thoughts on encores and Amy Grant, plus what I've been reading lately
Here With Us
My earliest Christmas memory is of driving home from the mall with my mom and sister. Outside our blue Dodge Caravan’s windows, the sky was already dark and headlights sped past us on US 19. In my mind’s eye, I watched my mom pop a cassette into the tape deck and after that pause while the tape began to wind, Amy Grant’s lovely, smooth voice began to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” To this day, Amy Grant’s Christmas music is my favorite; I might even argue it’s the indisputable best Christmas music. But I’m biased.
I once staunchly held to the “no Christmas music before Black Friday” rule (much to my husband’s dismay), but that all changed in the autumn of 2016. Our country was barreling toward that awful presidential election and it seemed the whole world was falling apart. (Oh, how young and naive we were!) At the same time, I was slogging through yet-to-be-diagnosed postpartum depression and was 6 months pregnant with our third child. I needed some hope, some lightness, some joy, and so on a gray October afternoon, I opened Spotify and typed “Christmas” into the search bar.
It recently occurred to me that every December, I’m always subconsciously hoping this will be the year I finally celebrate Christmas well enough, savor it sufficiently, grasp the depth of meaning more fully. Of course, Christmas (like anything) is not a zero sum game for us to either “get” or not. We will not cross some magic threshold after visiting the perfect Christmas display, buying the exact right gift, or reading precisely the right devotional. All we can really do is lean in, show up, and pay attention.
With every year that passes—in the midst of the chaos and pain that often exists in our lives and world—I find I need the Christmas story more. This story of light piercing darkness, a baby’s cries resounding like a trumpet in the night, God’s glory showing inside a poor family among an oppressed people? It is a message of hope not for a distance past or distant future, but surely for us, today. I’m not celebrating or observing the season any better than I have in the past, but I’m certainly more aware of my need for the story.
In 1994, I sat in the USF Sun Dome with my parents for my first concert—it was Amy Grant’s House of Love tour. (For years afterwards, I wore my souvenir t-shirt cinched around my waist with a scrunchie.) I remember that night so well—sitting next to my mom in our seats that hovered high above stage right, singing along to “Heart in Motion” and “Say You’ll Be Mine.” I remember when she introduced “Big Yellow Taxi” and I learned over and asked my mom, “Do we know this song?” She smiled big and nodded, and I smiled back.
When she left the stage at the end of the night, the crowd quickly began to chant, “A-my! A-my!” Everyone began to stomp their feet hard and fast on the bleachers, the sound reverberating through the building and under my seat. Then, chants of “En-core! En-core!” Of course, she returned to the stage for a few more songs, and I could not stop smiling.
That being my first concert, I didn’t realize an encore was a thing to be expected at the end of every concert. I believed I was part of a special audience that night; perhaps the performance was so special and our cheers so loud and persistent that Amy chose an encore just for us—just for me. It would be years before I stood in the audience at another concert (this time with high school friends instead of my parents) and remembered that night, how magical and joyful it was to experience that encore as if it was a gift, just for me and the strangers around me that night. I now knew it wasn’t such a personal experience after all, but now I look back on my childlike wonder with fondness.
Of course, if you’ve been to any number of concerts and shows you know to never leave before the house lights come all the way up. (Unless you’re the kind of person who values beating the crowd more than those extra few songs; I guess that’s fine, but don’t tell me because I’d like to remain friends.) Even though we know the encore is coming, we still shout and cheer and chant the song titles we most want to hear. And when the band walks back out on stage, it still feels a tiny bit magical.
This year, I’m trying to remember to think of the Christmas story a bit more like that first encore. It was perfectly normal, even mundane, but perspective is everything. I’m hoping to receive Christmas more as a gift this year, as if God is looking right at me, handing over a package, and saying, “I’m not done just yet."
“Oh, I know there ain’t no doubt about it. Sometimes life is funny. You think you’re in your darkest hour, when the lights are comin’ on in the house of love.”
My Christmas Playlists
Well, since we’re talking about Christmas music, you know we had to go here, right?
Contemplative Christmas: Evan used to call this my “sad and depressing Christmas playlist,” but I think “contemplative” has a better ring to it. Sometimes, we need Christmas music that captures the longing and the wait. (And, I’ll have you know, this has actually become Evan’s favorite Christmas playlist. So I think I win.)
For the kids: As much as Evan and I love that Contemplative playlist, the kids do not. Here’s more fun and upbeat songs, perfect a witching hour dance party.
Classic Family Christmas: This is the playlist I would imagine playing if my parents and sisters and the whole crew was gathering at our home on Christmas day.
Worshipful Christmas: And here’s a playlist for your morning Advent readings or for doing the dishes on Sunday evening…when you want to remember what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
What I Read in November
Pachinko: Min Jin Lee will be one of the keynote speakers at the Festival of Faith and Writing in April 2020, so I put this book on my list to read before then. I loved it. Pachinko is full of so many things I love to explore in literature: resilient women, how faith sustains us in suffering (or not), intergenerational relationships, an expanded definition of family, and a culture/history that was mostly new to me. I won’t tell you much about the plot, except to say it is a story of suffering and oppression and not always an easy read. (If it’s helpful, consider this a content warning for sexuality, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.) The writing style is straightfoward, brilliant in what it included and leaves out. It’s also a book that seems richly layered with meaning, and I’m still working out most of it. (I’m especially hung up on the Biblical names—which characters have them or do not and why? how do their stories parallel or diverge from the Biblical narratives? Totally nerding out here.) Five solid stars for this one.
Steal Like an Artist: Austin Kleon is one of my favorite people to follow around creativity, writing, and art. He always has insightful things to say, and when I read what he has to say, I am always encouraged to get to work. I finally picked up a copy of this book! You can finish it in no time, and it’s a great little encouraging manifesto to keep on your desk when you need a creative boost.
Heating and Cooling: Beth Ann Fennelly’s book Great with Child is my favorite book around pregnancy and childbirth, but I never read anything else by her. So, I was thrilled to see this pop up as the December book club pick in Exhale. I don’t think the style nor content will be for everyone, but you can finish it in an afternoon. As a writer, I think I’ll come back to this one again and again, because it’s challenging me to think about storytelling a little differently.
Stuff about Mr. Rogers: In a writing class I took earlier this fall, one of the assigned readings was the Tom Junod profile of Fred Rogers that inspired the new Mr. Rogers movie. I can’t recommend that piece highly enough. More recently, this profile of Tom Hanks by Taffy Brodesser-Akner has been making its rounds and is well worth the read. You can’t miss the connections between those two pieces and I love them both.
And now, for some politics: this piece about the one-year anniversary of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. That whole debacle was a personal turning point for me in how I think about and relate to politics, political parties, feminism, and the #metoo movement. Maybe one day I’ll write about it. But for now, I found this piece by Dahlia Lithwick insightful and while her perspective is unique, it resonated with me. “That is the problem with power: It incentivizes forgiveness and forgetting.”
For something more heartwarming, read this essay by Haley Nahman about the joy and magic of watching people run a marathon.
What I Wrote in November
“…And the Cheerios Came, Too” for Kindred Mom: An essay about cross-country moves, the monotony of motherhood, and fresh starts.
Episode 67 of the Kindred Mom Podcast: (Ok, I didn’t write this exactly.) In this episode, Emily, Robin, and I chatted about how motherhood is its own kind of liturgy, and there are gifts to be found in the cycling and repetition, even if it sometimes drives us crazy.
Acknowledgements: This month, the Exhale blog hope theme was “Acknowledgements.” I didn’t follow the prompt too literally, and I also found myself itching to try some poetry, so it’s something a little different.
(Most Mondays on Instagram, I share a short benediction to kick off the week. This is the most recent. In December, I’m planning a break from my personal Instagram as I try to cut back on screen time, but I’ll be back in the New Year!)
May we not be afraid to be seekers—always on the lookout for Jesus. May we take our eyes off our to-do lists and calendars long enough to find evidence of the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control that is so often evidence of God’s presence. May we be willing to climb a tree like Zacchaeus if that’s what it takes.
Until next time, always learning,