Friday, December 19, 2014

Magical tableau of Christmas

The reality of Christmas is becoming much more clear to me this year in ways I could not have anticipated. Small joys that add up.

Last night, for example, I headed out the door at 10 p.m. for a late-night rondezvous with the mother of an Artsy Fartsy Saturdays' kid, who missed our celebration last weekend. She'd been down with the flu and I wanted to make sure she received some of the plethora of home-made cookies volunteers baked, the personalized Christmas card high schoolers created and the apron with her name in red, courtesy of the peace and social concerns committee from my church and my iron.

This single mom of four works the night shift at a local care center and was recently forced to uproot her family, relocating with relatives across town. I don't want to lose touch with them; her daughter is one of my original girls and they are the third family of the original five who has moved. Unlike some of us with stable homes, these families don't have the luxury of their own home, neighborhood and ability to become rooted.

I was especially eager to greet this mom because I had a donation from a neighbor who wanted to assist one of our families. As I was bent on delivering what I hoped would be help, I almost missed saying hello and exchanging hugs.The mom insisted: "We haven't seen you in ages."  I was delighted that she'd brought along her daughter, the one in Artsy Fartsy. Such a treat, well beyond what I thought I had to give, money. It was a wonderful connection and reminder what this work is all about: relationships, accepting people where they are and continuing to be amazed how God chooses to bless us, when we think we have a better idea.

It was close to midnight, and well past my weekday bedtime, when I arrived home. Yet I was exhilarated, much more so than when I'd been out Christmas shopping. Christmas is not about being in control of the giving. It's spirit is more concerned with opening to receive as well.

During the afternoon, I mailed off a package to one of the other families not currently in the area, then I traipsed to Oakbrook, the complex Artsy Fartsy serves, to deliver three other packages. I knew I'd miss the kids, but this was my window. As I sauntered from one apartment to the next, a guy leaned out and announced: "Aren't those for me?" Wish I'd had more.

With a heavy heart, I opened the door to what had been the home of the girl I'd meet up with later in the night. A boy, new to the program. lived on the top floor. We hadn't seen him since our registration in September. Still, I wanted him to feel welcome for the time when he could attend.

I knocked on the door, faintly detecting the lull of a television. I had no idea who I'd rouse. I knocked a second, then a third time and, as I was about to leave the package, a very small voice answered. I shared my name, organization and that I had a package for this particular boy. Lo and behold, he opened the door, stunned and delighted at the pile of cookies. I can't describe how my much my heart sang at this meeting. It felt as if God was using me as an invitation to this young man.

As I drove off, thoughts flickered to my maternal grandmother, delivering packages to the needy on Christmas Eve when, as a child, my mother, would have preferred her home.

The real miracle in all of this is that I receive every bit as much as I am given. Probably infinitely more.

Tad Barney photo
That was apparent Saturday when 17 Artsy Fartsy kids, ten adults, a dozen high schoolers, Santa and a film crew squeezed into my studio at Milford Main. My dear and talented friend Marianne was demonstrating, letting the kids hand color fondant, cut shapes, ice, then decorate the dozens of cookies family, two churches, friends and neighbors delivered. The intent was to provide these kids with the warmth of a holiday cookie experience. None I talked to said it was in their tradition.

I'd been communicating with a Mariemont High School Leadership Class for several months, planning a time they could work with these kids. Saturday was THE day as they arrived in batches (some fresh from the ACT exam) with batches of sugar cookies. They created beautiful, personalized Christmas cards for each child, made songbooks to lead caroling and were excited to roll up their sleeves and help. With the kids highly energetic from icing and cookies, the group spontaneously led them down the hall to a vacant classroom and played games.

In the interim, my Quaker pastor and two members of Christ Community Church, with whom I have been talking about partnering, assisted. My minister served as interface with the film crew, working on a documentary for our meeting's 200th anniversary next year. The Christ Community couple came armed with cookies and extra hands. They told me logistics was their congregational specialty and they weren't kidding. They counted kids, prepped cookie boxes and left me with no dirty dishes. Yet what delighted me most was the connection they made with my pastor. I left smiling that these two faith communities now had a personal relationship and both wanted to support me in this work. Never in a million years would I have figured out how to make that happen. Fortunately, God didn't waste any time.

Midway through the afternoon, one of my new favorite people, Johnny, arrived. He suited up as Santa, entered as the room chanted "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," delivered candy canes and chef aprons. For almost a year, every time I'd run in to Johnny at Kroger's, where he works, he'd insist that he wanted to do this. The kids thought they needed to fatten this Santa up and presented him with special cookies. Johnny changed before eating and one little girl confided in Marianne: "I think that's Santa 'cause he's eating the cookie I made."

Even the film crew became part of this magical tableau. As they arrived ahead of the kids, a wee voice echoed outside my door and in popped a toddler. He belonged to the crew and I worried he'd get lost in the crush until we found him a safe place behind my desk. When I introduced him to the Christmas-light labyrinth, his mother could hardly cajole him away for lunch. The filmmakers blended in with the chaos, pulling out a few kids for interviews, then sat me down in front of the camera as the cleaning fairies left me no work. Normally, I detest being front and center, but I was in an odd mood: blissfully tired and unwilling to say no. In their gentle questions and affirmations, I began to detach and really see what has been happening all these months in my studio. Today was the tangible culmination of Spirit working quietly and stepping out to bring new life and new people into the mix.

So do I care that we just got our tree up and it's half decorated, that I still have shopping, tons of wrapping and no time for baking? Heck, no. This Christmas has already been an incredibly rich gift and I'm headed off to a contemplative day of quiet tomorrow.

• How is my experience of Christmas evolving?
• Where do I recognize Spirit at work?
• How do I receive as well as give?
• What small, meaningful moments have I observed this year?
• Where do I find reflection time in the busyness?

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Being seen

One of my gifts is seeing into people, beyond their exterior and deep inside. I didn't recognize it as a gift for a long time and assumed that we all had that ability. We probably do, it's just that some of us have honed it.

The other afternoon, I lingered around my studio as I noticed the stone mason working to remove the Rookwood drinking fountain from the school, site of my studio, that will likely be torn down this summer to make way for apartments. I wanted to chat about his work and if he'd mind keeping it clean for a big Saturday event I was hosting. The dust had settled everywhere and, especially, just outside my door.

He was a robust German-American as crusty as they come and more than willing to lecture about life and history – his perspective. At first, I listened intently, then become uncomfortable as he pounded away at me. I felt he was taking advantage of my good listening skills. When I listen, I do so completely and it can be draining when it is entirely one way. I kept telling myself to look for that of God in him, then I decided God would not want me to be suffering through this harangue. I screwed up the courage to tell him that I wasn't interested in an argument, even put my hands up in the air as if to create a barrier. He backed off and said he wasn't arguing. I responded that, while I appreciated his perspective, it wasn't everyone's, including mine.

Slowly, his demeanor changed and I got the real story. At 18, he'd apprenticed himself to an Austrian master stone cutter who had survived Hitler's Youth and losing his family during WWII. He was a survivor who demanded nothing less of his students. The stone cutter I met had assumed his mentor's personality. Even he admitted it. We wouldn't have gotten there if I hadn't been willing to look inside, then confront him. That of God in me was responding.

I had been trying to sort out the man from his message.

Not being seen is one of the wounds that I carry. Our gifts often arise from our wounds. In this case, I am certain that mine does.

Serendipitously (but maybe not), I had the rare privilege of being seen twice this week, all in the same evening.

Last post, I wrote about a new, local church congregation interested in partnering with me for Artsy Fartsy. The first time I connected with the pastor, we both knew Spirit was at work. Monday we were set to discuss Artsy Farty's needs and how the church could help. I truthfully told them that I was burned out and needed a little break before making decisions. They agreed and put no pressure on me, except to say that clearly saw God working through me in this effort and would encourage me not to lay it down. They saw my compassion and creativity. Wow. The day before my own faith community, motivated out of kindness, told me it didn't matter whether I laid it down or not. The community I have been part of 16 years doesn't see me the way almost strangers have.

Recharged after that affirming meeting, I danced over to my amazing bool club and our annual Christmas meeting and small gift exchange. I treasure what these women provide every months year after year. And these gifts come from the heart. Our newest member, Phoebe, said what she had to give was poetry. I was excited because she's a deep, talented spirit. And her poem blew me away. She sees me. I want to share it:

A poem for my friend, Miss Cathy
She tells stories with strong colors,
offers hospitality with tea
and the way her soul stands –
with an elegance to rival the stars.
I see these: thoughtfulness, and spunk.
Thoughtfulness to observe,
to plant compassion like one would plant
flower seeds in spring.
Spunk, to fling snowballs at teenage boys,
to start a new adventure,
trusting One beyond herself
to form the rhythms and extend the roots.
Her life is a gift
to the rest of us,
less because of what she does, and more
because of who she is,
one who knows there is a place,
and offers it.
When I saw my shaman/pastoral counselor yesterday and we talked about what was happening in my life, even before I shared the above experiences, he said, "You really don't feel seen, do you?" and he has mentioned that before. "Ah, but I did TWICE this week," I responded.

• When have I felt seen?
• How have I been wounded when I haven't been?
• How do I see others?
• How have my wounds become my gifts?
• How do I express gratitude to God for my gifts?

Listen to this post: