached the shining, forbidden machine slowly, carefully. Reached out one finger. Stroked the painted design. Strummed the leather belt. Examined the shining silver balance wheel (that’s the small wheel at the end of the head, for those that care). I gloried in the machine’s beauty, now all mine. Finally, I ventured to touch the most dreaded part of the never-to-be-touched sewing machine: the needle. I slid my finger under the point, relishing the delicate scratch of the sharp tool. Then I rested my finger below the needle, on the toothy feed dogs (the teeth that pull the fabric forward), and eyed the wheel speculatively. When turned by hand or by the belt connected to the treadle down below, the silver balance wheel put a series of hidden cogs into motion, causing the needle to flash up and down. I’d seen my mother turn the wheel many times with a practiced hand, to position the needle correctly or to boost the motion when starting a seam so as to put less strain on the leather belt. I was tall enough to stretch one hand to the wheel while resting my finger under that seductive needle. My mind raced with the possibilities. Finally, motherless, I could do what I’d always (I now knew) wanted to do: race the needle.

I was positive I could do it. Surely my finger could move faster than the needle. I would turn the wheel slowly at first, for practice. But I failed to take physics into account. Turning the balance wheel slowly still caused the needle to flash oh, so very quickly, right into my waiting finger. It slashed a red furrow into the side of my finger, which quickly welled with blood. I stared, aghast. My beloved machine had betrayed me. Suddenly, being motherless lost its appeal. I opened my mouth and bellowed: “MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!”

Instantly, like magic, there she was, wrapping me in her arms, soothing my tears, prying my hand open to see the source of the blood, and demanding sternly, “Did you touch the sewing machine?”  And I, weeping with the shock of the needle’s cruelty, streaming blood from a needle-shaped gash in my finger, sobbed, “N-n-n-noooooo!”

For years afterward, I believed that I’d successfully convinced my mother that I hadn’t touched the machine. I wrestled with guilt and shame: I had lied to my mother. I had deceived. I was almost certainly going straight to hell. The experience was so wrenching — the lie, not the gash — that I never lied again. Ever. I bent the truth slightly on occasion; I evaded; I distracted and misdirected when necessary; but I never a lie. To this day, I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible. I relive the horrified, ashamed ache in my belly that came with the lie, and I just can’t manage it. And it’s all because I was betrayed by a beautiful piece of mechanical art.

Glamour Girl

I have a problem. Maybe it’s vanity, maybe it’s rigidity of routine, but whatever the cause, it’s this: I cannot leave my home without makeup. In fact, if I don’t apply makeup even on a day I plan to spend home alone with kids and no husband, washing dishes and digging in the garden, I still feel oddly incomplete. It feels like something minor yet nearly essential is missing, like a fingertip or an earlobe. It feels simply wrong.

I wish I weren’t like this. I wish I didn’t feel the need to extra-feminize and perfect my face for even the most simple human encounter. I wish I weren’t still writhing in shame for having greeted the UPS carrier yesterday with a face bare of makeup except for mascara and tinted lip balm (plus, unfortunately, Capri-length yoga pants paired unflatteringly with too-long socks). I wish I could wear cosmetics as a deliberate, occasional choice, rather than a compulsion.

I remember when my rigid routine began. I was maybe fourteen. Makeup was new to me, and I was at the age when kids on the Christian commune where I grew up were sometimes given occasional, informal lessons on etiquette and rather old-fashioned comportment. For girls, this involved exercises like walking with books on our heads, standing with our feet angled just so, practicing lowering ourselves gracefully with knees together and spines straight to retrieve a dropped item, and setting a table correctly.

And we learned to apply makeup. Just like the lessons in comportment, this was informal — and not, I realize now, meant to be part of that curriculum. One of the “aunts,” as we called many of the women around our mothers’ ages, was a Mary Kay consultant, and she would sometimes hold parties at which the teenage girls were especially welcome. She’d show us, step by step, exactly what to do: how to apply makeup in a ladylike and reasonably modest manner. She gave us pointers like “Never wear eyeliner without lipstick” and “Always put on foundation.” And she told us, gently, firmly, and repeatedly, that a lady always applies makeup before leaving her home.

I know she wanted to give us an edge in life, the advantage of beauty and confidence. She couldn’t have known to what ridiculous extent I would internalize her advice. I don’t know why I was so susceptible to suggestion in this area, but somehow her iron-strong will, clothed as it was in charm and elegance, imposed itself on me.

My mother rarely wore any significant amount of makeup, but she had no problem with my own dabbling. She even showed me the basics and helped me buy and apply my first cosmetics. And, possibly knowing that I was in danger of being influenced away from her nearly-feminist tendencies, she gave me her own makeup advice: “Use makeup to highlight your best features, not to paint on a new face.” It’s good advice, I think. Thanks to her, I keep my makeup minimal, sometimes nearly invisible. But it’s there.

These days, Sofie is extra-needy in the morning before breakfast, and I often find myself applying makeup with her on my hip. She watches in the mirror, smiling to see our faces together. Her baby hands reach out for my tools. Occasionally her success results in mascara-blackened fingers or a scraping of blush under her tiny fingernails. Sometimes I hand her a fluffy brush, and she chuckles as she strokes first her face, then mine. I love sharing these moments, but part of me cringes.

I want you to be braver than I am, I want to tell her. I want you to be bold. I want your confidence in yourself to be unconnected to your makeup skills. I want you to show the world your real face without shame.

But another part of me looks forward to teaching her how it all works. First foundation, next cover-up, now blush… Never wear eyeliner without lipstick… Use lip liner so your lipstick doesn’t smudge. I want to dive with her into a new world of grown-up glamour. Nail polish, high heels, the perfect stockings for that special party dress.

In the best scenario, we’ll find balance. She won’t hear a lovingly firm, well-meaning, Southern-tinged voice in her head, telling her that a lady should never leave her house without makeup. I’ll remind her that cosmetics should be used to complement her best features, not give herself a new face. And I’ll give her my own advice: “Only wear makeup if you feel like it. Take a break now and then. Be brave. Don’t let anyone else tell you how your face should look.”

And maybe, just maybe, Sofia will go into the world with confidence and beauty, free from the need to change her face to satisfy someone else’s idea of what women should look like.

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Sparkle

A few days ago, I was driving home from dropping off Niko at preschool, and I drove into a fog bank that was shot through with rays from the rising sun. And suddenly, out of the blue, I was swamped with nostalgia.

Here’s the truth: I hate most of the things about Alaskan winter and don’t regret abandoning them all for the mild, really-more-like-prolonged-spring Oregon winter. Some of the key elements I’ve always disliked: Walking through snow. Slipping on ice. Driving on icy, badly-plowed or not-yet-plowed roads. Waiting all morning for my cold, damp pant legs to dry after dragging them through a snowy parking lot. Shoveling driveways. Driving through a blizzard. Brushing snow off windshields, scraping ice off windshields, dealing with ice buildup on windshield wipers. The terrifying, unstoppably glide as your vehicle fails to stop on a patch of ice. And that’s only the snow and ice problems. Don’t even get me started on the darkness and short days and the cold….

But there’s one thing that Alaskan winters do better than anywhere else, and for it to happen, there has to be fog and sunshine. That one amazing thing is hoarfrost. We call the fog that comes before the frost an ice fog, for the obvious reason that it causes the frost, but also because the fog is actually filled with tiny, suspended ice crystals. When the sun finds a way through and lights up the fog, the air is filled with glitter and sparkle. It’s breathtaking in its beauty. You can’t help but stop to stare around you.

The morning after an ice fog, everything is coated in thick, intricately patterned frost crystals. Trees are as white and sparkly as an artificial Christmas tree. The frost turns the world into a magical land of beautiful possibilities. On mornings like that, you suddenly realize that Alaska actually is as incredible as tourists think it is.

A frosty Anchorage afternoon.
A frosty Anchorage afternoon.

Driving through that fog the other day, I remembered. And, believe it or not, driving on the ice-free road in a car that hadn’t had to have its engine run for ten minutes to be drivable, looking through a windshield with full visibility instead of semi-clear streaks scraped through ice, I discovered that I missed Alaska. Just for a minute. It didn’t last long. But for that minute, it occurred to me that I might like just one day of waking up to a fresh snowfall. Just one day to see the world covered in white. One day to see everything shining with jagged-edged, lacy, fragile frost crystals. Just once.

That night, the fog thickened and hung low over our home as the temperature dropped. I’d already forgotten the nostalgia, but Oregon must have heard my wish, because the next morning I awoke to a magical world of white. Not snow, but frost. Everywhere I looked, there was a thick coating of crystals. The grass, the trees, everything was shimmering white.

As I started to get breakfast ready, Niko ran to the window. “Wow,” he breathed, and I agreed. The sun was just starting to shine through the trees, lighting up the frost. On impulse, I asked him, “Would you like to go run in the frost for a few minutes?” He was thrilled, and ran outside, stomping and jumping up and down as he discovered the crunch of the frost.

Exploring a frosty morning
Exploring a frosty morning

My nostalgia is gone now. I know that if we’d had the snowfall I wanted for that brief moment, we’d be shoveling a porch and a long, long driveway to make sure we could get out if necessary. We’d be cold, and wet, and probably lose our footing and fall a few times. Instead, what I got was the sparkle and glitter I’d been craving, without the added stress of dealing with snow.

Thanks, Oregon. You rock.

Guilt Trip: In Search of Perfection

Guilt. I can’t seem to escape it. I’m not talking about shame, the sense of sorrow and regret that comes with specific wrongdoing. No, I’m talking about, in the words of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy : morbid self-reproach often manifest in marked preoccupation with the moral correctness of one’s behavior.” (A tip of the hat to my mother/English teacher for forcing us to write all those definition compositions.) In other words, I’m constantly pursued by a sense of culpability…even when I’m doing the right thing.

Example: Right now I’m writing this post, having just finished loading and starting the dishwasher, doing some much-needed photo editing work in preparation for a project, and getting lunch for the kids. I should be enjoying this short-lived bubble of peace while both children eat and I don’t have to nurse anyone, change a diaper, or field a thousand questions. But no, even though writing is my most fulfilling personal indulgence (maybe because?), I can’t truly enjoy the moment. Instead, the back of my brain is filled with a jangle of accusations. You should be finishing that tablecloth you started for the Christmas village table. Aaron’s gifts aren’t wrapped yet. The bathroom mirrors are still smudged. Why haven’t you cleaned that smear on the wall next to the high chair yet?

Even when what I’m doing is a useful chore, I’m followed by the guilt. It’s like a persistent toddler clinging to my leg, unreasonable and impossible to nudge away. Did I choose to spend some time hanging clean clothes in closets? The guilt tugs — “What about the baby clothes you still haven’t finished organizing?” Maybe I walk down the lane to retrieve the trash bins — “But look at the weeds in that garden bed! What is WRONG with you?” If I’m not careful, the million demands, each choice accompanied by anxiety about all the other undone things that I didn’t choose, can become so overwhelming that I retreat, usually into a book. Then I simply don’t finish any of it.

If possible, it was even worse when I was teaching, before I put that on hold to focus on being a mom. For one thing, I was responsible for twenty-five or thirty people, and responsible TO even more. For another thing, every choice I made to accomplish something meant that I was neglecting not just other tasks, but other people. If I spent six hours scoring my students’ writing assessments on a 6-point rubric and entering their scores into a spreadsheet that calculated their progress from the last time I did this same activity, that was six hours that I wasn’t spending with my son and husband. If, on the other hand, I spent just half an hour grading spelling tests and math timed tests and then went for a snowy walk with my family, that walk was two hours I wasn’t using to plan the next week’s lessons. There was no winning. Ever.

I’m sure that my ADHD is in part to blame for the constant awareness of ALL THE THINGS! that need to be done. But there’s more to it than that, and today I’m going to venture into the dangerous land of theology to talk about that extra dimension of anxiety and guilt. The more I think about it, the more I believe this needs to be said.

You see, I grew up in a highly religious setting, in one of a network of Christian communes, known as the Move, scattered across North America (there are a couple on other continents, as well). Some of this religious upbringing was beneficial; some, not. I’m thinking of two particular doctrines that are a common thread throughout all the groups and, I think through other fundamentalist-type churches as well: the doctrine of perfection, and the doctrine of death to self.

Perfection. It sounds so innocuous. So desirable. To the devout, the lure of being perfect in God’s eyes might be irresistible. It sounds so … well, so godly. It sounds like a worthy pursuit. “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” said Jesus (Matthew 5:48), and it’s hard to argue with that. Those living in the Move, and perhaps those in similar churches, hear the message preached regularly. I heard it more times than I could count as I grew up. Here are the words of one of the church’s leaders, Buddy Cobb, taken from the same Wikipedia page I linked to above: “Therefore, what are you saved by? His life! What are you saved from by His life? Saved from living your own life; and when you live your own life you are always living in sin.” The idea is that every single aspect of a life ought to be given over to the pursuit of God; one ought to be entirely immersed in God, leaving nothing of the original sinful human.

It might be hard to see how embracing a doctrine of perfection could be harmful. But I’m here to say clearly and loudly, though with love and apologies to my family, that it is a poison. It creeps into every aspect of an otherwise healthy life, tainting good and pure choices with fear. Fear that this activity does not bring sufficient glory to God. Fear that what I’m doing might be too self-celebratory, too lacking in the edification of the spirit. Fear that the new skirt that looked so appropriate in the dressing room might be a fraction of an inch too short for the high standards of modesty, that my friendship with someone might override my “relationship with God,” that my pleasure in a school assignment done well might be a source of sinful pride. Once you become convinced that God demands absolute perfection, every action comes under scrutiny lest an accidental sin slip past, darkening your soul with a stain that must be scrubbed out through prayer and invoking of Jesus’ blood. Every choice has to be held up to the light and examined: Could I be doing something more godly, more useful, less selfish? The fear becomes all-consuming, blotting out the joy of a well-lived life.

But here’s the thing: This is not the life that Jesus lived. Jesus did not second-guess his every action. Nor did he recommend that his followers do so. He preached compassion, kindness, and living a life of purposeful goodness. Here is the context of the “Be perfect” command: Rather than adhering scrupulously to the law passed down over the course of two thousand years from Moses, Jesus asked his followers to fulfill the spirit of that law. Instead of being satisfied with refraining from murdering, his followers were told to not even insult another person. If an enemy sues you for your coat, give them your shirt also; if someone hits you in the face, offer them the other side to hit as well. Love your enemies. Be peacemakers. The whole point is not to live less of a life, but to live more. It isn’t about being restrained by a series of religious prohibitions; it is about accomplishing the original purpose of the law, to be guided toward God. Yes, Jesus said we ought to be perfect. And when, like a well-brought-up church-school student, we check Strong’s Concordance to see what the word “perfect” originally meant, we see that it means brought to its end, finished, complete, mature. Jesus was telling his followers that they should be living to fulfill their potential. I’m sorry, but Jesus did not once tell his followers to stop making their own decisions. Jesus did not say that living your own life is sin. That is a twisting and a perversion of what should have been a freeing message.

It’s especially damaging when combined with a second doctrine, that of “death to self.” This doctrine explains that the human self is miserably sinful. The only way to achieve rightness with God is by constantly denying oneself. A good rule of thumb when adhering to this doctrine is that if you like something, it’s probably your “flesh,” or human nature, guiding your desire, and you should quickly abandon it and go read your Bible for awhile. Of course, it’s a bit problematic if you happen to be a teenaged girl reading The Message, a uniquely down-to-earth and clear translation of the Bible, and you stumble upon the Song of Solomon. What could be more spiritual than reading the Bible? And what could be more fleshly than this beautiful and erotic love poem? That’s a dilemma, for sure. Anyway, the idea here is that to be perfect, we must deny ourselves. Constantly.

If you take these two doctrines seriously, you end up starving your soul of the good and beautiful things that God put into this world for our enjoyment. You like chocolate cake? Go on a chocolate fast! Feel like lingering outside to watch a lovely sunset? How trivial! Go wash the dishes and pray for stronger commitment to God! Have eyes for that cute boy? Pray all night for purity of mind. Enjoy a good romance novel? Better burn those books…No, who am I kidding, just tuck them under that loose floorboard, you can writhe in miserable contrition tomorrow when you’re done reading the last one. My point? We aren’t meant to be starved of earthly enjoyment. God did not create the earth as one giant temptation, to see how long we could go before giving in and enjoying something. I find it hard to understand how some Christian sects ever came to embrace that doctrine, considering that our founder (I’m talking about Jesus) was known for being a “wine-bibber,” enjoying a good party, and being frequently found in the company of harlots and other people of low repute. But somehow they did. I grew up being told routinely that all personal desires were wrong, and that God demanded utter perfection from me.

I know my mother will protest that she didn’t teach me this, and she’s right. My mother is an excellent example of a person who takes all this with a great big grain of salt. My parents don’t live a life of constant self-denial, nor do they fret endlessly over whether each choice they make is godly. They just live. But, as I tell them, when a child is raised communally, parents are only one source of input. When you attend three to four devotional times per day, two or three church services per week, and Scripture-infused classes at school, your parents’ practical example fades into the background and is overwhelmed by the desire to live up to all that goodness you’re bombarded with throughout the day. I know, logically, that most people, even in The Move, don’t actually take the dual messages of perfection and death to self literally or even all that seriously. If you ever stop in to the farm for breakfast when the world’s best Danish pastries are being served (crisp, light, melt-in-your mouth deliciousness), you’ll know that self-denial is not a big part of everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the messages aren’t damaging. They are. For someone who’s grown up immersed in those messages, they’re inescapable. They are part of the blueprint of my brain. They’ve imbued my soul with a persistent stain of guilt that no amount of rightdoing will eradicate.

Of course, I’m well aware that I’m responsible for my perception of the teachings, for my own internalization of them, and for my inability to shake loose from the effects. I’m not out to point fingers of blame or to minimize my own culpability here. I am here to ask that we carefully consider the end results of teaching people that one’s own desires are wrong simply by virtue of being their own desires; that God demands literal perfection and absolute freedom from sin; and that the only way to achieve perfection is to sacrifice individuality on the altar of God’s will. If the logical consummation of following a doctrine is a life tormented by anxiety and formless guilt, then there’s something wrong with that teaching. It’s time to stop systematically telling children that the only way to please God is to reject everything that makes them happy.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Remembering Aunt Robin

Right about the time this message first makes its way into the world, my family back home in Northwestern Ontario will be remembering the life of Aunt Robin, who isn’t really my aunt but has always, nonetheless, been in my mind one of “the aunts.” It’s not to be a memorial service, my parents told me firmly. Aunt Robin didn’t want it to be a big deal. Not long ago, when a friend who lived “in town” — that is, outside the borders of the triad of communes where I once lived and where she lived right up to the end — when he passed away, his family held a gathering that must have been more like a family reunion than a memorial service. People coming and going, visiting, eating, while a photo montage played to one side. When she heard this description, Aunt Robin insisted that her own memorial be like that. No speeches, no teary memories. Just friends enjoying each other.

That’s pretty typical of Aunt Robin. Her joy was in watching her family enjoy themselves, not in being the focus of attention. I remember she had a particular smile that came out when she watched her good cooking being enjoyed. She would sit quietly after the meal was served, and look out over the tables in the big dining room. Each table could seat a couple of nuclear families plus some singles, but nobody was hampered by table boundaries — everyone would be turning to interrupt and add to conversations at other tables, calling across the room to ask a question or tell news. There’s a particular tone to the conversation of a large group of people who are enjoying the food that’s in front of them. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s different from the sound the same people make when the food isn’t as enjoyable. Anyway, I’m pretty sure Aunt Robin knew the sound too, because she’d look out over her big noisy family, and a quietly satisfied smile would come over her face. It wasn’t a smile of pride, but one of pleasure. Seeing us happy made her happy.

Aunt Robin didn’t want a big deal, with teary accolades from a podium. No fuss, no drama, just friends gathering to remember. So instead of listing off all the things that made her amazing (there were a lot), I’ll just tell one story. The kind of story you might tell in a gathering of friends to say goodbye to a loved one.

I was eleven, and freshly transplanted from a remote trapline in Northern British Columbia to the commune after seven years away. I had early memories of communal life, and I’d visited other groups during our time away, so the transplant wasn’t the cultural shock it might otherwise have been — but still, after seven years spent mostly in seclusion with one’s own family, a crowd of thirty or more people at every meal is an adjustment. What made the adjustment more difficult during those early days of our return was an uncomfortable feeling that the adults had some expectation of me that I wasn’t meeting. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I was far too shy to ask anyone. I just knew I was doing something wrong.

I remember standing in the roomy kitchen at the island counter. Aunt Robin had asked me a question, and as I answered, my eyes slid away to gaze somewhere near her shoulder. I didn’t put any thought into this action — it’s just the way I interacted. She leaned in close, her hand gently patting mine, and whispered, “It’s okay to look at my eyes when you talk to me, you know.” She said it with not a trace of sarcasm or malice. She just wanted me to know that it was okay. It jolted me, the realization that THIS was what the other grown-ups weren’t telling me. Maybe they, like me, couldn’t put their finger on what was different about me. But Aunt Robin, a gifted observer, saw it. She knew it was making me stand out, causing discomfort. And with that gentle whisper, she helped me fit in.

It wasn’t until years later, as an adult, that I read that it’s common in northern First Nations and Alaska Native groups for children to avoid eye contact with their elders, out of respect. I hadn’t known that, but I must have picked it up living in an area with a high Tlinget population. It was a cultural difference that most people living farther south wouldn’t know about. I don’t know if Aunt Robin did — probably not — but she was perceptive enough to see not just that I did it, but that I somehow thought that doing otherwise would be wrong. “It’s okay,” she said, and gave me permission to become part of the group. It was such a loving act. She didn’t stand outside and judge my differences; she leaned right in and made me welcome.

That invitation, that reassurance, was who Aunt Robin was. Inclusive, loving, radiating peace. She was a child magnet for that very reason. Someone small was always in her lap or her arms, or leaning on her, or on a step stool at her side learning to make perfect pancakes. That’s how I’ll always remember her.

Symptom of Childhood

It was supposed to be funny. A T-chart, headed with “Symptoms of ADHD” on one side and “Symptoms of Childhood” on the other, with identical items listed in each column. “So true!” was my friend’s comment with the post. The point, of course, was that all children have short attention spans and are wiggly, and putting a label on these things is silly. In other words: ADHD doesn’t really exist. She didn’t mean any harm, maybe even felt she was championing a child’s right to be a child.

But as I stared at it, I felt like I’d be kicked in the stomach. Looking at it, I couldn’t breathe. I felt the old guilt and shame rushing back, the accusing voices that had tormented me for years from my own mind. If you cared enough, you’d be able to be on time…remember what you’re supposed to be doing…finish your work on time. If you really wanted to, you’d hear when you’re being called…pay attention in class… stop staring off into space…keep your room tidy. If you had enough faith, you’d be able to pray and conquer these issues. Just like everyone else must be doing.

The first time I met a child with an ADHD diagnosis was my first year teaching. He was the sweetest fifth-grader in the world. Kindhearted, generous, well-mannered, and so very anxious to please. He was friendly, full of goodwill toward even the marginal kids, and well liked. But spacey, so spacey. Twitchy. Impulsive. Words would fly out of his mouth at the most inappropriate times, and he’d drop his shaggy blond head onto his desk in embarrassment as classmates turned to look. Small sounds like pages rustling or pencils scratching distracted and irritated him. Writing topics eluded him. To get started on work, he needed me to crouch next to his desk, softly talking him through the process: “Look, here’s a list of topic ideas. Do any look interesting? Okay, now jot down three big details. Do you think you’re ready to fill in small details?…” Mind you, I’d already walked the entire class through the concept, working through an example together, giving time to choose topics. He just…hadn’t heard. Or the task was too overwhelming. Or he couldn’t focus through the sounds of others working.

When he did get started, as long as nothing distracted him, he was singleminded and incredibly creative. Reading his stories, I’d laugh out loud, and look up to see a pleased grin on his face. He didn’t lack intelligence or skill; he simply couldn’t focus without help.

When I first met him, I didn’t know he had ADHD. Our records weren’t computerized at the time, and student files were all kept in the school office. You had to check them out, and you couldn’t keep them in your classroom overnight, so they had to be returned by 4 – giving little time for a newbie like me to sift through the thick stacks of data, assuming I’d even known what to look for. Having been hired the day before school started that year, I didn’t even know at first where to look for these files or what to expect to find in them — and while I wanted to learn about my students, I had other priorities, like developing my first lesson plans, organizing my classroom, and completing beginning-of-year paperwork, schedules, discipline plans — things the other teachers had already finished before school started. So I didn’t know about his diagnosis, but soon I started to wonder.

Then one day soon after school started, he arrived with hair uncombed, jacket disordered, his normally cheerful demeanor anxious and scattered. He couldn’t sit still. He hopped up to get tissue he didn’t need or to get yet another drink from the water container I kept in our relocatable classroom, interrupted, acted uncharacteristically hurt and then borderline belligerent when another student disagreed with him. By mid-morning he hadn’t completed a single task and was distracting other students, causing disruptions. I called him over to me. Head hanging, ashamed, he didn’t even wait for me to ask. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Malapanis, I’m really sorry, I’m trying but I forgot my medicine this morning and it’s just really hard.”

I took a deep breath. “I know what it’s like not to be able to focus,” I told him gently. “And doing it without medicine must be so hard. But when you don’t have your medicine, it doesn’t mean you can give up. It means you need to find other ways to focus.” I helped him with a few tricks that often helped me: I moved him to a desk away from other students, where the light was dimmer. I asked him to close his eyes and breathe slowly as he thought about the task he needed to complete. And he tried hard, really hard, and by lunch time had nearly finished one task.

The episode jarred me deeply. I felt the tiny seed of disquiet that had been disturbing me lately begin to grow. Why did I identify so strongly with this child? Why did I feel that I did, indeed, know exactly how he’d felt that day?

I didn’t know much about ADHD. The university’s education program focused more on compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) than on recognizing or managing specific disorders, and in the triad of Christian communes where I’d grown up and attended school, if anyone spoke of it at all, it was with scorn. “Those kids just aren’t disciplined enough. They need a better routine. Their parents aren’t doing their job. Public school teachers are too permissive, too lazy to take the time to understand their students. ADHD is a fake disorder. It’s a sign of degenerate times. You don’t see OUR kids running around a classroom like that.”

Actually, that last part was more or less true. Classes were very small in our school — when I was in 6th grade, our 6-student class was the biggest in the history of the school. Students got a lot of individual attention. Even during a group interaction, being one of three or even six students is very different than being one of thirty. So a lot of the issues that a child with ADHD could display in a large, busy classroom might look different in a school like the one I attended. (There’s a good reason that teachers work with students they have concerns about in small groups.)

I’d been taught to believe that ADHD was a fake disorder, a way to pretend a child wasn’t simply badly brought up. The diagnosis was an easy way out for teachers too: medicate a child instead of connecting and managing differences creatively. And supposing a child did have a Real Problem, it was nothing a little prayer, faith, and love — and a bit of effort on the child’s and parents’ part — couldn’t fix.

But poor discipline or laziness were not what I saw here. This boy had loving, dedicated, hardworking parents. His good manners and old-school courtesy were clear signs his parents were doing their job well. And his forgetfulness, his habit of blurting at inappropriate times, his difficulties controlling his body — these things caused him significant distress. He worked harder to overcome them than any other student ever did. There was no laziness here, no lack of caring.

Meanwhile, my own performance in the classroom was suffering. My desk was piled high with unfinished paperwork. I was weeks behind with grading assignments. Some weeks I didn’t even have formally written lesson plans — I just taught the lessons I knew were supposed to be taught each day, with little preparation. I was working 60-80 hours each week, staying at the school late each night, returning after supper many nights or working at home until well after midnight, and working through the weekends — but with little to show for it. I would lose whole hours of time, drifting, getting nothing done. While class was in session, the noise in my classroom was intolerable to me. Visitors commented on how quiet and calm my room was, yet the pencil-borrowing, page-number-reminding murmurs and the rustle of pages, clicking of pens, squeak of shoes on chair legs, and even noisy breathing were enough to constantly disrupt my chain of thought. When students were in gym or art, the hum of the lights and the voices on the playground took their turn distracting me.

[I’d like to add here that despite my personal struggles, my students thrived. I was distracted, yes, but I’m also fairly creative and extremely dedicated. And teaching — getting concepts across — is a knack that I have, not to mention a deep and sincere love for my students. I can’t say that my issues didn’t affect them, because obviously they did. But my students were learning and progressing despite those issues, because I worked my ass off to make sure they did.]

For my third year, I was reassigned to second grade. We had a new principal that year who took a different approach to managing her teachers, including frequent informal observations.  Not long after I returned from maternity leave (Niko was born in October, and I returned after the Christmas break), she called me to her office and told me that my performance was inadequate. She helped me lay out a plan for improvement, including observing in my neighbor’s classroom and having my neighbor observe me and give feedback.

I was stunned and humiliated. But I knew she was right. I needed help, and the worst part of it was that I had known it for some time. I just wished I’d taken the initiative to ask for support instead of having it mandated. That meeting was a turning point for me. It forced me to confront the fact I’d pushed to the back of my mind: I had a problem. A real problem.

The teacher next door is one of my favorite people in the world. She has a heart big enough to engulf every single needy person she encounters. She could embrace the world if somebody could suspend time to allow her to meet every individual in it. This woman spearheads reading committees and student needs meetings. She was passionate about advocating for children with special needs, going so far as to fill out complex paperwork for other teachers if it meant their students would get help. On top of all that, she has a wicked sense of humor and can deliver a pointed one-liner that will keep you giggling all day. She’s the teacher I want to be when I grow up.

So, going to her and pouring my heart out wasn’t hard. She listened sympathetically. “Are you okay?” she asked. I shook my head. “No,” I said honestly. “But I will be. I want to figure this out.” She gave me a fierce hug. “We’ll get you through this,” she promised.

I kept mulling over what had happened. That day back at the beginning, when I told my student that I knew what he was experiencing, had stayed with me, a constant thought buzzing in the back of my head. Now, I pulled it out and took a good hard look at it, along with all the other things I had been pushing aside. It was time to confront the truth.

As usual, I managed this with my typical lack of grace. I was sitting in the deserted library, chatting with my newly-appointed mentor. We’d talked of this and that, until the conversation turned to family. She told me her mother was very ill and had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was listening, truly, but here’s the thing with my brain: there are ALWAYS at least two (usually more) things happening in there. Part of me was reacting with sympathy and concern to her life changing, heartbreaking news. But the quiet place in the back of my mind was roiling with my newfound truth, and it chose that very moment to send  it blurting out through my mouth. It went like this —

She: “My mom was just diagnosed with cancer. I’m having a really hard time dealing with it.” Me: “I think I have ADHD.”

She didn’t even blink. Didn’t pause to shake off the discomfort of having the topic changed from her heartbreak to my needs. Didn’t grimace in irritation. She reached out, put her hand on my knee, and said, “Oh, honey, yes, you do. You sure do.” I writhe in shame every time I think of it, but I think I’ve never loved her more than I did in that moment.

Later, I took an online questionnaire posted by a doctor — not mine — to help his patients determine if they need help. I took the completed pages to my doctor and told him my story, including the confirming opinion of the experienced teacher next door. He glanced over the pages and raised his eyebrows. “If even half of this is accurate,” he told me, “I have no problem prescribing medication.” He went over my options: I could go the traditional route, with highly controlled stimulants. They’re typically very effective, but they also require an appointment with a psychologist and follow-up appointments each time the prescription needs renewed, and they run the risk of being addictive. We chose a medication called Strattera, which was developed to help people experiencing depression, but was instead more successful at dispelling symptoms of ADHD that many of the test patients were also experiencing.

The procedure was simple, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It meant abandoning a lifelong conviction that my problems were solvable if I just cared enough; prayed hard enough; tried a little bit harder. I’d been taught that depending on medication for behavioral issues, or for mental health, was a failure  of faith. I felt that I was giving up, that I was succumbing to weakness of character. I wallowed in waves of shame, disappointment, sadness.

And then I started taking the medication. It’s supposed to take 4-6 weeks to see effects, but within a week my desk was clean and organized. I had figured out a more effective way to manage discipline. I had designed half a dozen new, adaptable worksheets for my students to use when analyzing books. The clutter in the corners of my classroom was disappearing. I found, as more weeks passed, that I could distinguish between mischievous noise and working noise. When I was giving one-on-one assessments, I could focus on the student in front of me and still know what the rest of the class was doing. The sound of pencils scratching no longer sent me into shutdown mode.

There were other changes, too. When I folded laundry, I was no longer compelled to line up the stripes in kitchen towels perfectly. I no longer needed to design complex color patterns as I stacked folded socks and underwear. If clothes were hung on hangers of a different color, I didn’t grind to a standstill. I hadn’t actually realized these were issues; I still don’t know why I did them, or why the medication affected these odd behaviors. All I know is that I was more clear-minded, more focused, less anxious, than ever before. And something else happened: the cycles of depression that circled back through my brain once or twice a year simply…didn’t. I have not had a single episode since starting Strattera.

I still have ADHD. I still forget things, still get distracted. Time doesn’t make sense to me — it doesn’t progress for me the way it seems to for other people. Sometimes I blurt out things that only make sense to my hundred-thoughts-a-second brain. My desk is never truly clean; neither is my house. Even now, I function best when I have at least three projects and two books going at once, so I can abandon one for the next when my attention runs out and still get something accomplished. But the medication has done something that no effort on my part has ever done — it’s given me the ability to cope. I can manage my symptoms now, even use some of them to my advantage. I’ll always have ADHD, but I’m okay with that.

And I want other people to be okay with it too. Suggesting that it’s a fake diagnosis doesn’t do anyone any favors. Facing its existence, facing that a person with ADHD might need the extra help of medication to deal with otherwise insurmountable difficulties, is the kinder approach. I struggled for thirty years. Thirty years of secret shame, self-hate, and a growing conviction of my own inferiority, before I discovered that I actually could be organized and focused — I just needed more help than I was getting. Children with ADHD greatly benefit from the awareness of the disorder, as do adults.

Speaking personally, my realization that I have ADHD has been like a key to a previously unknown library of management strategies. I’ve been able to find ways of coping that I didn’t know about before. I now recognize, for example,  that trying to power through a work session after my mind has started to drift isn’t a useful approach. Instead, I take breaks when I start to lose focus. I go do a different project, stand up and walk around, do the dishes — and instead of giving these behaviors a negative label (Procrastination! Laziness! Lack of staying power!), I recognize them for what they are: my own way of getting things done. I keep a to-do list, both mental and physical, if there’s something I’m worried I’ll forget to finish, and I try to make things on the list a priority when I move on to something new. I make sure I have another project started so I don’t spin my wheels when I need to stop my current project. And it works, more or less. Am I as efficient as someone without ADHD? Almost certainly not. Am I more efficient than I was before the medication and the new approaches? You bet your boots I am.

I have ADHD. I’ve come to terms with that fact. And even though I cringe when people deride the disorder as a simple lack of discipline or low level of commitment or just not caring, I’m not going to wither in shame whenever I see one of these references. My ADHD isn’t going anywhere, and neither am I. For better or worse, here we are, inextricably entwined. Get used to it.

A note: I couldn’t find the original T-chart I mentioned in the first paragraph. The one pictured as the “featured image” sends a similar, though broader, message. I found it over at Grounded Parents, in an excellent post called “Internet Meme Demolition Derby: Childhood is not a Disease!” It’s well worth a read.

Siren Call

I saw the flashing lights up ahead, beyond my turn: an ambulance and a fire truck. I craned my neck to see what had happened, but the emergency vehicles blocked any view of details. I parked at my bank and got out of the car, walking carefully on the ice in high heels as I hefted Sofia in the car seat carrier. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I heard the spine-chilling sound of sirens approaching, heading toward the incident that was now out of sight. Pausing, I turned toward the highway. Police car? Another ambulance? I wavered, hesitant to go about my business when an emergency was occurring just down the road.

Reluctantly, I pulled my focus away from the sirens and turned back toward the building. As I did, I noticed several people in the parking lot. All were doing normal people things. Walking with a cup of coffee to their cars. Wrestling children into car seats. Talking to a friend while maneuvering along the icy sidewalks. Chatting on a phone. One man glanced curiously at me, his expression indicating mild concern. Nobody looked toward the sirens; it was my own interest, not the life-and-death drama nearby, that was causing puzzlement.

I find this attitude hard to adapt to. When I was growing up, I lived in a small town — a really small town. Three hundred people, approximately, including the one hundred or so distributed across three communes that made up the core of the town’s only regularly-attended church. At a guess, I’d say a quarter of the men and most of the high school boys (and a couple of girls) in the commune, as well as quite a few from the rest of the village, were members of the volunteer fire department. Others were paramedics and ambulance drivers. Whenever these volunteers weren’t at work, a pager would ride belts and jacket pockets. It wasn’t terribly unusual for a church service, communal meal, or morning devotions to be interrupted by the high-pitched jabbering beeps of several pagers in chorus, followed by a staticky announcement of the location and nature of the emergency. The room would go still as everyone froze to hear what was happening. And then, mass exodus ensued as people rushed for jackets, grabbed keys, and hurried to cars, some to man the fire truck or ambulance, others to go directly to the scene of accident.

The volunteers in the commune’s high school obtained permission to carry pagers in class because the fire department was so short-staffed. Depending on volunteers for the entire staff, except the chief (at that point, my youngest uncle; he now trains other emergency responders), meant that it was hard to hold on to able-bodied members, so the high school kids added valuable bodies to the ranks. The first few times the pagers went off in class, the students on the department exchanged excited, slightly smug grins as they made a dash for the door. Skipping class for an exciting event — what could be better? But those expressions of anticipation and glee didn’t last through too many calls. Soon they were replaced by a businesslike squaring of the shoulders and a hint of grimness around the mouth and eyes. Once you’ve helped cut another human’s mangled remains out of a crushed car, or sprayed down flames on a derailed train and semi truck containing  a charred corpse and a beheaded man, you realize that this isn’t a party. This is harsh, gritty reality. My friends were in the front ranks of the battle against highway hazards. Each pager signal was the starting bell of a race to save a life.

And always, the pager signals were followed by the sound of sirens. Those sirens were personal. They were meaningful. We could tell the difference between the ambulance siren and the fire truck. If police sirens were added, that was an added layer of gravity. If we heard a siren go by, we’d instantly start analyzing: What direction was it going? Which vehicle was it? We’d mentally list the people we knew who were ill, or pregnant, or doing a dangerous task. At times, the sound of sirens was a signal to pick up the phone and start making calls. Hello, Julie, I heard the ambulance. Sounded like it was going north. Is Nana okay? Or, Is Connie having the baby? Do you need a ride to the hospital? Or maybe, I just saw the ambulance turn into West Farm’s driveway. Is someone hurt? You couldn’t hear a siren and remain detached. Every siren meant that someone you knew and loved could be in danger — either having had an accident, or responding to a dangerous emergency.

It’s been years since I left the commune and village to join the rest of the world. Now, when sirens go by, the victims and drivers are unknown to me. It’s no longer personal. But I can’t act as if nothing is happening. I can’t avoid the knowledge that a siren might mean someone is dying, or hurt, or in fear of their lives. When I hear a siren, I turn and look. Even though I can’t take action, I can pause for a moment to send a thought of support for the emergency response team, for the people who might be in need of help, and for the people I love at home who are still volunteering their time and bodies to help others.

I realize most people haven’t had the experience I have. But just for a day, do me a favor. When you hear a siren, pause and think about the people involved. Take just a moment to be human, to react to the sound of danger. Just for a few seconds, stop and send your thoughts out to the men and women risking their lives to drive ambulances and fire trucks. They could use the good energy.

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org, by Michael Gil from Toronto, ON, Canada.

Most Wonderful Time: Christmas Past and Present

Sparkling beaded garland stretches around a green tree, white lights are sprinkled across the green branches, while the shimmer and glitter of painted-glass ornaments catch and reflect the glow. Under the tree is a red-and-copper tree skirt I sewed several years ago when the perfect tree skirt refused to appear in shops. On the table, ornament-shaped candle holders dusted with gold and red glitter rest atop my grandmother’s hand-woven table runner next to tiny vases filled with wintry twigs and berries. A gold paper star in the window, lit from within by an electric tea light, sends out a gentle glow. Brightly-decorated nutcracker soldiers guard the fireplace, while a jolly ceramic snowman stays safe from a curious baby behind the sturdy iron screen. High on a shelf, a silver Advent calendar is ready to count down to Christmas. A tall Santa in stately robes presides over the living room’s festivities from the next shelf. Down below, a winter village has escaped from the pages of Charles Dickens’s books, the windows and street lights gleaming convincingly. Cheery colored lights embrace the front windows and the edge of the roof. Our favorite carols flow through the air. A baby’s dimpled hand stretches cautiously toward the twinkling lights, eyes wide with wonder, turning toward us for reassurance. A small boy dances around the room, pausing periodically to inspect the new finery. Talk of gifts and cards, wrapping paper and ribbon, and a chance of snow next week, all twine through the air, merging with sparkle and glow to form an unmistakable feeling: the holiday season is upon us.

I’ve only been celebrating Christmas for about twelve or thirteen years, so the candles and lights and music feel new and exciting to me, too. I don’t stare and dance like my children, but I revel in the explosion of holiday decor all the same.

I grew up in a peaceful, prayerful commune that was strictly nonobservant of all holidays — well, except for Thanksgiving. Christmas wasn’t as bad as Halloween, the devil’s day, but we still regarded Christmas celebrants with a certain amount of sorrow and pity. We pitied all those foolish people who’d never figured out that Jesus was born at harvest time, not in the middle of winter. We felt a certain scorn for those who didn’t know that the season was a continuation of Druidic and Pagan and Roman holidays, all in celebration of other gods. And hadn’t anyone pointed out to them that Santa is an anagram of Satan?

It never occurred to me that people might simply not care about all those valuable facts.

People crave light and color, especially green, in midwinter. It’s especially notable in northern climates, where winter is dull and grey. The shortness of those monochrome days does something to the psyche. And the month or so leading up to the Winter Solstice is the perfect time to push back at the darkness. People like to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but if that were really the case, we’d be celebrating in October-ish and our motifs would be straw, tiny babies, and pregnant mothers; not glittering lights and shining gold and silver. Solstice has been celebrated for millennia; Christmas is a newcomer to the scene. The darkness, my friends, is the reason for the season. Darkness, and a craving for light. And there’s no shame in admitting that.

I remember the winter my mom’s best friend got (re)married. She has been like a second mother to me, and her generous spirit makes her well loved in the trio of communes where I lived. We wanted her wedding to be perfect. A winter wedding was uncommon, so we had no season-appropriate decorations ready to be reused, no fresh flowers to brighten the rooms. Someone had the bright idea to twine green garland and white twinkle lights around the stairway banister in the main house on our farm. “But won’t that seem a little… Christmassy?” someone worried. Everyone considered the problem for a moment. As one, we all silently decided: we didn’t care. The garland and lights went up, not just on the banister, but on the front porch rail as well. The following year, those decorations quietly appeared again in November. And again the year after that. No one called them Christmas lights. No one even mentioned them. But our winter-starved eyes drank in the glow and the green, like stranded desert travelers bask in the cool of an oasis.

These days, long after my departure from the farms, everyone is a bit more relaxed about the holiday. They have a big Christmas dinner with lots of visitors from the village. Some families put up trees and even share gifts. You can occasionally hear Christmas carols, maybe even in the church service. You could look around a living room on Christmas Eve and never know you were on a highly conservative religious commune. It’s almost…normal. It doesn’t surprise me. That first garland meant that full-blown Christmas was an inevitable eventuality. Once you experience the lifting of the spirits that comes with the lights and glitter, it’s hard to go back.

As I look around my cozy living room, at my little ones awed and delighted by the new festive decorations, I feel the reassurance that back home, they’re doing the some of the same things. It’s a connection that is strangely meaningful to me — strange, that is, considering how far removed my life now is from what it was. I guess it’s a little personal sign that says: It’s okay. No matter how far you go, you’ll always be connected; this will always be home. And there it is. Connection: the second “reason for the season.” The sense that we are together, even when we’re apart. That our love doesn’t have to grow thin as the physical distance stretches between us. Family is family, and always will be.