Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas 2016

Christmas letters typically look back over the year with a nostalgic sepia-toned mix of sweetness and light, but 2016 was not typical. Many of us simply want to put it behind us and hope for something better next year.
The deeply troubled state of the world challenges the Christmas proclamation that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.
I reckon that even a dumpster fire provides a light that overcomes darkness, and, even in a year that challenged the most starry-eyed optimist to find it there were some rays of light.
Actually, 2016 began full of simple joys in our little corner of it. We made it to one coast or the other five times in the first half of the year, and walking along the edge of the ocean always brings a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation.
We could all use a bit more of that, for standing in awe of something inexpressibly larger than ourselves provides perspective too often lacking in our overly wired lives. One might think that the wired nature of life these days makes it easier to share light, but that’s not the way it feels most of the time.
It’s not just me and it’s not just you. Something different is going on these days. According to a study published in the journal CyberPsychology you can discern something different in the values that predominate in television shows that kids watch these days compared to shows over the preceding half century. The researchers found that “Fame, an individualistic value, was judged the top value in the shows of 2007, up from number fifteen (out of sixteen) in most of the prior decades. In contrast, community feeling was eleventh in 2007, down from first or second place in all prior decades.”
Though the surveys on which the researchers drew hasn’t been completed for the current decade, I’m
willing to bet that the situation has only gotten worse. Perhaps that’s why most folks started their complaints about the dumpster-fire nature of 2016 as celebrity deaths started piling up, and some folks date the beginning of the end for 2016 back in April when Prince died.
The problem with celebrity culture, as noted in other research, comes when our focus on the lives of celebrities diverts our attention from life in community. People who follow celebrity culture most attentively are also the least likely to engage in community organizations and to volunteer. Virtual life replaces real life, and we wind up with a reality TV star stepping in to the most powerful office in the world.
Real life, of course, can be hard. As the wisdom of the Princess Bride reminds, “life is pain, princess; anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something.” Real life brought more than our share of pain and grief in 2016, with the unexpected death of Cheryl’s brother Dave in August, and the equally unexpected death of my sister’s husband, Terry, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Any year that includes the deaths of two brothers-in-law, each only a few years older than we are, is a dumpster-fire of a year.
Nonetheless, by the light of even a dumpster fire, we beat back the darkness and experienced more than our share of deep joy.
Hannah began her senior year of high school this fall. As one of her friends notes, not inaccurately, she’s “a freakin’ genius.” I don’t know about that, technically speaking, but she is an exceptionally bright, thoughtful young woman driven to succeed academically. She’s busy with college applications over the holiday (although, at the moment, she’s reading a book about “ferocious human beings” that seems decidedly non-academic). She keeps herself moving – literally – by running cross-country, swimming, and running track. She even consented to running a 5-mile Turkey Trot with her old man on Thanksgiving, and has signed up to join me on a 4-miler on New Year’s Eve. She was heavily motivated by the swag.
Neither of her brothers would consider such opportunities no matter what the gear giveaway included, but they will hit the disc golf links with me whenever we’re together.
That doesn’t happen as often as we’d like, of course, but we did get out to Santa Cruz to visit Bud last spring and he was in Arlington for about six weeks at the end of summer. Many discs were thrown. Bud is heading into the homestretch – that is to say, the dissertation phase – of his doctoral work. More significantly, he’s engaged! He will marry his long-time girlfriend, Monica, next fall at a Virginia winery. We are thrilled to welcome Monica (and her two adorable little dogs) to the family officially. (Unofficially, she’s been one of the crew since soon after she and Bud met at Mary Washington when they were freshmen.) 
If you’re paying attention so far you’ve noted that we’ll have a high-school graduation and a wedding in 2017. But wait! There’s more!
Martin will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University in the spring with a BA in history. He’s pretty much loving life in Richmond, and he has also brought Delanie, another delightful member of the crew, into our lives over recent years. Martin is spending his Christmas break doing an internship in the maps division of the Library of Congress. (It pays to have a well-connected mom!) He has come home each day bubbling over about the maps he gets to study. He’s writing descriptions for items that are being digitized, and he’s spent several days this week studying Nazi-era maps of the Atlantic coast used by German U-boats. He says that it’s more than a bit unnerving to handle real documents stamped with swastikas.
Personally, I can’t think of a more important, though sadly undervalued, academic major these days than history. As Charles Taylor wrote recently in the Boston Globe we have created a “culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents.” Our collective ignorance of our own history certainly feels particularly threatening just now, and so many of our institutions designed to create and sustain an educated citizenry are debased.
Fortunately, Cheryl remains happily employed by one of the truly great American institutions. Her work at the Library of Congress continues to engage, challenge, and reward her. She works with a team of smart, thoughtful, and caring colleagues, and they do remarkable work helping educators access and use the library’s incredibly immense digital collections in classrooms across the country. She also continues to fill our home (and, often, our church) with delicious food, and keeps family (and special friends) warm and cozy with beautiful knitted socks and hats and scarves.
I receive more than my fair share of those, and I am perfectly happy with that situation. I am also quite content well into my 14th year as pastor of the wee kirk. The work is good, and the people are better. Beyond work, I spent a lot of time in 2016 writing songs and playing them on the front porch. One of these days Martin and I will commit a bunch of them to digits and share them beyond the confines of the porch. You can find a few things we’ve put up on under my name. We’ll continue our creative collaboration in 2017 as we begin the research phase of a second film project. This one is being funded by a generous grant from the Louisville Institute. Consider that a really lame teaser, and tune in to Facebook for further developments.
In an early conversation with one of the folks who will undoubtedly be featured in the project I jokingly said, “we’re going to make you famous.” I do not, actually, aspire to that at all. Fame and celebrity bring little of value to the world. I hope, instead, to share a little light, because I continue to trust that even a little light will overcome the darkness. Here’s hoping that the light that shines brightly in 2017 comes from something far more beautiful and hope-filled than a dumpster fire.
PS: have I mentioned Cheryl’s big brown eyes recently? They are the most beautiful in the world, and they usually get what they want. That is why we have a new addition for Christmas. Meet Mr. Bounce – 10 whole pounds of fluffy sweetness who, in the 24 hours he’s been with us, is living up to his name.


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