Memory Makers

"What was your favorite Christmas gift you ever received?"

How many times have I been asked this perennial ice-breaker of the season that feels both safe and on-point at the same time? I've never had a satisfactory answer, so I've always hated the question.

I remember a fair number of gifts I was given in my childhood, but once I subtract all the ones that I was given on days other than that one day, the remainder can be counted on my fingers (my preferred method of doing math anyway.) When the qualifier of "favorite" is added to the equation, the number falls to zero. I just can't remember that many gifts.

On the other hand, I have scores of Christmas moments that play in my memory in the soft tones of sepia.

The day we skipped school—on what should have been a snow day anyway—to pick out our Christmas tree. The snow was heavy and deep as my family and I traipsed through the fields, and it incited us to snowball fights followed by cocoa in the barn as they baled our white pine, the variety my dad has always loved best.

Sitting beside the fire in the family room feeding album after album to the record player in the corner, the music of choirs, and orchestras, and the Chipmunks filling our home with Christmas cheer.

Painstakingly weaving together ribbons of red and white peppermint-flavored cookie dough into the shapes of candy canes so that Santa and all the Benoits could enjoy the memories that float back only when beckoned by taste and smell.

Sitting in the pew on Christmas Eve singing songs… filled with words… about a story… that made my head spin.

And Christmas mornings with my family and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends-who-are-family in a circle that pressed against every wall of the room, a sea of humanity and joviality among waves of piled presents.

So there were presents. Lots of them. The gifts just aren't what I remember best. I remember moments: the feelings, the people, and most of all, the traditions. My mom and dad were great keepers of traditions. I know this now that I have children of my own because I've learned that keeping traditions does not happen by accident. Traditions are chosen and they are kept with diligence. Rarely are traditions easy or natural, and they are never found in the shortest distance between A and B. Now and then a tradition may be something we've stumbled into, but even then we must have the presence of mind to recognize what's begun and the determination to carry it forward.

Likewise, I believe that childhood itself is not something that happens by accident. Part of the job of being a parent, I think, is to cultivate and protect childhood, and one of our tools is tradition. We are Memory Makers, and we wield a magic wand of… well… magic. Because what else can we call what happens when we invoke a moment and a whole host of wonder, and laughter, and joy come galloping on, the cavalry of Christmas past? I want my children to remember so much more than presents. I want them to remember their Christmases and their whole childhoods as peace met with wonder and mystery because that's what I believe God meant for all of life to be.

A few weeks ago, Karen and I had the chance to make a new tradition with our family, though in one sense, we were reviving a tradition. Growing up, my family and I always went out to a farm in the country to cut down our own Christmas tree. As one of my favorite childhood memories, I'd always dreamed of continuing this tradition with my own kids, but since the experience lacked some of its Currier and Ives charm in the arid climate of southern California we'd set the idea aside.

But this year, on the snowy day after Thanksgiving, we traipsed out to a farm about forty-five minutes away and began a new tradition. What made the day even more special was that we were able to share it with the ones who had taught it to me, my mom and dad. I was reminded again that traditions require a little fortitude. There's no arguing the fact that hunting for a pine in the frigid cold and cutting it down yourself is not the most expedient method for finding a Christmas tree, but the horse-drawn wagon, the most perfect tree there ever was, and the sheer joy on the faces of my kids as they dashed through the snow assured me that the work was well worth it.

Baking Cookies & Pulling Triggers


Last night I baked cookies, a lot of cookies.

It's because I'm manipulative.

This afternoon I have a creative meeting. For four hours I am locking into a room some of the best creative and musical minds I know. My goal is to get them to start thinking and dreaming about Christmas. What will it sound like? What will it feel like? How will this moment melt into the next? Should this piece here, perhaps, come as a complete surprise?

But it's mid-August, it's all hot afternoons and beckoning beaches. No one is thinking about Christmas except for me. But days like these—ones in which the stars are aligned and the schedules of talented people suddenly intersect—are few and far between. So I need to make the most of it, and to do that I need them to be fully engaged.

I've done my homework. I have a treatment, a rough draft of a script, and a mood/inspiration board that will do some of the work, but not enough. So there will also be twinkling lights and carols playing softly. There will be the smell of sweet cocoa, marshmallows, peppermint, and plates piled high with the cookies I made last night. These things will add some fun to the proceedings, and the extra effort will go a long way toward letting these friends know that I care about them and appreciate their help. All good things.

But there's more to it.

The Christmas season is full of memories and emotions, full of funny stories and sugar-plum dreams, but all of this often sits buried inside us, hibernating between New Year's and Thanksgiving. I need today's team to draw from this wealth of memory and emotion, and I'm hoping that the smells, sounds, and tastes of Christmas will help to trigger their minds and hearts to fully inhabit a season that's still a long way off.

Yes, I admit that it is manipulation, but my conscience is clean because I do it to myself all the time. In fact, I've been listening to Christmas music on my commute for the last two weeks. The other day, before I ever sat down to write the first word of the script, my first stop was at Starbucks to pick up a cinnamon dolce latte, the best approximation of the smells and tastes of Christmas. (And a far cry from my usual black coffee!) These things are powerful triggers that, when pulled, can take our minds and hearts to places we remember but never saw coming.

But it's not just at Christmas. All of life is full of triggers. Some summer afternoons I'll be driving with the windows rolled down, and I'll catch the whiff of a scent that immediately transports my mind to the memory of riding my bike through a field near my house in Ohio when I was six-years-old.

And I think for every creative person there are triggers that help us work. There are places, sounds, and sights that encourage us to do work or to do better work. Perhaps it's a walk through the park just before sunset, or the sight of an uncluttered desk. Or maybe it's the smell of a fresh ream of blank pages, or the call of a brand new brush. Perhaps it's the song we can't stop playing on repeat, or a glance at the silver-framed picture on the bedside table.

We each have triggers, things that inspire us, that transport us, that make us think differently and make us want to get to work... NOW.

Today, let's pull some triggers.


The Start Is the Hard Part


Though no one who knows me well would ever accuse me of being an athletic dynamo, I did have a brief stint where I was on the track team. I was a sprinter. I wasn't brilliant, nor was I bad, just solidly right there in the middle. I won a few races. I lost quite a few more. As any runner will tell you, the race can easily be won or lost before the starting pistol ever fires because—for the sprinter, at least—the hardest part of any race is the start.

I hated finally getting the call to the track, finding my way to the lane, getting in the blocks, and hearing the ready, set… Hated it. My heart would begin to pound, my palms would sweat, and I'd squeeze my eyelids shut and will myself to be anywhere but where I was at that moment. I would hear the voice of my coach in my head telling me to "visualize the win," and I would do my best. But the majority of what flashed across my mind's eye were all the ways I could potentially fail.

What if I false-start? What if I slip out of the block? What if I trip? What if my shoe comes untied? What if I roll my ankle, fall into the lane next to me, and the runner cleats me in the face as I scream like a 6-year-old girl? What if...

BANG! We race.

When the race has begun, all the agony morphs into something else. Like energy sparked into heat, all that anxiety and adrenaline turn into the fuel that propel you forward. Once the race has started there isn't the time to think about all the things that could go wrong, of all the people in the stands who might witness your failure, of the mistakes of the last race or the worries of the next. All the runner can think of is willing the hinges of every joint to flick faster and faster, and the only thing the runner sees is the white line in the distance.

For the last two weeks I have been standing at the starting line of one of the season's biggest races in terms of creativity, Christmas. The beginning of the idea is there, the pieces are ready to be pulled into place, the theme is on my heart, but the starting pistol is silent. There are a million reasons I could list for why this race hasn't started, but the fact of the matter is that they're still waiting for the runner to get into the blocks.

Today is the day. Ready, set…

You may say be asking, "What if my project is a marathon? Hmm?" I've never been much of a long-distance runner, though I've tried. I know that the long runs give you all kinds of opportunities for mental meltdowns and physical paroxysms. The marathon is a whole different beast than the sprint, I'll give you that.

But I'd like to suggest that there aren't many projects that aren't sprints. Where's the finish line? Is it 2 hours out, 2 weeks out, 2 months out, 2 years out? That's just the 50-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter dash.

Life is the marathon. The next project, that's just a sprint. And life, thank God, doesn't give us the option of hemming and hawing at the starting line. Otherwise, I'm sure we'd never get out of the gate.


Good News & Bad News: The Tension of Advent

A few weeks ago I woke to Finnden, our 3-year-old, sitting at the foot of our bed at 6:30 in the morning. I didn't know how long he'd been there. With bleary eyes I looked at him, and he returned my look under furrowed brows. Suddenly, he announced, “I have good news, and I have bad news.”

Thinking it too early for bad news, I said, “Okay. What's the good news?”

“The good news is that I found my Crack In the Track book.” The Crack In the Track is his favorite Thomas the Train book. It had been MIA for about a week.

“Okay then,” I said. And, bracing myself, I asked, “So what's the bad news?”

With a deep sigh, he answered, “I also found my caterpillar book.” The Very Hungry Caterpillar is another favorite of his.

“And that's bad news?” I asked.

“No. That's good news.”

“Oh, okay. Then what's the bad news?”

And quite matter-of-factly, he answered, “There is no bad news, only good news.”

I laughed, and he simply smiled back at me. There's only good news. In Finnden's world there is only good news.

But the fact of the matter—as he will all too soon discover—is that there is bad news. In our world there is all kinds of bad news, and that fact has become all the more apparent in recent days and weeks.

Each morning I spend a little time reading the news, and lately I've found myself struggling to read those words through the blur of tears.

On those days, as my heart grows heavy with the weight of brokenness playing out all around me, I find myself leaning back in my chair, lifting my face to the sky, and asking God to remind me that he is in charge. And in his grace he does remind me. He reminds me that his kingdom has come but his perfect will is yet to be fully done. We live in the in-between, and there we find ourselves restless and discontent. As we should. This longing is what the Advent season has brought into focus for me.

We celebrate Christmas because Jesus has come, and we should also celebrate the day after Christmas and the day after that because he's coming again. On that day he will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Jesus had good reasons for telling us that we need to become like children. In one sense my little boy may be living in a dream world, a world of naiveté and fantasy from which he will one day be shaken. But in another sense, he is already living in the world to come, in the mindset that things are as they were mean to be. That morning, as he shared his good news I got a little peek, a tiny window into the world we have all been promised.

Because every single day we are marching closer, drawing a little nearer to the fullness of God's promises. And that's good news. It's good news because we're promised that in the end the children of God will each be able to see with the eyes of my son and say, “There is no bad news, only good news.”