Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Cozy Christmas Cautionary Tale


Calvin keeps asking me if I'm going to cry this year if the Christmas tree falls down. Parents of adorable little boys who still cuddle on your lap and ask if they can marry you, one day they will be 8th graders, adept at picking the scabs of your shakiest pitfalls and generally keeping you humble.

(They'll also get stinkier and much more clever. They'll shock you with the clarity through which they see the world, sniffing out injustice through a deluge of memes you won't find funny. They might even email you Youtube videos about North Korea in the middle of the school day. Subject: wow. It's all pretty amazing, honestly, even if it is entirely beside the point of this blog post.)

So, back to the tree.

Last year we switched to a small, table-top tree. Short story long, our house has remarkably little space, which is something that only became clear as our humans kept getting bigger. For years we had crammed the tree in wherever we could find space. We eventually made the tree skinnier. And then we made it shorter.

Part of me believed I had finally arrived at some previously foreign place of spiritual maturity. Look at how good I am at Christmas priorities! Look at how I've grown!

And then it all came crashing down.

Literally.

The tree was knocked from its perch and I from my internal high horse. My beloved vintage ornaments, sourced over the years from Ebay and thrift stores were shattered. I watched it happen from the kitchen and I busted out crying.

I couldn't stop.

I cried while I swept up the mess. The kiddo who had accidentally knocked it over ran upstairs sobbing. We were a hot mess on a cold night, with enough shame to go around. I was sad for what I'd lost and even for what I thought I deserved. I was sick over who I was revealing myself to be.

More than anything, the whole scene was a reality check for me that I'm still human. The moment we think we have arrived at any place of moral authority, everyday life waits to knock us to the floor and shatter our pride. This should come as no surprise. In fact, it's all the more reason to celebrate the humble arrival of God, who shook the world and brought kings to their knees when he showed up as a baby waiting to be worshiped.

We know Christmas really, truly is not about the tree. Have a big tree. A small tree. A wonky tree. A lavish tree. Don't have a tree at all. Decorate it by theme because it brings you joy. Let the kids clump all of their handmade ornaments right up front because you have a healthier view of control than I do. Do your Christmas thing, party people. Do what brings you a bit of freedom.

After years of going all out in various, sometimes perplexing, often complicated ways, this year I found myself craving breathing room. With a wreath around its neck, so to speak.

I had recently devoured Cozy Minimalist Home by Myquillyn Smith  and thoroughly enjoyed it. (It's a BEAUTIFUL book and it's only $13 on Amazon right now. It's also available in Target stores! No one asked me to say this, I just think you'll love it as much as I did)

The book is a gentle invitation to clear away the clutter, so that's what I did.

Here's my 2018 Christmas home.


Changing out the mugs on my rack is my favorite rhythm for changing with the seasons. This is my personal extravagance, fueled by trips to the thrift store, and I'm not sorry. (Cory recently opened a drawer and went pale. "Did you know this is full of mugs?" Um....yes?)

So, the tree. It's a little larger than last year's adorable live mini tree because I waited too long and Kroger had already sold out. We're back to an artificial tree because I apparently am not hipster enough to sustain live pine two years in a row. We put this bad boy up last Saturday, December 8th. Then we realized we didn't have the right lights, so we decorated it on the 9th. And by "we" I mean I decorated it while most of the family was gone and while Silas and his pal Palyn were busy chipping ice off the curb of our street then hauling it upstairs to the bathtub where they mixed it with blue paint. The incident is still under investigation.

My point in telling you this is: 1) We don't have to let ourselves feel rushed by an invisible timeline for How to be Festive. And 2) You, like I, might hold some rosy ideals about decorating the tree with your family, but maybe your kids aren't actually that into and it's worth it to just get it done youself so that you can skip ahead to the glowy, twinkly, happy vibe it lends.

Cory took that photo a couple of winters ago on his way to the jail. Isn't it beautiful?


Me decorating the tree: 
 
I'm going to organize the ornaments in rainbow order again, like last year!

Wait, do I remember rainbow order?

Of course you do, Shannan. Everyone remembers ROY-G-BIV.

Pro Tip: Start with yellow at the top because you don't have very many yellow ornaments. 

(Stares at tree with yellow bulbs for far too long, thinking very hard about what color comes next.)

DOES IT WRONG.


The thrill of hopppppppe!

Magic in the middle.
This is how Christmas always arrives.

I strung some snowflakes through the chandelier for the first time. I've never kept things so simple at Christmas and I'm loving it.

Moo-ey Christmas!
(I hate myself.)


But really, that's it.
I didn't buy anything. It's not perfect. It won't win any design awards.

But it feels like us. It feels like candles and sweatpants and salsa at ten pm. It feels like dinner when the sky is already black and piling under blankets while we watch TV. It feels like those dramatic women singing White Christmas on the radio. It feels like sugar in our teeth. It feels like love and hope, the sadness that shows up without regard for the season, it feels like chasing our breath as we walk down the street to church and following it back home.

It's December 13th and it's easy to feel frantic. To do my tiny part in quieting the noise, I'm offering my free 12 Ways of Christmas series again. It's not a Bible or Advent study, but we'll talk about Jesus quite a bit, why he came for us, and what that means for our ordinary lives. It's light on bossiness and heavy on practical ways to live a truer, more meaningful, simplified Christmas season.

Sign up here if you want to choose peace over pressure and hope over hustle. 


And since I never got around to showing you what I did to recognize Fall in our home, I'm going to share a few photos of that, too.

You'll see that I kept that more simple than usual, too. (Thanks, Nester!) And that not much changed from November to December. I took my time. I left plenty of white space. I'm in love.




Pillows: Target

I was horrified with myself for dropping $30 each for two of those black and white pillows but guess what? Our couch is comfortable to relax on again! I'm happy about them every single day. Gold pillow was on clearance.


Wood "gather" artwork from Joyfully Said Signs.
I grabbed it from storage in the basement and looped the letters over two nails that were already sticking out of the wall from some past decorating escapade.

Forget the layers of artwork and tchotchkes stuff. I found this strand of ginkgo leaves I had pressed with Silas back when he was in pre-school. Oh, the flood of memories! Oh, the pinching of my heart! Yada yada, up they went.

(I forgot to snap a photo of the TV cupboard in December. Spoiler alert: One pine cone wreath and a little felted deer found at the thrift store last year for $0.50.)






(Thank you, @goodandlovely! This was the perfect cozy, calm touch heading into cooler months.)

I dragged this inside from the back patio and it doesn't look this beautiful one month later, but I'm not giving up!)


Happy December, friends.

Love,
Shannan



Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Downhill Rise to Greatness



I was sitting at my kitchen island enjoying a bowl of reheated soup when I read that ProPublica was actively investigating a local story involving two Elkhart City Police officers who had beating a man in handcuffs months prior. Though I live in Goshen, Elkhart is just a few miles up the street, our neighbor to the North. It had my attention.

The video footage which emerged as a result of the investigation was shocking, yes. It was not, however, surprising. Just another page from the same, devastating book. After knocking his chair backwards, officers Cory Newland and Joshua Titus are seen delivering blow after blow to Mario Guerrero Ledesma's head and face, his hands still cuffed behind him. Not long after one officer calls Ledesma a "piece of sh*t," two more officers saunter into the room, leaning against the cinder block wall, looking on in casual, almost bored observation before one of them simply suggests the beating might "stop."

I reread the report, piecing together names both familiar and otherwise. Prior to a handful of years ago, this sort of news wouldn't have caused my heart rate to pitch. Back then, I believed there were good people and bad people. I believed I was one of the good ones, free to stand center-street along with Power, while the others were shoved as far away as possible, with force if necessary.

Six years ago my family relocated from a six-acre homestead to the loose grid of a city waking up to an ever-evolving identity.  We are immigrant-rich and manufacturing-strong. A bright speck of open-mindedness in a sea of white-bread Conservatism. A stain. It depends on who you ask, and when.

Here, families are patched together as much as they are born, your lump of clay mixed with mine, spun on a wheel until the edges are worn smooth and something functional emerges. Worldviews bleed into each other, the air around us violet-hued. We found peace in the chaos, along with live music and exemplary tamales.

Not long after our move, our oldest son made his way into our family at the age of nineteen, already swept into the criminal justice system. Five years later, his hands remain cuffed behind his back in many ways. He's stopped counting the blows. Sentences served give way to court-appointed classes, lengthened probation terms, and fees and fines that tower precariously in the untended corners of his life. They call this "reentry," though it would be more aptly described as "chronic satellite incarceration."

Finding kinship with the ignored had changed us.  
Paying attention comes with a cost.

I dissected the newspaper in the weeks that followed with fresh intensity. Chief of police, Ed Windbigler, who previously said the accused officers "just went a little overboard,"  issuing no more than reprimand, was now forced beneath the microscope of scrutiny from a public he was tasked to protect. After eleven months of silence, equivocation, and backpedaling, both officers were charged with misdemeanor counts of battery. This clocked in as Officer Newland's ninth disciplinary incident (including multiple suspensions) in a term of service that spans ten years. 

At a town hall meeting hosted by Elkhart's Mayor, members of the community expressed disappointment and even outrage, calling for the immediate firing of officers Newland and Titus while the the assistant police chief  defended the department, attacking the media outlets "ambushing" the department.

Same book, different page.

The color drained from November and we all grew colder as the drama unfolded one town away. On November 26th I opened the paper to an opinion piece, written by Jim Bontrager, a Senior chaplain of the Elkhart City Police Department. In his glowing tribute to Chief Ed Windbigler, Bontrager didn't so much build a case for Power to be left unquestioned as much as he reached up and plucked it from thin air. To him, it wasn't right that the man with such a high level of authority should be critiqued for promoting officers who had mounted legacies of disciplinary disaster.

"One of the first things Ed did was to clear the playing field...Their past was just that, their past...from that minute forward they could put their best foot forward and shine," he wrote.

His comments left me wondering - when does my son get to put his best foot forward and shine? 
Where was the line drawn between Mario Ledesma's past and his future when his chair was shoved backwards, his head appearing to strike the concrete floor? Are second chances only reserved for the financially prosperous, the publicly esteemed, the popular, or the crisply-uniformed?

Bontrager's tone-deaf and blatantly privileged air of defensiveness continued. "Learning from failure is at the heart of the American experience. Our history is replete with examples of great leaders who made extremely bad decisions in the earlier stages of life only to rise to greatness afterwards."

It pains me to my core to know he is exactly right. Here, at the heart of our American experience, grave mistakes are too often rewarded with positions of power. The rise to greatness can, indeed, chart a bold trajectory from corruption and abuse to fame and glory. But only if an agreement of untouchability is brokered out on center-street, where Power stands unchecked while the under-valued masses jam their brakes, straining to find new routes not to greatness, but to basic survival.

Meanwhile, on the backstreets, a twelve-year old child is expelled from middle school after a minor incident, in part because his older brother had previously been "trouble." Following the data, particularly as a black child, he is now at significantly greater risk of one day sitting in handcuffs, at the mercy of men who have the luxury of shrugging off their own failures. Where along this path will his exceptional qualities for leadership be noticed and rewarded?  

Unseen in a long-neglected alley, my son is pulled over four times in two days for failing to engage his turn signal according to the letter of the law. Each time, he is asked if he has drugs or weapons in his car, never mind that he has never been charged with either. When will his playing field be cleared?

In a back corner of a neighborhood seen as less-than, tears drip from my friend's chin as she explains that her meds are off, causing intense anxiety to bob up from the darkness of a depression she has never known this side of sobriety. She's a warrior, a bright-eyed wife and the mama of a happy, healthy child, but money is tight and her family is denied the common stop-gaps of food assistance and state medical insurance due to a drug charge from years ago. Tell me, Chaplain Bontrager, when will she be untethered from her past mistake?

"I categorically reject the notion that those who make numerous mistakes are unqualified to lead," the piece continued. I know many who would agree. The question becomes, when will our society collectively reject the idea that people (particularly People of Color and the poor) who make mistakes are unqualified to simply live without persistent judgment? When will they deserve the basic rights of safe housing, robust jobs with opportunities for advancement, and, above all else, the right to enjoy an existence unmarked by hyper visibility and excessive scrutiny? When is their debt really paid? 

I agree with Chaplain Bontrager's final point, (though unnecessarily smug,) that the reporter, Christian Sheckler, bears a namesake that "consists of those who sit in gratitude for the second chance afforded them." It appears Bontrager and I share a common faith, which presumably centers on justice for everyone, no exceptions.

In the Old Testament, God, through the prophet Amos, delivers a critical blow, threatening to effectively decimate those "who twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed." (Amos 5:7) "There will be crying in all the public squares and mourning in every street," He promises. (Amos 5:16b) He will do what it takes to protect the oppressed.

Until then, we will watch the watchers, dragging the truth out across the asphalt of center street, where everyone is good and everyone is bad.

We will call to task those tasked to lead, rejecting the belief that mistakes can only be scrubbed from the histories of certain kinds of people.

We will lay down our lives, building ladders of our bodies so that one day, all of the sons and all of the daughters can drop their cuffs and rise to greatness.