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.

A Fan of Fiction

A Wrinkle In TimeIn the fourth grade I learned the power of fiction, but it's taken me until just now to remember what I learned.

I recently mentioned that I've begun disciplining myself to read more often. I try to read two chapters every other day. Some days it doesn't happen, but more often it does. When I first started putting together my reading line-up I was a little hesitant to add many fiction books. Most of my friends are strictly non-fiction readers. Sure, they'll watch a tv show or go to a play, but when it comes to their reading... Fiction? Who has the time?

Besides, can reading a story really constitute a discipline? Wouldn't that be like "disciplining" myself to watch a movie or go to a water-park? Isn't it just for fun?

Well, maybe.

But if your stock and trade is in the film industry, maybe you should discipline yourself to watch a movie. Or if your life's goal is to see as many examples of poorly-chosen, yet boldly-worn swimwear and ingest as many chlorine-negated pathogens as possible, by all means, enjoy those water-parks.

My business is stories. And for all the good biographies, memoirs, and anecdote-filled motivational reads, some of the best stories are still fiction.

In the fourth grade, the last hour of class was always my favorite. By two in the afternoon on a spring day our sun-soaked classroom would be eighty degrees or more and heavy with the humidity of Ohio in early June. The windows would be open to the playground, beckoning a breeze that would never come. With the end of the day getting close, and summer vacation just around the corner, it was all anyone could do to get a classroom full of fidgety 10-year-olds to stop poking sharpened pencils at one another, much less listen to a lesson. That's when Mrs. Segler would draw the curtains partway closed, ask us to put our things away, and pull a well-worn book off the shelf in the corner.

For an hour at the end of each day she lulled us into quiet calm as she led the charge into adventures we never dreamed possible. She'd read to us from The Wizard of Oz, Number the Stars, Bridge to Terabithia, and A Wrinkle in Time.

I was captivated, dumbstruck.

From those stories I realized that my mind made movies more fascinating than any I'd ever seen. I got the first glimpse of how to suffer loss. I learned what friendship could really look like. I discovered new worlds and theories of yet-to-be-discovered dimensions that danced not just at the edge of my imagination but at the edge of scientific theory itself.

Please hear, I don't hate non-fiction. In fact, I love it now more than ever. Non-fiction fills our minds with the information, ideas, and truths that can shape our minds and reshape the world.

But we have to have a vehicle to transfer all that information not just to the wide-open gates of the mind but also to the heavily-guarded halls of the heart. Stories speak to the heart, shaping and changing the way we see and feel about reality. Stories change us because that's what stories are for, all kinds of stories, and "all kinds" includes fiction. I believe we can all benefit from a little more make-believe, what-ifs, and the occasional happily ever after.

Fiction has always been my Cinderella, locked up and out of sight. Good enough for the pantry but not for the parlor. I've often found myself embarrassed to admit how much I love getting lost in a good novel, and how it's often like pulling teeth to choose the book about methodology over the one that's make-believe. No more. I'm a fan of fiction. After all, Cinderella was always just a good story waiting to happen.

The Magic Hour

I remember summers as a kid growing up in Ohio. The days were hot and muggy. And long.

Darkness didn’t usually set in until almost 10 pm, and that meant a lot of time was spent outside in the sunshine. There were a band of six of us boys, all close in age, who whiled away those daylight hours together. We built forts in the woods, swung from vines, played with fire and generally acted like we were living in the early chapters of Lord of the Flies.

I remember running and shouting and hitting things with sticks. I don’t remember many moments of stillness, of quiet. But there were a few.

At the edge of the woods we often played in there was a field full of weeds and wildflowers and sweet-smelling clover. I remember one day picking wild raspberries in the woods and crossing that field on our way home. As we stepped into the clearing the sun seemed to hang just above the tops of the trees on the far edge of the field, and our shadows fell long on the grass.

And suddenly everything was brilliant with golden glow.

Every blade of grass seemed to stand out in sharp relief. The trees that bordered the field turned a vibrant green as if they themselves were emitting a neon glow. The wildflowers became like jewels dotting the landscape. In the air, every speck of dust and every flying insect sparkled as they caught the light, filling the air with diamond dust.

We stopped. We were quiet and still.

The world seemed reborn, alive in a way I’d never known. What had seemed ordinary and commonplace when we had passed through it an hour ago was suddenly enchanting and new. Every rock demanded our attention. Every weed deserved mention.

Our pause must have been momentary, but in our boyhood rhythms it was the equivalent of an hour. A magic hour.

That’s what cinematographers and photographers call it. The Magic Hour. Or sometimes The Golden Hour. It’s the day’s last hour of sunlight, and it makes the ordinary extraordinary. I must have seen it before that day, but that was the first time I’d really taken it in.

Even now, there’s nothing like a windows-down drive during the last vestiges of daylight; that kind of magic on a daily basis is good for the soul.

I feel as though, right now I am living in a creative magic hour, so to speak. Everything has come alive for me. Everything I see inspires me or sparks me. I’m moved and motivated. The world seems reborn, alive.

I don’t know how it began. I don’t know when it will end. I don’t know if it’s just a moment, or a season, or a new reality. But I’m going to take it, and revel in it, and thank God for it.