Peace: The Christmas Message

They were wholly preposterous words.

“On earth peace, good will toward men,”(1) sang angels hovering over a land heaving with political and racial tension, ruled by a degenerate despot, choked by Roman oppression, crowded in on all sides by competing foreign powers — a land, which in just one generation would collapse under revolt, its temple razed to the ground.

Gustav Doré, Empyrean Light

Yet it is precisely into the heart of such a conflict-rife setting that the shimmering, pulsating words “peace” and “good will” spilled down the conduit from God’s presence. Like pure water, they gushed into this murky sphere, sending bright, ever-expanding ripples across the thick Judean night. Peace, proclaimed the angels. Peace on this harsh, hostile earth.

The word “peace” makes us pause, shake our heads. Can reasonable people really believe in, let alone strive for peace? Can we, knowing what we do of human nature and of mankind’s history of soaking this earth’s crust in fratricidal blood — can we hope for peace?

Let us proclaim without reservation that not only can we hope for peace, but we must. At Christmastime especially, when we kneel before the Prince of Peace, we renew our covenant to hope for peace, to claim and proclaim peace, and to proliferate His peace.

One can hope for His peace only because it is independent of outward circumstances. His peace begins internally, in a heart aligning itself to truth and light, and once cultivated in that heart, extends ever outward to touch and embrace all of mankind.

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Such was the LDS General Presidency holiday message to the church in 1936, where members were urged to “manifest brotherly love, first toward one another, then toward all mankind; to seek unity, harmony and peace … within the Church, and then, by precept and example, extend these virtues throughout the world.”(2)

Like the original angelic annunciation, that plea for peace came at a time of escalating global tumult. The Great Depression was still ravaging the USA; the Spanish Civil War was surging; Stalin was executing his own; Mussolini was forging an “axis” alliance with Hitler; and the latter was promoting a devilish political agenda, which became official when he proclaimed himself the head of the German armed forces. This timing means that, five short years following that December Christmas message, untold numbers who had heard that call to peace would be called to the front lines of the bloodiest and longest conflict of history. On the beaches of Normandy, in the rice paddies of Okinawa, and in the rural jungles of the Philippines, perhaps those soldiers remembered that, despite the weight of the rifles strapped on their backs and the sodden camouflage uniforms stained in mud and blood, their covenant was then as always to manifest brotherly love and seek for peace.

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Modern conflict both global and intimate — whether originating in Pearl Harbor, Korea, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Libya, or Washington D.C.; whether due to joblessness, chronic or terminal illness, abuse, abandonment, addiction, the death of our beloved, the death of our faith — “mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men.”(3) Yet our gentle God rejoins all of this sharpness with a soft call to partake of His peace.

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It is this kind of peace that both opened and closed his mortal mission. The peaceful greeting angels sang at his birth He repeated in the hours prior to his death. Before the Roman guards would barter for his last bit of clothing, press thorns into his flesh, and hammer iron spikes through his hands and feet, He taught His followers that “peace on earth” would not mean peace in this world, but peace above and beyond it. “Peace I leave with you,” He said, “my peace I give you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(4) In the face of all that He knew would surely come of torture, betrayal and blood (His own and His disciples’), “peace” surely seems a wholly preposterous word.

Or a holy, preposterous word. A blessing.

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When those angels blessed the quaking shepherds with a portion of holy peace, those same shepherds in turn took that testimony to what might well have been a quaking Joseph and Mary, who themselves perhaps needed reassurance that God’s peace, in their tiny Child, had indeed come to earth. Simple shepherds were among the first witnesses who heard and carried the blessing to others, thus revealing one of the secrets of God’s peace: it is always to be shared.

It must also be dared, wrote anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment… Battles are won not with weapons, but with God.”(5) Internal battles, Bonhoeffer seems to be saying, are won, and peace claimed when we do “the works of righteousness” receiving the reward of “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”(6)

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From a modern-day prophet comes wise counsel:

“No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of what is right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.”(7)

This season, will mine be the soul into which His sweet serenity enters? Into whose unsuspecting life will I dare to carry His gentle greeting? With which family members, friends or even strangers will I share His gift of peace that “passeth all understanding”?(8) And when this Christmas has passed, will we each have experienced something new about His peace? Will we have believed, received, and gifted to another that holy, wholly preposterous peace?

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.(9)

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###

1 Luke 2:14
2 Greetings from the First Presidency,” Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 22 Dec.
1936, p. 315
3 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Henry W. Longfellow
4 John 14:27
5 Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Eric Metaxas, pp. 81
6 D&C 59:23
7 David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1938, p. 133.
8 Philippians 4:7
9 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876)

Christmas Music: What’s on Your List?

One word —Christmas — and I start humming.

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

All illustrations Norman Rockwell

In my internal cinema, I’m sitting cross-legged on my grandparents’ moss green velvet carpet, my back sweating against a snapping fire while watching Grandma Belle with her lavenderish silver halo of curls list from side to side on the embroidered cushion atop the walnut piano bench.

Belle’s back is to us. I watch her fingers romp and caper up and down the keyboard while she cranes her head back to us —cousins in plaid, uncles in red vests, aunts in flouncy blouses— and while she lips the lyrics, coaxing from youngest to oldest more volume than you’d expect from a couple of dozen full-bellied folks. But no one —not the stiff uncle with a starched hair piece or the sullen fourteen-year-old with an extreme Toni permanent (me) slacks off or slips from the rhythm.

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At some point, we’re all shouting, “You better watch out/You better not cry!” and then we’re pa rum-pa-pa-pumming (even the teenagers) in unison. We’ll all be hoarse by the time the candles on the mantelpiece have wax pooling at their bases. Belle turns “Good King Wenceslas” into rag time, chords hopping and slapping in the left hand and embellishments tinkling like tinsel in the right. Her legs are jigging beneath the keyboard. She switches gears and makes “I’m Dreaming Of a White Christmas” into a tearjerker with the longest cadenza known to man. No one, not even Bing Crosby himself or my trained operatic soprano mother can sustain Belle’s last note, that over-the-top “whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.”

Belle played like that every Christmas Eve until well into her 90s.

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It’s Grandma Belle I recall every Christmas. Belle, and all the pianists, organists, choirs and soloists, instrumentalists, quartets, trios, orchestras, street accordion players or subway pan flute artists— all the music makers who, over my half-century of Christmases, have made my holidays ring.

Now you understand why, although I don’t really get into accumulating stuff, I do collect Christmas music. I have to. I listen to it (in secret) all year long.  (Officially, only from Thanksgiving until January 1st.)

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And that’s why I want to share with you my CD titles.

A word about this list: it’s alphabetized (not in any order of preference); it’s incomplete (I haven’t included my dozens of digital files, and I note with a gasp!! that I don’t have enough jazz and what’s this? No rap, country or reggae?); and it’s eclectic (From Thurl Bailey, a hoopstar-turned-crooner to Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.)

So I need your input. Can you post your musical treasures in the comment thread? Titles, please, of single songs or whole albums, and maybe include a bit of background as to why. Why this recording? Why this version, this instrument, this language, this key, this style?

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  • Amy Grant: Home for Christmas
  • Andy Williams: We Need a Little Christmas
  • Anonymous Four: Wolcum; Celtic and British Songs and Carols
  • Barbara Hendricks: Chante Noël
  • Barbra Streisand: A Christmas Album
  • Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (von Karajan): A Christmas Concert
  • Burl Ives: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Canadian Brass: The Christmas Album
  • Celine Dion: These Are Special Times
  • Choral Arts Northwest: A Scandinavian Christmas
  • Christmas Music: Christmas Peace; Piano, Guitar, Angels
  • Concord Jazz: A Concord Jazz Christmas
  • Curnow Music: Holiday Favorites
  • Dave Brubeck: A Dave Brubeck Christmas
  • David Archuleta: Christmas from the Heart
  • David Tolk: Christmas
  • Diana Krall: Christmas Songs
  • Die Wiener Sängerknaben: Ihre Schönsten Weihnachtslieder
  • English Heritage: Spirit of Christmas
  • European Jazz Trio: Silent Night
  • Frank Sinatra: The Christmas Album
  • Garrison Keillor: A Prairie Home Christmas
  • Garrison Keillor: Now it is Christmas Again
  • Harry Connick Jr.: Harry for the Holidays
  • Harry Connick Jr.: When My Heart Finds Christmas
  • Helene Fischer: Weihnachten
  • Ingolf Jentszch (festliche Weihnachtsmusik): Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen
  • James Taylor: At Christmas
  • James Wilson: Holiday Favorites on Guitar
  • Jim Brickman: Peace
  • Jim Brickman: The Gift
  • Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas
  • Johnny Mathis: The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis
  • José Feliciano: Feliz Navidad
  • Kathleen Battle: A Christmas Celebration
  • Kelly Clark Parkinson: Romantic Christmas
  • Kenny G: Faith; A Holiday Album
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas
  • Kurt Bestor: Christmas Volume One
  • Kurt Bestor: One Silent Night
  • La Chorale de Saint-Pierre: Les Plus Beaux Cantiques de Noël
  • London Symphony Orchestra: Tschaikovsky Nutcracker
  • Mannheim Steamroller: Christmas Extraordinaire
  • Mel Tormé: Christmas Songs
  • Meryl Streep: The Night Before Christmas (Rabbit Ears Series)
  • Moore Light: Christmas with Bach
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (and the Canadian Brass): A Christmas Gloria
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Hallelujah! Great Choral Classics
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Handel’s Messiah
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Noël
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Once Upon a Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Rejoice and be Merry
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Ring Christmas Bells
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Spirit of the Season
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Great Messiah Choruses
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: The Wonder of Christmas
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir: This is Christmas
  • Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  • Now That’s Music: Now That’s What I Call Christmas!
  • Osmonds: Christmas Album
  • Patricia Carlson: Christmas; A Creative Harp Collection
  • Reader’s Digest: Merry Christmas Songbook
  • Robert Shaw: Handel’s Messiah; Favorite Choruses and Arias
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Glade Jul
  • Sissel Kyrkjebø: Norsdisk Vinternatt
  • Skruk: Stille Natt
  • Sony Music: The Best of Christmas Vol. 1-4
  • Steven Sharp Nelson: Christmas Cello
  • The American Boy Choir: On Christmas Day
  • The Boston Camerata: Noël, Noël! (Noël Français)
  • The Cambridge Singers: Christmas with the Cambridge Singers
  • The Choir of Christ Church, Oxford: A Tudor Christmas
  • The King’s Singers: Deck the Hall; Songs of Christmas
  • The New Christy Minstrels: We Need a Little Christmas
  • The Piano Guys: A Family Christmas
  • The Roches: We Three Kings
  • Thomanerchor Leipzig, Dresden Kreuzchor: Silent Night
  • Thurl Bailey: The Gift of Christmas
  • Tim Slover: The Christmas Chronicles (Radio Drama)
  • Time-Life: Treasury of Christmas
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Bergweihnacht
  • Tölzer Knabenchor: Europäische Weihnacht
  • Trans-Siberian Orchestra: Christmas Eve and Other Stories
  • Vanessa Williams: Silver and Gold
  • Vienna Boys’ Choir: Christmas Joy
  • Windham Hill Christmas: The Night Before Christmas
  • Wynton Marsalis, Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade: A Carnegie Hall Christmas

And to everyone, I wish you a blessed and harmonious holiday season.

Repost: My Christmas Sermon Given in Frankfurt, December 2014

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

My Christmas Sermon, given December 2014, in Frankfurt, Germany

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

The Nativity by Brian Kershisnik©

Hanging prominently in the entryway of our home is a painting.

In its original, the painting is life-sized, as big as this entire podium. Off-center are three people: Joseph, Mary, and the Child. Joseph is shown on his knees on the ground, one hand draped on the shoulder of Mary, the other placed over half of his face, his eyes closed, mouth half-opened, as if caught mid-groan, mid-prayer, mid- revelation. Mary also sits on the ground, her legs stretched straight out before her, draped in a smooth white hand-spun cloth. Her one hand reaches up to gently clasp the hand of her Joseph. She looks tired but radiant — one strand of loose hair falls as she tips her head forward gazing down into her arms, which hold a small, reddish brown baby. The child is nuzzled up against her to nurse. That first taste of mortality.

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Kneeling also on the ground and leaning into the scene facing Mary are two women––midwives, we conclude, because they’re washing their bloodied hands in a basin. They complete the circle of family who’ve helped bring this baby into this world.

Then almost as an afterthought, there are the dog and two puppies, straining their looks upwards, aware of something else ––something bigger, something cosmic, even––going on right over their heads, all around them.

Most of the canvas is about what is unseen, this huge whoosh of beings––angels dressed in white robes––swooping from one side of then up and around and over the heads of the family––up out the top right corner of the painting, into and across and throughout the heavens. You might not see their faces from where you sit––some are stunned, some laughing, some singing with their heads thrown back, some shedding tears. Again the angels fill the biggest part of the canvas, well over half of it, and give the whole scene its swirling movement and surging energy.

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You know what this is. It’s the pictorial rendition of what I sang for you last week, “O Holy Night,” the night of our dear Savior’s birth. The holiest family and holiest night in all history, the most meaningful moment for all mankind and even to the entire creation, worlds without number, time without end.

It’s a Christmas painting, a holiday painting. But for me, it’s about far more than one Holy Night or Holy Family or holy day or holiday. It’s both a universal and intensely personal painting for me, and so it always hangs in our home, not just during this season, as a year-round reminder of our family’s most personal, most holy night.

What I want to share with you is personal, believing that the more personal a thing is, the more universal. But I know that I do so at certain risk. I ask that you will pray that what I’m going to share with you, you will receive with the Spirit. There is no way sacred things can be understood but by the power and translation of the Holy Spirit. I’m going to share sacred things about this son’s birth and our son’s death.

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Seven years ago, while vacationing at my parent’s home in Utah, I received a late night telephone call. A voice told me that our son Parker had been involved in a serious water accident. I was told Parker had been trying to save the life of a college classmate who had been drowning. That boy survived. But Parker, I was told, had been “underwater for a very long time, Mrs. Bradford.” He was, however, “stable.” I should nevertheless come as fast as I possibly could.

My husband Randall was still in Munich, overseeing details from our move that very week from Paris, where we’d lived for many years. I called him and told him to come––somehow come––to Idaho immediately.

  • As I drove alone 5 hours through total darkness from Utah into the rocky, dry desolation of southeastern Idaho, I wasn’t thinking of the Holy Family. I had no thought of Mary and Joseph’s long, arduous 8-10 day trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Instead, I was praying aloud behind the steering wheel of a rental car. I was pleading with God to save my child. He would, I knew it. And after all, remember, I’d been told Parker was “stable.”

  • I wasn’t thinking of the stable in Bethlehem with its animals and smell, its straw, its dirt floor… as I walked into the hospital with its antiseptic smell, its white walls and fluorescent lights, its scrubbed medical personnel.

Instead, I was trying to take in what I saw: my son stretched out on a gurney, a white sheet covering his lower body, a ventilator shooshing air into his lungs. I clutched my scriptures in my arms, the first thing I’d put in my overnight bag. I’d planned to read them to my son while he recovered, while science and faith worked miracles, while my firstborn came out from a deep coma, came back to life. Now, instead, I whispered ancient prophets’ testimonies into his ear.

  • I wasn’t thinking of shepherds leaving their flocks or wise men traveling from the east as family and friends got word of Parker’s accident and called or came––by car, by plane––from the west coast and the east coast, western Europe, Asia, gathering literally with us as we labored against death.

No, I had no thoughts of shepherds and wise men, nor was I thinking of Mary’s possible midwives. Instead, I watched the two nurses who came frequently to check on my son and adjust his tubing.

  • And I wasn’t thinking of heavenly hosts. Well … at least not at first. Until I became aware of a presence and felt something happening in––filling up––that hospital room. I felt a gathering, a vibrating, warm, thick presence of spirits. While that gathering took place, the veil between the mortal and immortal realms grew thin. There was a palpable presence in that room. Those who came and went commented on it. Right there, in the face of unspeakable horror was an undeniable never-before-known holiness.

I waited the many painful hours until my dear husband, by a series of miracles, arrived. At 7:00 p.m. that next evening, pale and breathless, Randall burst through the doors. I watched every frame as it passed without soundtrack, feeling torn to pieces like a melting hulk of upheaval, as my boy’s best friend and father steadied himself against the scene that met his eyes. From one step to the next, he aged fifty years. “Parker, oh, sweet son. Sweet, sweet son.” Silence and awe. There are moments that cannot and should not be rendered in words.

  • And it was then and there, together, bent over the body of our gorgeous child that our thoughts did go instinctively to The Holy Family. With our child stretched out under a white sheet on what felt like an altar before us, with me wrapped in a blue polyester hospital blanket, my husband groaning, weeping, praying, seeking revelation, we thought about Mary’s and Joseph’s and our Heavenly Mother’s and Father’s exquisite and infinite agony. We felt the smallest, sharpest edge of their immeasurable sacrifice.

“For God so loved the world,” John wrote, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

—(John 3:16)

And then came these words: “Mr. and Mrs. Bradford, survival, any kind of survival? Percentage-wise, less than ten percent. Meaningful survival? Less than five percent.”

It took that whole holy night, that long labyrinth-like passage we spent wandering together through our minds and hearts, to come to terms with what this meant. And though “come to terms” would take not just one night but months and months into years of long nights of the soul, we did in fact feel a gradual enveloping. Enveloping. That is the best word I can find to describe it. Slowly, coming from all around us, Randall and I noted a sturdy-ing, something that stabilized us, that settled us down into deep assurance.

After walking outside of the emergency room past the landing pad where the very helicopter stood that had brought our son there only hours earlier, under the stars and the moon that seemed to hold their breath with us in terror, and after speaking aloud to God and to Parker, we made that walk back into his room.

There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. We brought all the waiting family and friends––you can call them shepherds, wise men and wise women, midwives––into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed.

I was not consciously thinking of angelic choirs and had no spirit for “Glorias in Excelsis Deos.” But, in that stillness and through a ton of ruins that was my soul, my voice broke through. It shocked me. It pushed through without plan or my permission. In the shimmering stillness I began singing, “I know that my Redeemer lives . . . ” And by the end of that phrase, the whole room joined in. Heaven floated down, encompassing us like a great, weightless, sky-blue silk curtain.

And we––a normal, not-really-holy-at-all family, with a hospital room for a manger, nurses for midwives, and unseen angels for a chorus––stood there, encircling Parker’s form. And we sang harmony with angels. We sang to this child, we sang to heaven. We sang and sang. Souls sliced open, we sang our Parker into the next life. Then that sky-blue silk curtain wrapped us in silence.

We removed life support. His lungs released a final sigh of this earth’s air. And as his head tipped gracefully to one side, the earth fell off its axis and began spinning strangely, drunkenly, into unchartable and inaccessible regions out of which only a God can escape, or from which only a God can rescue.

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Now. … Why do I do this to myself, sharing all of that with you? And of all times, why now? Isn’t it Merry Christmas? Why such a mournfully tragic story for our Christmas message? Or you might ask, How, Melissa, can you even talk about this? Don’t you want to forget it? Wipe it out of your memory forever? Talk about lighter stuff? Tinsel? Jingle-jingle? Ding-dong? What happened to Jolly Old Saint Nick? Rudolph? Frosty … ?

That First Christmas after we buried our Parker, I had no energy for a jingle, or a single, thumb-sized decoration. No energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos Parker had helped me pack away while we laughed and joked so casually, so carelessly, just twelve months earlier. I couldn’t for the life of me generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.

As I considered the birth of the Christ child, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the King with glory roundabout and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will. Lose. Him!!”

Because, you see, that birth in Bethlehem is inextricably linked to Gethsemane. The straw upon which Christ lay in a manger points to the cross from which he would hang. The infant cry that his father Joseph heard echoes forward to his adult cry that his Father Elohim heard, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Indeed, wrote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“You can’t separate Bethlehem from Gethsemane or the hasty flight into Egypt from the slow journey to the summit of Calvary. It’s of one piece. It is a single plan. It considers ‘the fall and rising again of many in Israel,’ but always in that order. Christmas is joyful not because it is a season or decade or lifetime without pain or privation, but precisely because life does hold those moments for us. And that baby, my son, my own beloved and Only Begotten Son in the flesh, born ‘away in a manger, [with] no crib for his bed,” makes all the difference in the world, all the difference in time and eternity, all the difference everywhere, worlds without number, a lot farther than your eye can see.”

––”Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?” p.68

…Yes, I now knew something on a bone-deep level. Mary lost him. We will lose things. That is true. There are no guarantees that the person sitting next to us right now will be there tomorrow, or even the next hour, the next breath. No guarantees that what might lend our life much of its security and satisfaction in this moment will remain beyond today.

But what is guaranteed, and what is truer than Saint Nick, Rudolph, and Frosty is that, because of that Holy Family and that Firstborn Son no loss is designed or destined to be permanent. Because of His birth with its in-born death, because of Bethlehem that foreshadowed Gethsemane, because of the cave-like manger that links to the garden tomb ––because of Him, all of our individual and collective long nights of the soul are taken into account and born up with His rising.

But more than that, they are taken into the outstretched arms of an infinitely compassionate Savior whose love and mercy far surpass any and all mortal losses, any and all degrees of grief, any and every horrible holy night.

I believe that the Son so loved us that He descended from heaven to heaviness to meet every one of us in the dark and hollow places of our lives, our souls. And God so loved the world that he offered His Son, a sacrifice that transforms mortality with all its perils and deficits into the gift of immortality and life in His presence.

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O Holy Night. Your holy night. No, I never, ever want to forget mine. In fact, I think of our holy night every day. I think of it because I long to be there where I saw Things As They Really Are. And how are they, really? In the isolation and darkness of such a night you see and sense what is hardly visible or palpable in broad daylight. Somewhere there, as you wait on the Lord––as you lie flat, motionless, arms wrapped over your shredded heart, holding your breath or weeping aloud––you feel the hint and muted hum of light reverberating within your soul, a vibration coming from a source nearby. Of course, it was there all along, that lucent presence, that light-that-shineth-in-darkness. But you couldn’t comprehend it. In your agony and desperate disorientation, you couldn’t comprehend it.

In silence, in retreat, in your necessary entombment, your soul gradually reorients itself and, with a slow turn, you see the source of that soft vibration. You realize He was seated next to you in that darkness, quietly waiting, His eyes mellow and steadying, His hands resting calmly on your head, emitting real heat.

There, touched by God’s incandescent grace, a grave is transformed into a bed of rebirth. Your cold body is warmed to new life. Noiselessly, He stands. And you, drawn by ardor, follow as He rolls away the stone with an outstretched finger. Just one glance, and you understand that He is asking that you reenter the world with its sometimes-blinding sunlight and frequent neon facsimiles. He is asking that you follow Him from death to a new life, which you gratefully give back to Him.

So once again—raising us from either grave sin, grave sorrow, or from the grave itself—Christ has conquered death.

And that, my sisters, brothers, and friends everywhere, is true joy to the world.

Swiss Christmas

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From Christmas in the Serengeti. . .

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. . .To Christmas in the Swiss Alps.

 

They say that strong contrasts make for strong writing. But I say that if nothing else, they make for heavily textured living.

So may I begin writing about this, our First Swiss Christmas, by taking you back to a contrasting one, to a Last Christmas? Not our last Christmas chronologically, the one spent in Africa, the one about which you’ve just read.  But the last one we spent in Paris, our last Parisian Christmas.  We’ll always refer to it as that.  At the time, though, we didn’t know it would be the last we’d spend there, as we were still leaning toward staying in Paris from where Randall would commute back and forth for his new postion in Munich.

Despite those details, we did know we’d  be sending Parker off to college in June.  So it was a “Last Christmas”. Of sorts. Our last Christmas with all of us together like this. So I’d run my self a bit ragged with holiday preparations, writing and directing and performing in the church Christmas program, writing and printing out and folding and addressing and sending by snail mail our 95 annual Christmas missives, decorating and baking and scurrying and visiting and hosting and getting into the holiday spirit.

At least euphemistically so.

That Christmas Eve I hit a wall, and the collision landed me in a mental state I’m not so proud to write about.  For lack of a more incriminating description, I’d holed myself up. While holed up, the universe didn’t bother to tap me on the shoulder and whisper into my heart, warning me that this would be The Last Christmas, the very last we would ever share with our firstborn son. We weren’t given the luxury of preparing ourselves for devastation.  Usually, if devastation is coming, the universe is preoccupied preparing you in other, extremely subtle ways (besides shoulder-tapping and coded whispers). I suppose we’re all being trained in one way or another for whatever devastation will surely be ours.

But something did tap on my shoulder that December evening.  And something did whisper.  And something did warn me it would be the Last Christmas with Parker.

And that something was Parker himself.

**

The Last Noël

A true Christmas story

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

“Mom?”

Her son, whose voice normally had the resonance of a foghorn, was whispering from behind her, kneeling next to her bed.  She was on her side, knees curled up a bit, a dark purple woolen comforter dragged up over her curves and tucked into her hands, which she held against her sternum.  Her eyes she kept firmly closed.

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. . .

She faced away from the voice, away from the faint glow of the one night table lamp, away from the door, which she’d closed a couple of hours earlier, barricading herself into silence and as far as possible from the everyday, holiday noises that emerged from the end of the hall.

The holly bears the crown. . .

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood. . .

Kitchen sounds.  A swirling, tinkling holiday CD. Conversations between teenagers, the low word or two from the Dad, the swish-swish-swish up and down the hallway of two younger children in houseslippers.

The silent stars go by. . .

The silent stars go by. . .

A spike of laughter here. A name said with a question mark there.  Noises she simply wanted to escape.

How silently, how silently. . .

How silently, how silently. . .

She was doing it, that thing she sometimes did.  She was retreating into silence.  She was sending a loud signal.

“Mom? Look. . . Listen, Mom.” He was leaning his weight on the edge of her bed, now.  “Please, don’t do this.  Not again. Not tonight.” The weight of his hand on the mattress next to her hip was enough to make her flinch and consider scooting away. But she couldn’t muster the effort. Tired.  So bone-deep tired.

And sad.

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

The hopes and fears of all the years. . .

He sighed, her oldest child, and then readjusted himself on the floor with a groan. She could tell from the sounds that he was wearing jeans. And wasn’t he also in a turtleneck? Probably his maroon one.

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Let loving hearts enthrone him. . .

Should she just turn around, face him, turn around and face the family? Just roll over and brush back the matted hair a bit soggy, now, with old tears, just roll over and swing her legs out and plant her feet on the floor, shake some oom-pah-pah into her limbs, just turn it all around like that, switch directions as slickly as a Brio train track, switch gears, flip some switch, just head back out? Smiling? Humming Bing Crosby?

Let loving hearts enthrone Him. . .

We traverse afar. . .

She remained silent and still, hoping he’d think she was sleeping deeply.

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

Sleep in heavenly peace. . .

This is when he tapped her right shoulder.  And then he left his hand there.  The heat traveled all the way through her, into the mattress, as she envisioned its course, and to the floor.  How she wanted to respond. But her jaws were clenched and held in all the loving feelings her heart held in its pulse.

For unto us a child is born

Oh come, Oh come, Emmanuel. . .

“Why don’t you say something, Mom?  What have I done? Okay, so I should have cleaned up the dishes first.  But c’mon, they’re done now. Just. . .just come out there. Come see.”

She had lodged herself too deeply in the silence to creep out so easily now. Tired of speaking, giving orders, answering to everyone. Tired and worn out.  Another year: Gone, wrung out like I feel, squeezed dry to its very last particle.  

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Ring out wild bells and let him die. . .

Here we are again. Christmas. And stymied.

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

For mighty dread had seized their troubled mind. . .

Then she heard the lightest tap-tap on the door, and the sound of its edge shuuuuushing over carpet. The smell of her husband’s cologne.  And she pulled the purple up over her head.

Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above. . .

Sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above. . .

“Hey.”

“Hey.” The son’s voice was deeper, even, than his Dad’s.  And heavier.

“Honey. We’d love you to come out, just eat a little dinner, kay?  And then watch the movie with us. Maybe? No big production. Just be with us.”

And still their heavenly music floats o'er all the busy world. . .

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the busy world. . .

So, so tired. And so emptied clean out.  All this pressure to be happy. Please. If you could let me be alone.

The oldest son made a sudden move.  His voice came from above her, now. “Alright. I’m just. . . I’m going to change things here.” There was ballast in that voice now, a clip on each consonant. “Mom. Mom. Get. Up. And. Turn. Around.”

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

Rise up shepherd and follow. . .

She pulled the purple from her face. She rolled over, opened her eyes, and was looking right into the knees of two men in jeans.

Then the son knelt.  His eyes were at her eye level and he looked right into her. She’d never seen this look, at least not from him. The earnestness and resolve. The deliberateness.

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices. . .

“Kay, I’m not going to add to the drama here, but you know, um, this is my last Christmas with you all.  This is it.” He pounded a fist into the carpet and shook his head.

Was he trembling? What was the stiffness in his lower lip? In his chin?

Their watch of wondering love. . .

Their watch of wondering love. . .

“And so I want us to celebrate and have the Spirit.”

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

Let every heart prepare him room. . .

“So will you please come out and be with us? Now? Mom?”

God and sinner reconciled. . .

God and sinners reconciled. . .

He took her hand, which gesture was a bit odd, but not too odd right then, and she let him take it. She felt each of his callouses from dribbling balls and pummeling drums.

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there. . .

“Come on, ” now he was whispering so low she could hardly hear him. “Come in here with me.”

Close by me forever and love me I pray. . .

Close by me forever and love me, I pray. . .

The gesture, a tug, unlocked something in her bones and she moved, almost effortlessly, letting the purple wrap crumple to the floor as she trailed her son and her husband down the hall, into the light, the noise, the company of her family.  The other three children looked at her, stopped tinkering, quibbling, and went quiet.  A suppressed grin and, “Hi. . . Mom!” came from the youngest, who wriggled his nose under the round little red frames of his glasses.

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

Round yon virgin, mother and child. . .

“Okay. Everyone?” The son holding his mother’s hand announced in the middle of the room, “We need to have a prayer.  We’re going to turn things around here.  So. . . we need the Spirit. Right now. So come on. We’ve got to kneel.”

In the dark streets shineth. . .

In the dark streets shineth. . .

It was the prayer of a full grown man, and his mother – no, everyone – felt its weight settle on their shoulders.  They knelt for a moment in silence.  But not that resistant, withholding kind of silence.

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was. . .

This was the silence of soft awe, and like the invisible bending of the arc of a rainbow, it did indeed turn things. The mother spoke, but her words opened up a whole swamp of apologies, to which all the children and the husband now countered, wading in with their own apologies. Then they embraced, got off their knees. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

Risen with healing in his wings. . .

. . .And embraced again.

And so it continued both day and night. . .

And so it continued both day and night. . .

Later that evening, the mother and her oldest son sat next to each other, legs stretched out, on the overstuffed sofa.

Where meek souls seek him the enters in

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in. . .

He, between spoonfuls of ice cream straight from the container, lip-synced Jimmy Stewart. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

Heaven and nature sing. . .

. . .And she knew all the lines for Donna Reed. . .

Tender and mild. . .

Tender and mild. . .

And the whole family sat together and watched, like they had every Christmas Eve for as long as they could remember, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

And it truly is.

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**

“Temporary separation at death and the other difficulties that attend us as we all move toward that end are part of the price we pay for. . .birth and family ties and the fun of Christmas together. . .These are God’s gifts to us – birth and life and death and salavtion, the whole divine experience in all its richness and complexity.” — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

2012: A Year’s Passage

Christmas Day 2011, Tanzania

December 2011, Tanzania

December 2012, Switzerland

December 2012, Switzerland

Like you, winding up a year makes me look back, unwinding it.  While you’ve been with me for half of 2012 (I launched this blog in May), having strapped yourself in just in time for the second part of the year’s ride, (that big move from Singapore to Switzerland, if you remember), you missed out on the entire front half of the calendar.  That’s kind of a shame, really, because there was stuff going on, friend.  Are you interested in seeing a bit of that passage?

Christmas week, 2011. . .

Christmas week, 2011. . .

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Before I get carried away, though, may I insert a small, smiling caveat?

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As you visit here throughout December, would you please keep something in mind? It’ll help so that I don’t feel too crippled by self-consciousness and you won’t feel sludgy or arrggghy or slumpy. Or slap-toppy.

(That stinging state of mind when you slap shut your lap top, resenting what you just saw inside it.)

Not that you would slap shut on me. But in case.  Since you know, things happen.

Please hear my whispered voice saying that these posts are all given in the spirit of sharing between friends this riotously colorful and complex globe we live on. These posts are about nothing but that: sharing, celebrating, being whooshed away with wonder.

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So consider today’s post a jiffy Table of Contents for what you can expect to read here throughout December, this last month  of 2012.

There was an extended trip to Tanzania, Africa.  I will post several times on that and explain why we were there in the first place, what things I observed, why I want to return.  The photos alone are worth clicking in here once in a while. (I didn’t take them; my men did.)

Then there was Viet Nam, Cambodia and Thailand.

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 And Indonesia and Hong Kong.

And that morning spent diving with dolphins in Mauritius. 

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When not posting on the past passage of 2012, I’ll keep you abreast of the current passage, what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

“Here”: Central Europe.

“Now”: right about. . . now. This alone will keep us busy, as we’ve planned a couple of family outings.

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Come with us to Vienna to hear these talented boys sing…

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Drive with us to Strasbourg for the Christmas market that dates from the 1500’s…

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Take the TGV with us to Paris

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Then get some retrospective Paris with a few excerpts from Global Mom: A Memoir where most recently we’ve been looping back to Norway but we’ll now return to France.

Only to leave France briefly.

Only to return to France for a few more years.

All to keep you thoroughly confused and a bit transfixed.

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And finally, come share with us our first Swiss Christmas. They promise to be deeply, whitely, purely holy days.

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La Tempête de 1999

I have just propped my feet up on my desk and am leaning back in my comfy leather chair before I begin tick-tick-ticking away at my laptop. The moon is still high at 5:30 a.m., the boys are still safe and soundly asleep, the house stone silent, and I know I can get in a good 45 minutes’ uninterrupted work  before they stir and the morning routine begins.  It’s a pregnant moon, I watch for her hidden pulse beneath the mottled ivory skin so ripe, taut, engorged with fecundity, and through my open window I hear the peep-peep from the garden of the first morning birds.  A copper-colored squirrel flits up a tree past leaves that hang gracefully, their changing colors a muted swath of fabric that barely flutters as the night stirs into morning with one stroke of a breeze. No, hardly a breeze, really, more like a breath. I like the window open at this hour just for a brisk shot of chill, and I like that I can close it off, too, and that it’s not yet legitimately cold, and with those dozy thoughts I burrow into old photos to add to the post I am composing about a blissful birth in a cozy château setting almost as silent as the one I am sitting in as I write.  Yes, I recall, circling my neck once to loosen shoulders, that birth was also under a full moon.  Magical.  I take a sip of warm peppermint tea, watch the steam rise from cup, let it soak my face a bit like a momentary sauna.  Dry air today, I think to myself, might need to set up the humidifier and, uh-oh, apply extra hand cream.

On the paired side of the earth:

“Fast, faster, c’mon, faster! Get them up here, faster!!”

The nurse wearing green scrubs and an orange headlamp is yelling, motioning down the lightless corridor on the eighth floor of New York City’s Langone Medical Center, waving frantically to get the team of EMT personnel and a trailing firefighter into the delivery room where Julia Alemany is in the pitch of labor. “Right here, guys!” the nurse yanks them through the door, “Hurry, faster. Who’s got lights?”

Doron, Julia’s husband, is crouching next to his wife, who has had her hands curled over her eyes and against her forehead for two hours now, while Hurricane Sandy pounds demonically on the walls of this building, shaking it, slashing at it with wild whipping vacuum-like winds, hurling branches and metal scraps against the windows, yowling like nature herself is giving birth to the devil. Julia writhes on her side, panting, crying out, “I can’t do his anymore, someone help me, heeelp me. Where’s my doctor? Dor, what’s gonna – ?” and she lets out a low, guttural moan, clenching her belly with both bare arms.

The nurse jumps as something crashes into the closest window, rattling it in its frame, cracking the glass in a splintering thunderbolt pattern she can see when the real lightning outside explodes in one brief smack.  The rain and wind flog and lash, and Doron, normally a calm guy, is thinking how this feels like being trapped in the bottom of a huge electric mixer, nightmarish, impossible. He tells himself he will not lose his cool, he will not lose his cool. “’Kay, babe, we’re going to make it, Jules, we’ll make it hon, just stay with me, we’ll be alright, they say the pain guy’s on his way.”

Doron looks at the nurse, who shakes her head once. No sign of an anesthesiologist anywhere, although she’d called for him on the P.A. system when the power was still up almost an hour ago. “You’re doing great, Julia,” the nurse says, stepping closer, putting her hand on the nape of Julia’s neck and stroking the woman’s sweaty dark hair from where it’s gluey in her collar, “We’re here with you. We’ll figure this one out. Hey, what happened to the firefighter who was supposed to get me some li – “

The firefighter runs in, his red and silver industrial-sized flashlight now cuts a white tunnel through the shadows, and just behind him comes another man wheeling a portable I.V. He’s carrying a small suitcase of equipment, too, and Doron leans closer to Julia, his voice suddenly a register higher, “Okay, Jules, we’re cookin’, doll, he’s here. Pain guy’s in the house, folks, pain guy’s in the house.”

Six glowing cell phones, a red and silver flashlight and four minutes later, the needle is in Julia’s lower back. Doron puts his hand on her forehead. “Epidural will kick in, they say, in about five, six more contractions. They want to know if you can handle being moved? Can you move?”

On a medical sled, the EMT and medical teams carry Julia down eight flights of unlit stairs with Doron, now in his own headlamp and holding three phones aloft, leading the way, looking back up the stairwell with every step, barking at the men to “be careful with my baby men, just be careful.” The firefighter’s shining his flashlight right on the exit where an ambulance is waiting to take them to Mount Sinai. The moment they open the door, sheer force of wind suction yanks at everyone’s shoulders like a riptide yanks at your legs, and the team has to steady itself ­– “Hold on, guys, hold it, slowly,” – as they inch against the gale while someone swings wide the two back doors of the idling vehicle. “Watch the curb!” someone yells, “Keep her flat!” another snaps,  “Jules, are you with me? Can you feel it working now?” Doron’s face is wet with hot perspiration and rain that is not falling, but slicing sideways.

Julia nods, but says nothing.  Her eyes are firmly closed to the pandemonium and the icy gales that rage all around her. She’s saving energy by concentrating on nothing but the thudding of her heart as it ricochets all over inside her ribcage. Doron tucks a blanket up to her chin just as she is hoisted into the ambulance, and climbs in right after her, reaching for her hand as the sirens start whirring.

In spite of the half tree that falls across the hood as the ambulance approaches Mount Sinai, in spite of Hurricane Sandy, in spite of the devil of nature being born in New York City and up and down the eastern seaboard that night, at 12:48 a.m., Micha Alemany-Markus is born to grateful though exhausted parents, Julia and Doron.

And about that same hour, in a distant time zone, I sip on my third cup of peppermint tea while listening to birdsong and stretching my arms to the ceiling before pasting in my last sunny photo of the painless April birth of a little prince in a castle in Versailles, France.

**

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”—Albert Einstein

**

Only once in my life have I experienced anything that could be put in the same genus as Hurricane Sandy.  That storm was called Lothar or La Tempête de 1999, and was equivalent to a category one hurricane, mowing with 80 kilometer winds a path of devastation across northern Europe, plowing right through Versailles, right down our street.   A dramatic event, an historic event, a sorrowful event as fifty-three lives were lost, homes were demolished, historic treasures were ripped out by the root (10,000 rare trees in the Gardens of Versailles) or ripped to shreds (wings of the castle, windows, artifacts), and the equivalent of six billion dollars’ damage.

Still, its effects were miniscule compared with Sandy’s awesome ruin. In fact, I hesitate even printing “Lothar” and “Sandy” on the same screen, they are so far from each other in terms of magnitude of human and economic loss.

Lothar sent us flying from our beds that Christmas Day night, running frantically through our house, gathering our young children into a central and protected place, racing to the windows and battening down shutters to be sure that the old thin glass was not going to rattle itself into shards. There was debris and there were whole chunks of things – trash cans, shingles off roofs, shutters, a child’s bicycle – sailing through the air. I remember an image: the enormous tree in our neighbor’s yard was wrenching and jerking so violently, that its branches, normally a dozen meters from our home, scratched within centimeters of where I stood on the other side of glass.  Death’s claws, I thought. How close they came.

But Lothar lasted a mere two hours.  We actually returned to our beds and fell back asleep.  The next morning, Randall and I kept the shutters locked and let the children, who’d been up those two hours, sleep longer in the still and the darkness, then we awoke them and went about getting ready to go to church.  When we opened our front door, this is what we saw.

That day, we walked to church, as did most of our congregation. If their cars had not been damaged in the maelstrom, they couldn’t drive them for all the downed power lines and tree graveyards that just the evening before had been lovely manicured roads.

But here’s my point. Because I lost nothing in that storm – no loved ones, no property, no livelihood, not even more than two hours of sleep – to me Lothar was a single event, a story to tell one day in the future with a couple of impressive pictures, almost a titillating narrative, but not a life-changing landmark by any means. I have few vivid memories of that spot in time, in fact, beyond what I have shared here.

Others, though, people very much like me, people I have thought of since, will always consider December 25th 1999 the day their life split, the moment everything stopped. They lost the most precious things – a husband, wife, father, mother, sibling, child – to two unpredicted hours of a freak climate tantrum, and then, in the ruin, had to dig themselves out.

To take that reality one step further, as I sit and type this, not only are people climbing out of Sandy’s wreckage, but others are bracing themselves for it.

And to take that reality one step further, as I finish this paragraph, this one you are reading, someone else, and it could be anyone, and it could be myself, is going to be visited not by a category one hurricane, but by a metaphorical Sandy.  Or a Lothar.  They will get the test results back from their doctor. They’ll answer a phone call at an odd hour. They’ll see a strange, unapproachable look in their spouse’s eyes.  They might be driving or sitting or running or singing in the shower and with no warning, a storm will descend that will rip out all the precious plantings they have cared for so tenderly, counted on so faithfully. That is the forever moment, the instant that divides their life into Before and After.

What does one do with all this? What do we do with one another’s losses? How does another’s desolation impact my life? Who owns a tragedy? Whose loss is it anyway? What will assuming some small part in another’s tragedy bring to me, anyway? Will it weigh me down, drive me to unfiltered paranoia, eat up my private pile of joy?  How do I reconcile the fact that I walked that Aftermath Sunday morning in December 1999 to church in heels – right past, by the way, the neighborhood château where our Luc would be born five months later – that I minced in a skirt around toppled trunks, that I climbed side saddle over enormous root balls, that I escaped the scathe and the scythe while someone else, a victim because of a few chance centimeters, did not? And how does my living evidence this knowledge, that it is often scant centimeters – not worthiness nor predestination nor entitlement nor good fortune nor anyone’s inalienable right – that separates those flattened by tragedy from those who walk over or around or beside it?

**

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” –Andrew Boyd

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Global Mom: Julestemning

Christmas in Norway.

Three words, and my bones go all cheese fonduey.

That’s  because there is, even in my memory, a special spirit to a Norwegian Christmas.  With New Jersey’s jingle jangle still in my head, Norway’s quiet spirit caught me off guard the first Christmas we lived on our island.  And during all the Christmases that followed, I felt slowed down, whoa-ed down. Again and again and again.

Christmas in Norway is synonymous with making music, and since singing was my job, I did a lot of it during the holidays.  Where did I sing, with whom and what? Let’s just say the range was eclectic.   “Chestnuts Roasting” and other American standards with a jazz band in Holmenkollen kappell, a restored stave church high overlooking the Oslo fjord. The “Messiah” with an electronic keyboard run by a generator in a dilapidated barn hidden deep in the mountains. (I was offered an ankle length military uniform coat from an audience member, which I accepted so I could sing the soprano solos without getting whiplash from my teeth-chattering.) Scandinavian folk tunes with traditional instruments surrounded by candlelight in a stark Lutheran church. Spirituals with trumpets, sax and drums on Norway’s answer to The Tonight Snow.   “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a screen test for a national T.V. commercial.  Brahms with full orchestra and viola descant in a sumptuous opera house.  Simple hymns with our Mormon congregation’s small and struggling yet achingly sincere choir.

Then there was that most unforgettable of Christmases: The Viking Birth. That’s when I sang out five-kilo Dalton Haakon on a high note of “Amazing Grace”:

“And grace my fears relieeeeeeeeeeeeved.”

And grace sure did.

This post will be the last that focuses on our Norway years contained in the first few chapters of Global Mom, A Memoir, coming to you in January.  The next posts about Global Mom will introduce you to France, or more specifically to Versailles, where we first landed straight from our Nordic island isolation.

Versailles of the Sun King. Of the famous château.  And of our son, our petit prince, Luc William.  And of the not-so-famous château where he was born.

Then I’ll give you a good long look at Paris.

Then Munich. The City of Monks. Our Monastery Years.

Then Singapore. With flash-backs to Hong Kong.

Then Switzerland. With flash-backs to Vienna.

And much of the craggy, glossy, pitch dark, shimmering terrain in between.

So sit back.  It’s October wherever you are in the world.

But right now in Global Mom it’s December.

My attempt at a hand drawn family Christmas portrait one of our last years in Norway.

Global Mom, A Memoir

JULESTEMNING

Bente calls me at 5:30 a.m. Whispering in Norwegian, she tells me to hurry – run!— to the T.V. to catch the broadcast.  My friend has no idea what she’s asking.  I’m almost nine months pregnant, which means running resembles a slo-mo animation of global plate tectonics, my pelvis held together by what feels like no more than three shredded rubber bands.  But I waddle obediently down the stairs and dump my fertile self into the sofa.

Sitting breathless and alone in the darkness, I watch. In total stillness, the program illumines. It is one long, still moment until this crescent of blonde girls dressed in floor-length white gowns and with wreaths and burning candles atop their heads begins singing:

Night walks with heavy steps. . .

Shadows are brooding. . .

In every room so hushed. . .

Whispering like wings. . .

Santa Lucia.  This is the darkest night of the year. And in Norwegian, that means darkness of the underside of the blackest inkiest black.  Something about that thick backdrop makes my anticipation for this moment and for this season more intense,  intimate.  I’m awaiting the Christ child’s birth, awaiting the Bradford child’s birth. The Unknowns; one under the taut skin of my belly, the other under the night skin of the world, and this slow awakening happening in the sphere of my body, in the land of Norway.

Baby rump gyrates up under a rib.  A knee there.  A foot print there.  A head grinding relentlessly like a street dancer spinning on my bladder.  Now he’s rhythmically filing his toenails on my lowest left rib while he hiccups the effects of last night’s spiced lentil soup.  I push down with the heel of my hand. The lump bulges right back again, defiantly. Can he hear the television? Because he’s pulled a lever on his recliner so he can spread eagle from my pancreas to my esophagus. I’m stretchy both in skin and in soul.

Bente has prepped me about Santa Lucia.  “If you want to really get Julestemning, you must watch the performance live or at least on the live broadcast from Stockholm.”

Julestemning is an untranslatable expression, but every Norwegian knows what it means.  Closest thing we have in English is “Christmas spirit.”  But used in English, it conjures up for me at least images of neon pulsing robotically waving snowmen in shopping malls, the slosh of musak in the dairy aisle of your supermarket.  Andy Williams rapping “Ole Saint Nick.”

In Norway, that spirit is different. Deep as the darkness.  Fresh as snowfall in the nighttime.  I hadn’t understood the term, really, when just a few weeks earlier at a Norwegian friend’s house their young adult daughter was on the phone from California. She was there doing a year-long exchange in the land of The O.C., cooler than anything, you’d think. But from her end of the line I could hear she was sucking back tears, sobbing to her family, “Det er ikke Julsestemningnen her enda!” (There’s no Christmas spirit here yet!)

But now I begin to understand. In our basement, in the dark, low in sofa, high in pregnant, I watch the television glow with angel girls singing about the heavy tread of darkness and the pending light, singing with innocence, their faces almost iridescent with the sweet liquid warmth of a musical sunrise, and I’m lulled, nearly half-dozing. Before I can tug on the corner of the blanket that has slipped off my shoulder, I realize I’m draining tears from both eyes.  Crying, for hormones’ sake!  Punch drunk on Julestemning.

Bente, my formidable friend of the predawn phone call, has gifted me with something priceless in that phone call.  She and her family are, in every respect, our tutors in things Norwegian.  This holds true particularly when it comes to holidays and music. Here, she tutors me in Christmas:

“You begin,” Bente’s bright blue eyes widen enthusiastically, “with a thorough Christmas cleaning.”

This means, I learn, on-your-hands-and-knees scrub down of every inch of pine, including the ceiling.  Polishing windows with vinegar and lemon. Beating rugs and bedding and mattresses and bushes.  Flossing your banister. Tipping over the fridge.  Wiping under it.  Picking lint out of the wiry element on the backside of your appliances.  With a Q-tip.

“Then you’re ready for Christmas curtains,” Bente’s adorably girlish Swedish sister-in-law Pia schools me. She is also smiling.

“Curtains” means taking down all your everyday window treatments. Washing them, folding them, storing them in plastic bags you’ve sucked the air out of. And replacing them with flouncy fabric in red and green. Holly berries, candy canes, bows, polar bears, trolls.

“So, where do you pick up these curtains?” I am decidedly curtain challenged, except for stage curtains, which I’d never sewn or laundered.

“Pick them up?  Oh no. You buy the fabric. You sew them.”

“Sew? Curtains? For all your windows?  For every Christmas?”

Was this even legal?

“And after that, you do the syv sorter,” Bente adds, still smiling.  She is tall, has four tall children, and they all have peachy complexions with bright, winning smiles. I conclude it’s a national mandate.

Syv sorter means making seven different sorts of Christmas cookies all in the course of one day. (And there are prescribed sorts, I was to learn, of which Pillsbury ready-bake is not one, you sluggards.) Real Norwegians like Bente are born to do seven sorts in a day and from scratch.  But they are also born with peachy complexions, winning smiles, skis on their feet, a hockey stick in their fist, and something in their constitution that lets them slurp the teensy eggs out of the tails of raw shrimp.  And still smile.

“And don’t forget kransekake,” Pia wants to explain to me, her dimples softening the blow.  By now I’m feverishly scribbling notes. “You start with hand-ground almonds and powdered sugar and — you want to borrow my moulds?” She hands me her cast iron ring moulds for the traditional stacked wreath cake, then pulls me aside. “You can actually buy the dough ready made.” She lowers her voice, “But not a word.”

I’d never seen darling blonde Pia look stern.  This time, she’s glowering.

At Bente’s, we all gather for Christmas Eve.  We have come in our best clothing (Bente and Pia’s children are in Sunday best and opulent traditional Norwegian costume) because, as Christian, Bente’s oldest has told us, this evening will be “litt høytidlig.”

A bit solemn. Formal.  Reverent.

I gather this is code for. Please, pants with belts. Drawstrings and elasticized ankles turned away at the door.  (And you will forever be labeled, “Bumpkin.” )

We gather around Bente’s table set with a great-great-grandmother’s crystal, heirloom silver, china handed down generations. There are candles. There is an order to things, a program. A first course followed by a song.  Another course.  Another song.  There are pewter warming plates and hand-tatted linens from another great-grandmother. The menu includes substantial fare; traditional white sausage, delicately boiled potatoes, steamed Brussel sprouts and caramel pudding right before the crowning treat: stacked rings of the kransekake, each ascending ring decorated with small Norwegian flags.

No paper plates, even Chinette. No feet propped on the coffee table.  No root beer floats in mismatched Jets and Yankees mugs. Not a single popcorn ball, corn dog or Jell-o salad. Nothing of that sort anywhere from the Arctic circle all the way down to the southern border that Christmas Eve.

Just a guess.  But one I’d stake my life on.

LANGBORDET

Given that Christmas in Norway means gathering, we buy a huge table.  This particular three-meter plateau of pine has room for twelve, and we have twelve traditional curved farm chairs made and painted to match.  In a pinch, there is room for fourteen.  Sixteen, if everyone dines armlessly.

Even with the table as talisman, I never really fully master the Norwegian Christmas.  Maybe because it takes much longer than five years to do so. Maybe because I do not really master so very much domestically, if you must know the truth.  I do get all the traditional decorations, serve mounds of fish in every possible state at every one of my gatherings, make vat upon vat of something called gløgg, an onomatopoetically named cider that Norwegians consume with or without alcohol. (But mostly with.  And with lots).

I even perfect my own recipe for gingerbread, the very mortar of any true Norwegian Christmas.  I learn all the local songs about the art and lure of gingerbread-baking. I sing them with my children and add choreography I can still pull off today if you put a kransekake mould to my head. One year, I made enough gingerbread dough to re-shingle our roof.  Then loaded it in my car and took it to church where two dozen children built a scale model of Machu Picchu, looked like. Machu Picchu with shiny green gum drops and red striped fences all around.

In the course of our Norway years, I scrape off the biggest scabs of the vestiges of a crusty old feminism that had preached disdain for all things — for every thing — domestic.  I shimmied out of that brittle role model while also squeezing sideways past The Good Norwegian Housewife one.  (I never, for instance, tipped or Q-tipped my fridge. Never once).  But I took a swan dive into the one domestic task I liked:  Food preparation. Food preparation, specifically, that gets people together. I gave up Gloria Steinem for Rachel Ray and traded in Bella Abzug for Julia Childs.

In fact, I now see that in some ways I at least subconsciously took Mrs. Julia Childs as a muse, a model.  Many years after leaving Norway, after Childs’ death, I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian which featured her huge meat cleaver-scarred Norwegian farm table. She said it had been the heart of her home.  She even had similar curved farm chairs to mine. Or better, I did to hers. And they were all collected during the time she’d lived in Oslo with her husband, Paul.

Hmm. She’d also lived twice in France.

And once in Germany.

And along the east coast of the U.S.

Now I’ve got you thinking we’re nearly identical, Mrs. Childs and I.

But besides the fact that I am not six feet tall, do not have an arsenal of kitchen knives, have never in my life made a boeuf bourguignon nor, lets be honest, a single pot roast, and besides the tiny fact I’m neither genius nor legend, there is one feature of our lives, of my life and the life of Mrs. Childs, that does not match.

Children.

She had none.

I was bursting with my third.

Which was  good.

But given the paragraphs below,  hard.

**

TROLLS

From my journal:

This year has marked the kids’ surge in growth of all kinds.  Parker’s making great headway with his Norwegian, managing to converse like a native with his little first grade buddies and participating in the church  program with a major speaking part.  Wise Man #1.  And at school for the Christmas program he’s Troll #1. 

Is the universe trying to tell me something?

Parker as a troll in his class Christmas spectacle at Nesøya Skole. The lip liner should be given special credit.

He’s lost teeth right in front so he epitomizes the gangly six-and-a-half-year-old, wild about his sport club, crazy about his weekly swimming classes. Claire has refined a large repertoire of native folk songs which she hollers and croons at all times and in all places.  Both children are sturdy and active,  joyous reminders to us of the vibrancy and hope of childhood.  I can drone on and on about their energy and bright minds, how Claire loves all things theatrical, how Parker has a penchant for memorizing long texts.  Actually, it’s a little creepy, his ability to memorize.  According to his teachers, they’ve never seen the likes. He has something like a perfect aural memory.

But. But. Adjusting to the whole local school thing has been hard work for him. For us all.  HARD.  Parker’s teachers have been terrific—kind, flexible, patient—and the school’s principal, Sigrid, has been an absolute wonder. She’s called me in to conference with her every week—a schedule that will spread out to once a month, we plan—just to make a team out of home and school in order to assure this boy, this first non-Norwegian child they’ve ever had, has a good experience in the school, in Norway.  

So here goes: I came close to crying in yesterday’s conference.  As Sigrid was expressing her concerns about Parker’s behavior (and his four teachers around the table were describing how disruptive he can sometimes be in class, erratic, uncontainable, sometimes explosive), I felt that salty wave climbing my throat.  Times like this I’m convinced that it would have been better for everybody had I stuck with full-time theater, had we not moved to a foreign country, and had I let child care professionals duke it out over this child.  It’s all so tiring.  So deflating.

Point is, I have little natural talent for domesticity, for mothering.  All my other talents, (that short list that’s steadily getting shorter) have no application at home. I can love, love a lot, but that love doesn’t seem to be the pill for Parker.  So while I am listening to the Norwegian terms for this boy — “strong character”, “unchanneled energy”, “sensitive” — I don’t say it out loud but my internal voice is blaring on loudspeaker, “This is too much for me!  This here? It’s nowhere in my skill set!!” 

Well, bless her heart, Sigrid reached across to me when I guess she saw my eyes drop to the table top, and she put her hand on mine;  “Think”, she said, “of the adventure we’d all miss without his powerful presence in our lives!” 

I managed a smile then. But hearing her words now in my mind makes we weep with confused but sweet gratitude for this boy.

And writing those words many years later pierces me straight through.

On Decmeber 29th, approximately 5:30 a.m., I called Bente.  I whispered, “Han er kommet.”

He, our baby boy, has come.

And with that arrival, the arrival of number three, a second son, the dark winter skies confirmed that there was now even less of a chance of turning back from being the worthless and incompetent mother I was wholly convinced I already was.

Darkness shall take flight soon

From earth’s valley.

So she speaks

Wonderful words to us:

A new day will rise again

From the rosy sky. . .

Sankta Lucia! Sankta Lucia!

 

Our three Norwegians.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

House For Rent

The title of today’s post might be a bit misleading if you are one of those who is following this blog and has just come from reading “Finding Home”.

Today’s post, in spite of its title, is not about rental properties.  At least not literally.

Nor is it a continuation of my list of What I Will Really Miss About Singapore.  (I will return to that list, have no fear.)

It doesn’t even have a logical link to my forthcoming book about the in’s and out’s of international living and raising our children to be global citizens.

It does, however, have to do with raising.

Or razing.

Today’s post is a poem, a poem about the razing of a house, a poem with which I wish to introduce to you  Melissa The Poet.

(And does that ever sound heady.)

I have kept that Melissa over there in the corner all the while I’ve been spreading rather personal prose across your screen. I have kept that Melissa private, sitting in the shadow on her satin pouf, quill and parchment in hand. Sipping mint juleps.  Wearing whatever you imagine a poet wears. All white, maybe? Or an ochre-colored velvet waist coat? Pantaloons? A Tibetan robe?

Or maybe a purple and orange tie-dyed muslin tunic with Mao trousers made of hemp and a large, macramé peace sign hanging around the neck?

I am, in fact, a poet who writes in all sorts of apparel, very often in my bathrobe, or in comfies on airplanes (which should be no surprise, knowing me as you now do), on the backs of napkins in cafés, at 3:47 a.m. on Post-Its kept in my bedside nightstand, in the several neat little notebooks I get as gifts from my husband and other friends. I write literally everywhere there is a flat surface and a source of ink or graphite.

Or lipstick. (Once, yes.)

I need silence to write poetry, since the delicacy of poetic language does not mix well with ambient noise. Even my own breathing gets in the way sometimes, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath for too long as I work through a phrase. (It occurs to me only now that the breath-holding might be behind the hallucinatory effects of my writing.)

When I write poetry, it is often because I have experienced what I call a poetic moment.  Something big or miniscule or multilayered is going on, symbols align, there is a sudden simple clarity, and, well. . . I know it when I am in it.  It stings me then spreads out like the swell of sweet venom, and with that swell, images or clusters of words come all at once. When they come like that, I find I have to grab something quickly to pin them down in this world. Like planting them on the page. Then they start to bloom almost on their own.

(Almost, I said. This is not magic or Chia Pets we are talking about.)

Other times, I write because I am overcome with an emotion, or undone with the beauty of things, or unhinged with outrage.  Or I have a question grating at the underside of my cerebellum, and I hope weaving together a poem will help me see the pattern inside of which an answer might glisten. Like the one white silk thread in a tan linen cloth.

I write in black or blue pen, then I always return hours or days or months later with a red pen and make changes, condense, strike thorugh completely, or encircle the word or turn of phrase that I feel is true and necessary. And start again.  Poetry —to make it vibrate — generally requires a great deal of work.

Often — alright, always — the finished poem surprises me.  It comes up with its own references and connections that I could never have thought of myself. They somehow found me.

And then I send a copy of what I have come up with to a friend or two who know and appreciate poetry, and ask them, “Is it just me, or does this make any sense to you?”

Or, “Too wordy again, right? :-)”

Or, “This I wrote for your sweet mother. It might not be so good, but I mean it from the heart.”

Or, “Does this ring to you?”

Or, “Should I try tossing this into a contest? A poetry journal? The trash can?”

Years ago, when I realized my husband was the man for whom gift-giving was tough, I decided to write him an album of poetry for Christmas.  Then on Christmas Eve, I rolled up each poem which I’d printed on white paper, tied the scroll with a red satin bow, and placed each one between the branches of the tree. I had additional copies made and printed them on thick, sensuous, handmade paper, which I then had bound in a book. I boxed the book and placed it under the tree.  He seems to have loved this personal gift with all my irreplaceable love poems to him. And what’s more, he could not return any of them for another size or color.

The first Christmas after we buried our Parker, that brittle gunmetal winter of 2007, I was burning with poetry —poetry of outrage, of evisceration, of longing, of amazement, of revelation, of gratitude, poetry of The Void — but had no energy to print it out.  Or roll it up. Or put it in a tree.

I had no energy, in fact, to have a tree at all that year. No energy for a single, thumb-sized decoration. I had no energy to face the boxes of baubles and mementos my oldest son had helped me open only twelve months earlier.  I could not for the life of me — or for the death of my son — generate enough energy to face Christmas at all.  As I considered the birth of the Savior, the heralded grandeur, the coming of the Son with glory round about and shepherds sore afraid and young innocent wide-eyed Mary cradling him, her splendid firstborn, I wanted to wail at the top of my lungs, “But you will lose him, Mary! You. Will.  Lose. Him!!

But I had no energy for wailing.

I did have energy, though, to write the following poem. It has already been published in the literary journal, Irreantum, and has been anthologized in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, where its peculiar — and necessary — line spacing can be found.

(The exact format cannot be duplicated in a blog, unfortunately. But you can see it if you get your hands on that anthology.)

Since you have made the trek all the way here, I offer you a private reading.

HOUSE FOR RENT

To George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis

(Response to MacDonald’s “living house” allegory, as quoted by Lewis in his Mere Christianity)

 

Imagine, they suggest.

Imagine yourself as a living house

and God comes in (here comes the allegory),

God comes in to rebuild that house

and to rebuild, He destroys you.

Splits you wide open.

Knocks you down to shape you up.  Blows you away to bring you forth

as mansion, His dwelling.

 

Imagine?

Imagine: a structure well beyond any

apt literary construct;

Imagine the literal natal invasion,

factual inhabitation, indwelling, the magnifying internment;

this alive thing with its lush, essential interior,

nautilus of distended tension,

gourd-like terrarium, loamy abode,

an incubation for cumulus nimbus,

spirit under my ribs

or cosmos

in the veiled universe of my belly.

What, kindest sirs, might you imagine about a living house

but what woman need never imagine?

Tell: can you conceive of it?

I am the aquarium,

have known (four times) the thrumming oceanic drag,

fulsome tidepool slosh in pelvis;

sweetest ferocious confined Leviathan

stomping inner tympani,

boom-boom-blooming to omega.

Four times nine moons—

(a moon myself, pneumatic,)

holding that glowing orb

or the finest delicacy:  shrimp-on-wafer hors d’oeuvre in salty brine

burrowing in our shared cell.

Most intimate inmate.

I am the accommodation, the occupied real estate

(most real of all states),

a fleshly floorplan, walls torn down for the guest wing thrown up,

placental planting , deluxe plumbing, organic annexing for the increase.

I am that natural habitat for humanity,

an address for razing and raising,

strung taut with that sturdy umbilical pull until (and after)

birth.

Now, that’s some moving day:

Nude little lord, prodigious squatter, long since incorporated, moves out

trailing furnishings, clutching soul (whose? my own?)

in bloody wash,

the old self eviscerated, inverted, and that

humanangel image (past imagining)

multiplying  upon itself forever

ever

ever

ever. . .

To be such a sanctuary of conception,

to be asylum for small gods and sovereigns, who swell, crown,

Rise to rule and risk life!

At such risk.  At such risk as one can never. . .

 

Can one imagine those same living quarters drawn and quartered

when son-brother-cell mate—

(the one who moved within,

then out of you,

your heart still raw in his hold)—

when that oblation grown lustrous, thunderous, launch-ready,

Is ripped        (with               that                 riiiiipping                   sound)

away?

Hard, benevolent wounding, whose frayed fibers hang,

sodden shreds post-rupture ,

and you, true house, are rent

the cloven enclave,

rent in two, or into

two billion splinters:

tattered scraps of love’s sabotage.

Imagine yourself as this living house, haunted in its

boney scaffolds where memory whistles its blue wind

and you are apart-ment

living house split leveled:                                                                                         he there,

you here,

fetal-curled in your own basin;

or a bunker: hunkered in poetry;

or a ranch: speck on the shadowless prairie, barren and boundless;

or a lean-to:  whole halved to make a whole, now wholly halved.

And now. . .

God moves in

though there is no palace for Him here;

only rubble round the crater,

wreckage ringing the hollow.

But He, soft-handed, (the hands, gored)

comes inside (the side, gashed)

to silently,

sacramentally

recreate from laceration Lazarus

and is at home.

 

**

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.