When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.

 

4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

Where the Miracles Are

Can I really trust God? I mean REALLY?

The thought runs through my head, but the words keep changing. “Well, that’s not realistic.”  “Nobody can forgive that.” “No point in trying that again.” “That’s how things always turn out.”

What if, instead, it’s the thoughts themselves that block blessing? What if our smart little busy brains are churning out all sorts of roadblocks to God’s deep will—which is kindness, love and joy?

I do not know what is the best outcome in anything. I never know what SHOULD happen. That’s it— That’s all my wisdom. But it’s a lot, because it means I am not second-guessing God. All my clever plans, all my hard-won life experience and cynicism and sorrow, all of it is just thought-trash. Junk. Messy little packages of worry and doubt from my busy brain.

Instead, I can smile, bless my thoughts and let them go. I can say, “That’s just a thought. I don’t know what was or what will be. I do not know what should be.”  

The great Christian scholar Rev. Richard Rohr says this:  

Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.  Click here for Rohr’s discussion.

I meditate because I want to relax into the profound reality that is NOT thought. Trusting God means transformation—Not a new version of my busy brain’s plans, not what everybody thinks would be best, given the situation.

God dances to music more exquisite than anything I can imagine. God offers joy so new that I gasp and weep. It’s an opening that rips through what I think is real. Light pours in and drenches us all.

The key is saying “I don’t know.” I have to surrender to God, let myself fall into God and trust the Divine Emptiness—because when I lift away all my little plans and thoughts, all existence opens to God’s possibilities.

And that’s the miracle.

 

 

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.

 

My First Language Is Christian

Our secretary stormed into the office and slammed her textbook on the desk.

“This is so stupid! It doesn’t make sense!” She was just back from French class. At fifty years old, she was learning her first foreign language.

“It’s just a window! A stupid, stupid window!” Her voice shook. 

She said it again, louder.  “Window!”  She pointed at the glass. “Why would anyone say something different? Fenêtre!  What the hell is that about? Why can’t they see that it’s a window?  It’s so easy—Anyone can see that! Why use some stupid other word?”

I look at the window. In my head I remember a dark room’s lovely arched window looking out onto a courtyard throbbing with sun and magenta flowering vines. Khidki in the Hindi language. I think of a small opening in a dark thatched cottage. Fuinneog in the Gaelic language.  A huge plate glass window in a grey cement building. Okno in the Russian language.  

The light itself always shines—in every hut and prison cell. Without end or beginning, outside of time itself, the light is the very fabric of all existence

I know the light and so do you. It runs deeper than breath. Every time it touches me, I recognize it. I remember it. This is the instant of utter awe and joy. It might be the sound of the wind at night or one wildflower growing by a freeway or the smell of your child’s skin.

The opening into the light has thousands of names. Window. Fenêtre. Khidki. Okno. But the eternal light itself—the Divine, the awareness, God—is One. Oneness. The Mystery. The Source. Everything. All.

I say “God” because I speak Christian. As a tiny child sensing beauty and joy, the words of my family and culture were “pray” and “God” and “Christ.” Even though I know other words for the light, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen word Rigpa or the Hindu word Brahman, those words don’t give me goose bumps. 

What my heart knows is something deeper than any one language. My heart sings of the light itself.  The “zing” of existence. Utter joy. Sunrise. Hope.

But when I have to force that vast knowledge into a single word, I choose the words of my childhood because for me they brush my skin like the chords of an old hymn. Those words smell of the lilac bushes where I played with my dolls and my grandmother’s homemade rosewater and glycerin hand lotion. I hear the melody of a hymn on Sunday. Morning has broken like the first morning. 

My sisters sleep around me in our bedroom. At the foot of my bed is a big dormer window facing east. As the sun rises, birds start murmuring and light streams onto my bed.

Other children are waking up at this moment, in other places, in other families. A child waking in a yurt in the Altai mountains of Mongolia says Allah, and a child ringing a bell in a Hindu temple says Vishnu.

I speak Christian. I look at the light and call it God.

–by Jean Gendreau