• "Oh, if I could only put things into words as I see them! Mr. Carpenter says, 'Strive, strive -- keep on. Words are your medium -- make them your slaves -- until they will say for you what you want them to say.' That is true, and I do try, but it seems to me there is something beyond words -- any words -- all words -- something that always escapes you when you try to grasp it -- yet leaves something in your hand which you wouldn't have had if you hadn't reached for it. ... I have written myself out for tonight, and am going to bed."
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    This is my place to "write myself out" -- sharing both my day-by-day thoughts and my artistic output. Thank you for visiting! - Carmen Pauls Orthner
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Surprised by joy

Filed under Christmas • Written by Carmen @ December 20, 2010

This is an excerpt from my journal, written Dec. 1, 2009. (I am including it here in response to the Dec. 20 prompt from Journal Your Christmas, about “unexpected surprises”.)

“Come on, ring those bells / light the Christmas tree / Jesus is the king / born for you and me / Come on, ring those bells / Everybody say, / Jesus, we remember / this your birthday.” – Evie Tornquist

“Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

As I’ve been reflecting on why I’m so determined to document my thoughts on Christmas – past, present and future – these two lines keep coming back to me, with their curious similarities.

I remember setting up our old record player, with its needle that had to be carefully placed on the right groove, and then sitting (or, more likely, dancing around on the carpet in front of the record player) in my parents’ living room, and the fire crackling in the fireplace and the lights of the tree reflecting off the picture windows as Evie’s clear, sweet voice filled the room with “Come on, ring those bells.”

Cohen’s poem, “Anthem”, is a more recent discovery – and it speaks of brokenness and lost trust, and how signs were sought, and how “every heart to love will come, but like a refugee.” It’s a strange and difficult poem that I don’t understand, but I find that some things in it resonate with me.

This November has been a very difficult one for both of us, dominated by the Sunday night just over a week ago when we came home and discovered that our basement window had been forced open, my office and our bedrooms rifled through, and the keys to both our cars – and my car – had been stolen.

The sense of violation, loss and anger ran very deep, especially as we learned that over 50 break-ins had been committed over the last two months with no public notice, and that the thief (who was eventually caught on Friday, with our keys still in his possession) has likely committed most of them. I have wept many hot tears in my husband’s arms, spent a lot of time both raging and in searching prayer, talked to many friends and family members, and eventually come to terms with the fact that the car I had taken such good care of since I bought it brand-new eight years ago is irrevocably gone, despite the fact that it has been physically recovered.

The rollercoaster of emotions has been horrible, as we heard through the week about the car being involved in two high-speed chases with police, likely used as a getaway car for several out-of-town break-ins, and then it being found on Tuesday and, by the time we got back out there with the officer, taken again. Attending the 17-year-old accused’s first court appearance didn’t help much either, as he preened himself, fixing his hair, throwing his head back and looking alternately bored or pleased with himself as the charges were read, and then, during breaks, bragging to his friends about his use of the stolen cars (at least three, including ours) and how he was going to get a light sentence.

But then, on Sunday – the first Sunday of Advent – we had a chance to share about our experience and ask for prayer during the worship service. And after the service, 11-year-old Jessica Tonn came up to Bryan and pressed a folded piece of paper into his hands. Inside (and yes, my eyes are welling up again writing this) was a handwritten note that said, “I hope you get enough money for another car! May the Lord be with you!” And attached was a loonie – a one-dollar coin. I couldn’t help thinking of the reflecting I had done on the “widow’s mite” during my retreat at Queen’s House the previous weekend, and how her gift to the temple, while small, had worth far greater than its face value.

A witness of true grace and generosity in the midst of brokenness and defeat, a small package worth so much more than its “face value”, an offering of sacrificial love – isn’t that what Christmas is truly about, in God’s giving of His Son?

As I think about this Christmas, seven months into my first pregnancy, I feel a closer identification with Jesus’ mother Mary than I ever have. Carrying God’s promise in her womb, she nonetheless must have been worn, even exhausted, cranky perhaps, as she travelled those rutted dirt roads, jolting along on the back of a donkey. Perhaps her faith even wavered a little, wondering if she would be a capable mother to God incarnate in the flesh of a squirming baby boy. Fear, uncertainty, and definitely a strong sense of anticipation and amazement over the miracle of this child – I can’t even imagine what she must have felt, but now, I can more easily guess.

Our baby is very much a gift of God, not of medical science – I shouldn’t even be pregnant, if logic and reason were the sole determinants. And yet, here he or she is, growing strong in my womb. On the night our house was broken into, we slept at Bryan’s parents’ home, in his old bedroom – tried to sleep, at least. And baby chose that occasion to kick hard enough that Bryan was able to feel it for the first time, like he or she was saying, “Hello, I’m here.”

That’s the meaning of Christmas – God with us. “Hello,” He says to us. “I’m here.” And we are here, together, attempting to connect with one another, to show our love for one another, imperfect though our offerings may be.

Last night, we attended a recitation of “A Christmas Carol” by actor John Huston at the La Ronge United Church. Not only did he know it by heart, he played all the characters – complete with mannerisms and accents – but with only a velvet-covered lectern as a prop, and he did it dressed as (and speaking as) Charles Dickens himself.

I had never realized just how funny the actual story can be, at least when interpreted by a superb performer, and while I’ve seen countless take-offs on Scrooge’s story, I realized afresh how complex and relevant a story it is. It’s not the sacred story, and it’s not the Santa and reindeer fantasy story, either – it’s something else entirely.

And that’s what struck me so profoundly, in the context of everything we’ve been going through over these last few weeks: it’s a story about becoming aware of what paths you’ve taken in your life, and how your choices have affected both you and the people you’ve encountered. It’s about (quite literally) becoming aware of the past, the present and the future. It’s about generosity, compassion, and self-awareness – as well as their dark opposites, want and ignorance (the twisted children the Ghost of Christmas Present has hiding beneath his robes) and realizing that how we relate to one another is central to the quality of our lives. That’s what it means, I think, when Scrooge says, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Albert Einstein once said, “Only a life lived for others is worth living,” and Christ, the God who chose to be with us, and who ultimately sacrificed Himself for us, is the ultimate example of that. But we can try to model it too, as Scrooge learned, in giving ourselves as “imperfect offerings” and ringing what bells we can to gladden other hearts.

Our thief didn’t understand that, but little Jessica did – and as Dickens put it, “it’s good to be children sometimes and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” I don’t think he was just talking chronological age, but an attitude of joy, of anticipation, of generosity of spirit.

I want to be reminded of these lessons, and this journal seems like a very good place to start. And so, “as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless us, every one.’”


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