All around my house right now are flowers. I have baskets of impatiens hanging from the top of my porch in brilliant purples and oranges. There are braided hibiscus trees in plots just before the porch, one with a bright yellow bloom already nestled among its green. And standing sentinel by the side of the house are brilliant red mandevilla, already heavy with blossoms on their little potted trellises.
I do not usually have so many plants about because, to tell the truth, I have a black thumb and cannot raise anything flora that depends upon me for survival. But I am so glad to have these flowers and their glorious colors around to brighten my spring. I miss my hardy, self-sufficient annuals at our previous home and how the little garden plots in the front and side of the house would bloom with snowdrops, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, and lilies every spring and summer, and it gave my heart such joy to see such gorgeous life filling my little world. I love flowers and their elegance, their detailed meanings, heady and intoxicating aromas, even though I am not the best at cultivating them.
That’s rather like life, isn’t it? I do not have to be good at everything or an expert in the process to be able to appreciate the beauty of the result. I do not need to hover over and control every little detail for a venture to be successful; there are some things that really do take care of themselves. Things do not always need to be perfect for me to be grateful and plans do not always need to be laid out to produce a wonderful result. I am not good at raising or taking care of flowers or plants, yet they cover my head in beauty and fill my imagination with gorgeousness, and for that I could not be more grateful.
Disclaimer: The character of Dolores Madrigal and Abuela Alma Madrigal do not belong to me but to Disney and Disney Animation Studios. This is entirely a work of fan-fiction, inspired by Disney’s Encanto.
As Dolores Madrigal approached the shimmering golden door of her room, it swung open in welcome to greet her. Her scarlet skirts whispering about her ankles, Dolores wrinkled her brow at the cacophony cascading around her from all corners of La Casita de Madrigal and quickly stepped through the door. It swung shut soundlessly. In fact, nothing in the room made a sound. The plush, soft room, warmed in reds and golds, seemed to swallow all sound down into its fullness, from the tap of Dolores’s sandals to the tinkling of her earrings. Not a single sound at all.
A great gust of a sigh groaned out of Pepa and Félix’s eldest child as she visibly deflated.
Silence. Blessed silence, thank the Miracle!
The sound of her sigh did not go far, seeming to drop off a soundless cliff just in front of Dolores as she made her way to and collapsed onto her bed. In the corner, a great tub tacitly filled itself with steaming water fragrant with cattleya orchid as the young woman let herself sink into the stillness. Here in her room, nothing could get to her. No chaos, no cacophony. She could not hear anyone’s cries, complaints, soliloquies, or secrets. Nothing made it into this room, not even through the window overlooking the tub being warmed by the afternoon sunlight.
A literal cone of quiet.
The only thing welcome here was Dolores’s own thoughts. She could finally hear them here, but she found them to be exhausted and sad. Keeping everything sorted was a monumental task, as was pretending to enjoy it, to glory in “serving the community” in this way.
No, not the community. She served Abuela. Abuela expected her to listen in on everyone’s goings-on and doings. Abuela liked to be informed, but she really had no idea of just how much Dolores did indeed know. And some secrets were just not meant to be shared, not even with La Familia Madrigal.
Abuela did not need to know about Catalina’s third miscarriage, as the woman had not even told her husband she was pregnant for fear of it happening again. She kept her sorrow hugged close and had every right to grieve in private. Dolores would leave a bouquet of Lady’s Mantle for her on her kitchen windowsill tomorrow.
Abuela did not need to know how Rosita’s parents–in cruel contrast to her lovely name–called her plain and undesirable, worrying that no one would want to marry her. Dolores would buy some bronze-gold ribbons for Rosita’s beautiful auburn hair, saying that she had too many to use them all and thought they would bring out the pretty sunlit undertones of her curls.
“So I am both spy and secret-keeper,” Dolores sighed, reaching up to take out her earrings and massage her earlobes. They itched a little. She’d heard chattering in the walls again. Rats, maybe? But what did they possibly have to talk about?
And then there was Mariano. It took a Herculean effort not to sigh at him. So handsome, so sweet. The way he played and sang for his madre after dinner, the way his papa used to do before he died. The way Mariano made up poetry while he worked…
Poetry for someone else.
Just her luck to be the girl who knew everything but that no one knew.
Abuela never saw it: the way people in the community would go quiet around her or only talk in pleasantries and trifles. Everyone knew she could be listening, could be telling. Even her brothers and cousins called her a blabber-mouth and so rarely-to-never trusted her with anything of themselves because they expected her to run and tell Abuela. Maybe she had a lot when she was little, true, but she was grown now. Different now. Not that that made a difference to anyone else, though.
Undressing and slipping into the hot, sweet water with a soft hiss, Dolores sank in up to her neck, letting her body warm before slowly slipping beneath the surface into the watery, weightless tranquility of the tub. Here, she heard nothing, saw nothing, weighed nothing. The heaviness of her humanity did not count here under the water. If only she could breathe, then she could stay. Stay right here, where it was soundless and soft and safe.
Have you ever tried to recreate a taste memory? When I was picking up a few things from the supermarket this week, my eyes fell on a package of English muffins. Instantly, I had the starkest memory of bread, butter, and strawberry mingling together in an amazement of breakfasty deliciousness. The memory was so strong that my stomach growled in want.
Yes, Dear Reader, I bought the English muffins. On Saturday morning, I toasted one nice and crispy, slathered the halves with butter and strawberry jelly, and settled down with my coffee. That first taste…ohhhhhh! It was the beginning of summer all over again! Creamy, crispy, and sweet, it poked just the right spot in my brain. It is rare for taste to have that strong a memory power over me without having actually tasted anything. I love food but scent has always been the most closely-tied sense to memory for me. So to have such a poignant taste-based memory was both striking and startling, and I’m finding myself wanting more of it. More of tastes that poke my brain and connect me to nostalgia and comfort so strong that all I can do is devour what’s in front of me.
It happened again yesterday afternoon as my family and some friends met for dinner at a local Latin cuisine restaurant. As I tucked into Venezualan beef, white rice, black beans, and sweet, soft plantains, that first bite of meat and rice hit so hard that I felt the taste memory of it in my sinuses. I stopped participating in the table conversation and concentrated wholly on the food before me, reveling in familiar flavors, perfect textures, and comforting combinations.
In days that are still indelibly difficult at times, moments like these have become equally, unspeakably precious to me. Moments of tumbling into happy and remembering that, yes, life is full of good. The world may be on fire, or we may be angry at it, or cowed/beaten down by it, but there is still brightness, still moments of light. Maybe it is in a familiar bite, a comforting sweet, a warm cuppa cradled in your hands, or the smell of popcorn reminding you of fun nights at the movies or fair. Let’s savor those moments of brightness, of comforting deliciousness, hold them close, and devour them down. May they become new memories that comfort us and make us smile on the harder days.
I fear at times that I have lost the art of rest. I do try, certainly. I attempt rest, but I am never quite sure that I have accomplished it or even neared it. I do all the “self-care” things, I treat myself, but they are often a fleeting comfort at best. A hot bath or shower here, a nap or massage there, but the peace found there does not last.
Some of the best “rest time” I have gotten lately was standing before the screen door of my front porch early of a Saturday morning, the winter-cool air pouring in and causing my fresh coffee to steam, and watching the early-morning light sparkle over the frosted grass with my cat. Those few moments felt like breathing in peace with the cold in my lungs and the warmth of the coffee in my belly. Like Jesus was stood right there beside, His arm around my shoulder, and His chuckle in my ear at Jack’s chattiness about the Outside.
Perhaps I am re-learning that rest is not a wholesale destination but rather a cycle. A cycle of finding quiet pockets of rest. Maybe it is not constantly feeling zen and at peace. Maybe rest is just settling into those moments that surprise us with their quietude and allowing ourselves to be quiet and still, too.
So I will try to sink into those soft moments, on my couch before my fireplace, when the library is empty, or when my bathtub is full and steaming with my cat curled up alongside to chaperone my immersion. I will do the work of rest, of shutting out the world for a little while, because I am allowed to. Because I need to.
As I sat down to have my coffee this morning, I found myself staring at the words on the back of my badger crest mug, the traits of the house. Loyalty, kindness, honesty, friendship. As this year starts to see itself out with all its difficulty tonight, I shall light my candle and place it on the porch table again, just as I did at Winterdark (winter solstice), to lend its light to the night as the year slips around the corner. But, as I looked at my mug, I found myself composing my wish. I don’t think it breaks the rules to tell you what this wish and, ultimately, prayer is, as it is for you. For all of us.
I wish you Loyalty, dear Reader. I wish you the loyalty of chosen family, of the dear ones and neighbors with whom you have surrounded yourself and built your little world. I wish you the loving loyalty of any blood family who has stood by you in all and sundry. But, most of all, I wish you the loyalty of empathy, of someone who is as willing to put themselves into your shoes and walk that mile with you (or carrying you) as you would be in your turn. I guess that wish also places a responsibility on you and me, but…that is how it works, isn’t it?
I wish you Kindness, the kind of kindness that wells up from unknown places, the action that springs forward without second-thought or consideration. I wish you the kind of kindness that comes naturally along with the willingness to accept it from others. May you receive kindness without the burden of “paying it back” settling on your shoulders and soul. May you give kindness without the disappointment of expecting reciprocation. I wish you kindness without strings, ribbons, or tags. May you give and receive it in free measure in the coming year, each to each as the moment calls for.
I wish you Honesty, dear heart. I wish you the honesty to admit when things are hard. I wish you the ability to be honest about when you don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to feel. I wish you the honesty to sit in the discomfort without the need to fix things or make it better because, frequently, that is not what we or others need. I wish you the honest boundaries when you cannot take on any more emotional weight and to be able to say so. I wish you the brave honesty to admit when what you are feeling needs more than a “self-care day” or when your sadness needs more than just “a nappy-nap or a snack to get yourself right”. I wish you the honesty to reach out your hand in your struggling and say, “I need help.” And when someone else says so to you in their own desperate turn, I wish you the honesty to see their hurt and their pain, keep trite sympathy behind your teeth, and walk with them in that hard place to their needed next step. I wish you the honesty you need in the moments you face.
Finally, I wish you Friendship. I wish you the type of friendship that rings or texts your phone in the middle of dinner to check in on you, just because. I wish you the type of friendship that holds sacred space for you all to speak into and be heard. I wish you the type of friendship that provides a balm for the hidden wounds you are carrying and recognizes when you just do not have it in you to be effusive. I wish you the quiet friendships that are always there and do not require you to be “on” all the time, but allow you to flop into the pathetic little potato (or, as Gemma Correll puts it, “permanently exhausted pigeon”) you need to be at times. I wish you the soft hands required when your dear one comes to you with their wounds needing tending. When I think of deep, abiding friendship, often the spoken words of Sara Bareilles’s song “You Matter to Me” come back:
I hope someday, somebody wants to hold you for twenty minutes straight They don’t pull away, they don’t look at your face […] All they do is wrap you up in their arms and hold on tight without an ounce of selfishness in it […] I hope you become addicted to sayin’ things and having them matter to someone.
I wish you to be able to be the friend that is needed and to have the friendship that you need, dear Reader.
As 2021 turns the far corner and 2022 peeks around the near one, I wish all of these things for you. I wish you these pillars that hold us up in the hard times. As I light the candle tonight and set it against the darkness amidst the turning of the world, I pray that you will feel a warmth…somehow, somewhere…and you will know it to be someone who cares about you. I wish you the gentlest of New Years, dear one. May it be blest.
Despite the well-known Christmas song, we can be fairly certain that the night that Jesus was born was anything but quiet. Between a city full of people, a stable full of animals, a sky full of angels, and a woman full of pain, “silent” was likely not a word one would have used to describe that night in Bethlehem. And yet, into all that noise, the Lion of Judah came in the form of a tiny, squawling, lambsoft baby. In the midst of her exhaustion, I imagine that Mary cuddled him close, using what she had learned from helping her cousin Elizabeth to clean, swaddle, feed, and rock her holy son to sleep, her lamb slumbering in a manger. Amidst all the clamor of that night, this most important of events was definitely not center-stage, but, tonight on Christmas Eve, we celebrate it first and foremost. We celebrate the work of Christ that was begun on that night in a solitary stable and ended on a seemingly hopeless hill 33 years later. Tonight, as Advent ends, we celebrate Christmas’s beginning. We have expected, we have prepared, and now we rejoice.
Let Heaven and Nature sing, joy to the world. The Lord has come.
Merry Christmas to you all, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.
My mother’s favorite Christmas carol is “Joy to the World”. Joy to the world! The Lord has come! This is one of few triumphant traditional Christmas hymns. Most of them are songs of hope and expectation, but this one…oh, this one! This is a song of celebration! Of adulation of God’s plan accomplished, of the banishment of sorrow, and the raining down of blessing. It is a song of literal joy, both in its tone and in its directive.
As Advent comes to a close this week with the beginning of Christmas, let’s allow ourselves some joy. In the midst of all that must still be done, let’s pause and breathe and let joy glow within us, no matter what form it takes.
As I put my daughter to sleep recently, I sat on the edge of her bed and, before I could sing her a lullaby, my mind cast itself back into my childhood Christmases — the concerts, the programs, the recitations — and, automatically, a familiar childhood voice began to remind me of just what Christmas is all about: “And there were, in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields…” As a child, I memorized this section of Luke 2 through Linus’s recitation in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown, frustrated by his seeming failure at Christmas, demands to know just what Christmas was all about, and so Linus tells him. As I recalled his smile at “I bring you tidings of great joy…a Savior which is Christ the Lord”, I felt my heart swell with that self-same joy. And I found myself wanting to linger there in that silence, in what Shakespeare calls the “perfectest herald of joy”.
As we embark upon the beginning of Christmas week and celebrate the work commenced by Christ’s birth, in all the hustle and bustle, let us not lose sight of the joy — both silent and exultant — that filled that corner of the world and Heaven on that night. If we allow it, it can overflow our hearts today. Let Heaven and nature sing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.
As you move into Christmas, dear Friends, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
As children we are often taught that love is a noun, an idea, an emotion. I prefer to believe–and teach myself, my daughter, and my students–that love is actually a verb. An action. A choice. Love is not only what we feel. Love is actually what we do. We love others through the choices we make. Choices to do what will help, uplift, and encourage them, and not to tear them down. Love is in our doing, not merely in our feeling.
Throughout Advent we do many things. We decorate houses, trees, lawns, gingerbread cookies and cottages, and cakes. We take family pictures and send out Christmas cards. We buy and wrap a gaggle of gifts for a plethora of people. We go skating and to Christmas, parties, markets, and concerts. In all of this doing, though, are we leaving room for doing in love? Are we holding space for the sweet little acts and services that we can lovingly perform?
How can we verb Love in this Christmas season when so much can feel dark and grim? How can we live out Jesus and show Him to those around us, folding His name into the work of our hands as well as the words of our mouths? Often we forget that moving and doing in love can be the small, simple things and not only the grandiose gestures. A little card left in your mailbox thanking you for the beautiful lights display that you worked through that blustery day to put up. The cookies that you baked and gently left for your neighbors. That perfect sweater you found for your child that just makes them smile all over. Love in action leads us to Love as Life Practice. And as Advent moves us through this season of expectation and preparation, may Love be the guiding star that is leading us to the joy and glory that is Christ Jesus.
As Paul Williams so brilliantly wrote–and Robin the Frog so beautifully sang–in his song “Bless Us All”, “Let us always love each other. Lead us to the light” (The Muppet Christmas Carol).
It seemed impossible to fathom that 2021 could be harder than 2020 in any way and yet…it is easy to see that it has surpassed all those non-expectations. In many ways, 2021 has proven indelibly harder on our hearts, minds, and bodies than the previous year. In that difficulty, hope has often seemed to wane. As we enter this season of Advent, of preparation and arrival, let us not allow despair and difficulty to rob us of that most blessed gift: hope.
Hope is an everyday treasure. In Neil Gaiman’s famous series The Sandman, two characters have a contest, a seemingly simple game but with dire stakes. It is The Oldest Game, a game of imagination with each character trying to best the other, to come up with the Final Idea.
One character claims, “I am the dark, the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything.”
Into the bleakness they painted, Dream of the Endless replied…simply, powerfully: “I am Hope.”
To this there can be no reply, no defeat, no destruction because hope is everywhere to be found. In every heart and mind, in every space in life. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote, hope springs eternal. No matter how we suffer, how we hurt, or how little light can be seen, our eyes will always seek out and find it–even the merest pinprick of light in the darkness, the tiniest bit of hope to cling to.
“I am Hope,” is God’s gentle whisper to worn and weary hearts at this onset of Advent. As we begin this journey into the Christmas season, Hope is at our side. As we wend towards the end of 2021, sometimes with tremulous steps, Hope is under our arm, supporting us. Even the merest mustard seed of faith that things will get better and that God will show us the way lends strength and power to Hope. Hope is in a hand outstretched to help, in celebrating a hard task done, and even in the quickest of kind notes and gentle acknowledgements from our dear ones. Hope is in the bringing-together words of “Me, too. You aren’t alone.”
Hope is what holds us aloft and all together. Hope in life, hope in God and His love, hope in His light. As the first Advent candle glows, may we find hope in its flame and in the Word it prepares us for.
Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I love walking before the world is awake. When the sky is still a slate-colored marshmallow, With just a hint of a suggestion of daylight beyond. But not yet. This is my chapel. This is my serenity. This is where I re-center. Windows are still dark. Walkway lights still lit. Just enough light to see by But not enough to push you towards wakefulness. It’s as though the world, by silent agreement, has made space just for me and my silent steps. I love it when even the birds are quiet. As though the mourning doves cooed in earlier dark, “Roll over. Sleep on. The world is loud enough already. Let her walk in peace.”
~ So I’m trying something here, Dear Readers. I have only done it once or twice before. Below you will find a link to a Voice-over Reading of the piece above. Yes, that is me. What do think? Would this be something to pursue? Something you might enjoy more of? Let me know your thoughts down below in the comments and we shall see what we shall see. ^_^