Seeking Joy

The deceptive warmth of this December evening challenges the holiday theme of my street, the darkness punctuated by houses alight scattered up and down the block.  I find myself still and contented in a near completeness that’s eluded me in recent weeks, comforted by a reprieve from the cold, both in the climate around me and the chill within me.

Despite my predisposition to loathe the winter, Christmas is my favorite holiday.  Mom and I shored up decades of memory making at my childhood home in Syracuse, creating unanticipated expectations for my own adult participation in the month of December.  It wasn’t just about decorating the house or the tree… we built in dozens of little traditions, Mama Joy and me, and we even let my brothers and dad participate in them.  I’m not sure when I started giving her a snowman each year, but seeking out the perfect one to add to her collection has become a favorite mission of mine come wintertime.

Growing up, however, Christmas couldn’t start until we’d braved the creaky attic steps, carefully transporting half a century’s worth of tubs and boxes of decoration from the tiny, boarded, cold space where you couldn’t stand upright down the narrow attic steps and another flight of stairs to the main floor.  We found it safest and most efficient to do it together – the more the better.  When we were all still living at home, I can still envision the assembly line we’d create, with one parent in the attic and one on the ground, the rest of us transporting boxes appropriately sized for our ages to the location indicated by Mom’s scripted handwriting on each.

In more recent years, Mom and Dad mostly had to undertake this massive overhaul on their own.  They aren’t as young as they used to be, they keep telling me, and I know the assembly line isn’t as effective without the pitter patter of little feet to expedite and alleviate the burden of the transformation.  Trust me, if you’ve never witnessed my parents’ house at Christmastime, you’re missing out on a tribute to the wonder and awe of the true spirit of Christmas; there is no corner of our home untouched by Mom’s attention to detail, from cinnamon simmering on the stove to snowmen and lights and garlands and tiny figurines amassed over generations, each with a story… it’s inspiring.

While living in my little rented home with the red door, I’ve opted to keep my Christmas decorations in the shed out back.  My parents replaced their attic ladder some years ago, and even though it’s more stable, neither wants the other going up top without someone at the ground.  Moving in here, one of Mom’s greatest concerns was that the attic didn’t have a pull-down ladder at all, not even a rickety one.  Instead, Dad got me an 8 foot ladder that says not to stand on the top ledge.  I can open the cover while safely on the rungs, but to climb over the ceiling, I have to propel myself up from that prohibited ledge.  I promised her that I would never venture up into the attic without someone else here.

Tonight, I wanted to follow through on a promise to my sister-in-law that I would search for some boxes of hand-me-down clothes for the girls.  It’s been weeks, but Charming was only here one weekend and we ran out of time before he had to be on the road.  It will be weeks before he’s here again, so I thought I’d brave the attic alone just this one time.  After all, I’d made it home from the gym with a little extra time, so it would be great to cross this off my list and get the boxes to Gabrielle at dinner tonight.

Ladder positioned carefully, I made it into the attic without incidence, smiling at my agility and laughing at my clumsy nature’s failure.  It took about ten minutes to successfully locate the desired boxes, and I set about throwing them to the ground below… at which time my clumsiness prevailed, as we knew it eventually would, and I inadvertently knocked the ladder over.  It was leaning against the wall, just out of reach, and I could hear my mother gagging on an “I told you so” within seconds.  I reached into my pocket to call my neighbor, but my phone was still in my purse, down below with the boxes spilling out size four toddler clothing in my hallway.  Given my impending shoulder surgery, I toyed with my limited options before ultimately deciding on the hang-and-drop.  Though I ended up late for dinner and am sure my next physical therapy session will be torture, I survived the attic incident, and it left me oddly inspired, too.

Because I’ve been in the attic for a while now, cold and cramped and creaking.  Up there, any flicker of hope is engulfed by discouragement and darkness.  These past few months have been incredibly challenging, and the joy typical of a newly engaged woman has escaped me.  Holiday traditions are overrun by tasks with a deadline and health issues that require time and attention I’d rather spend on Mom’s next snowman, this time one I’m making myself for a true original.  I made it out of the attic tonight, not because our school holiday parties and induction ceremonies and that first yearbook deadline are in the rear view mirror and not because tomorrow afternoon starts winter break.

It’s the simple lesson that my parents reinforced while we were growing up every year when it was time to create Christmas in the Palma home.  It was the safest and most efficient when we did it together.  Mom had a legitimate fear about me venturing up a ladder into my attic by myself.  While it turned out okay, the reality of the possibilities for what might have occurred should remain sufficient incentive to never risk that climb on my own again.

I’ve been seeking joy and finding it elusive, I’ve been in the attic, and I’ve been there because of my continued, fierce, driving independence that spites me and my pride just enough to bring me to my knees.  Weekends with Charming have been tense because I’ve been surviving the week on too much work and too little sleep and expecting him to be my joy when we’re together.  While I know he enjoys making me happy, Charming cannot be my source of joy.  Seeking in him what I should be seeking in God will leave us all frustrated and unfulfilled.

Last Thursday night, the depression weighting me was finally unveiled.  I could see it as I spent the night wrapping presents, explaining the weakness of character I’d sensed growing inside.   The resiliency my mother admired in me as a child was gone.  In the days prior, everything that could go wrong it seemed had gone wrong, and I couldn’t bounce back.  After a few hours thinking and wrapping, I was able to explain to Charming what I had been experiencing.

The result was an incredible weekend because God gave me Charming as a partner in life.  The Lord is the source of my joy, and the peace and hope in the power of the Spirit manifests itself in the greatest way when Charming and I are together.  Instead of seeking joy, I leaned into him.  We set aside Friday night at dinner in Old Town for me to share all the burdens I haven’t had the will to talk about, and as painful as it was to verbally process all my current stressors and anxieties, I understood what my mom would later tell me had been an answer to her prayers.  Admitting these things to Charming was like alleviating half the burden, and yet though it was just half, it was sufficient to allow me to stand again.

After that hard night, we spent the rest of the weekend choosing to trust in God’s plan for our life and future together, opting to look around us at the incredible people he’s positioned in our present instead of the abstract, conceptual anxieties reminding us the ladder might be kicked out from under us at any time.  I wasn’t feeling joy, exactly, but I was willing to participate in our myriad planned holiday activities.  After a surprisingly fun girls outing to a drybar where a friend had made her Christmas gift a blowout and hair styling to each of the girls in Charming’s small group, we joined the husbands and kids for a Christmas party.  There were a handful of moments I knew genuine joy, like the kind in my mom’s house in December with snowmen peeking up at you from every nook and cranny.

In the morning after church and coffee with a friend from Charming’s early military days, we commenced one of his family’s Christmas traditions, led by the esteemed Grandma Lois: making the secret fruit cake recipe.  It was my third time to participate and my second to get my hands dirty.  In my future Mom’s kitchen, surrounded by Grandma Lois, Charming’s sister and her husband, and his parents, I got a clear image of the world that I will live in permanently in six month’s time, and I realized that, by God’s grace, I am already a part of their family.

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One year, either Mom or I sent a Christmas card out with an atypical verse for the holiday, but I can’t remember and I’m sure she’s fast asleep by now.  It was 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.”  Leaning into Charming is trusting God.  Amidst his family and the knowledge of all the possible outcomes in life, I see that life, like unpacking Christmas from the attic, is safer and more efficient with a greater core of participants.

We have a lot of support at this stage, but my parents are evidence that it really only takes two committed and capable people working in consort.  If one is at the top of the ladder, the other is on the ground, holding it steady and keeping watch.  I was in the attic for the last month or so, figuratively speaking, but when I shared my burden with Charming, I was finally able to make it out of there.  I needed him to hold the ladder steady, to hold me steady, to fulfill the role that God appointed him to be as my helpmate in all things, even the little everyday worries I’ve always handled on my own.

Seeking joy, I found God. Seeking God, I found Charming.  Seeking Charming, I found peace.  And tonight, focusing on the pictures of our weekend together, I find hope.  Charming and I together is enough on its own; nevertheless, I’m inspired by Christmases to come after two become one and our incredible families marry.

I’m excited by all the traditions yet to be made as we celebrate the coming of the Christ child, our bridge to joy, all the while reminding myself of keen lessons learned for when best to abandon independence and lean in to the one who loves me… and trust the One who put us together.

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