Red Balloons and Christmas Balls

Don’t you love the harmonies God creates in life? He specializes in what people often call coincidences but are really connections that surprise us, make us think, let us glimpse him at work behind the scenes.

    Our last Northwest Christian Writer’s Association meeting seemed full of these delightful connections, as several speakers, none of whom knew what the others planned to talk about, zeroed in on the same ideas. The presenters approached their topics from different directions, with different emphases, yet the meeting had a cohesiveness that would have been hard to plan. Here’s an example:

    Monique led off the meeting with a talk entitled, “The Red Balloon.” She told about walking with her friend and a five-year-old who was carrying a bunch of colorful balloons. Suddenly the only red balloon escaped and floated away. “My red balloon!” the child wailed. In vain, her mother showed her she still had lots of pretty balloons. She sobbed, “But red is my favorite.”

    We’re frequently like that little girl, Monique pointed out. Though God gives us so much to enjoy, we focus on our “red balloons” and if we lose them, we grieve, never seeing the good things all around us.

    Next to speak was Leslie Ann, with a “rubbish writing” exercise to help authors overcome the dreaded “brain freeze”…caused not by cold ice cream, but by the freeze-up of the fluid words and ideas we depend on. She flashed a picture of a decorated Christmas tree on the screen and said, “Take the next three minutes to write what comes to mind as fast as you can.”

    What do you know? There in the center of the tree was one red ball, the only one among all the ornaments. I don’t know if anyone else made the same connection, but here’s what I wrote:

    “A red balloon in the center of the tree. Was this planned? No, it’s a Christmas ornament. Monique’s red balloon represented something loved and lost and took the place in the child’s mind of the much God had for her. The red ball might represent God’s treasure—the much (Jesus)—loved and given up by God for us. How we grieve when we don’t have God’s perspective. How much we miss.”

    Maybe that sounds like rubbish to you. But there’s a kernel of truth there—a connection that I can ponder and expand upon later. And in the exercise I gained a valuable technique for unfreezing my brain when I think I’m stuck.

    God loves to bring harmony out of rubbish. Telling about his work is the joy of the Christian writer.

The Spirit of Generosity

    This Christmas will go down in my personal history book as “the best ever.” Not because of the gifts, or the way-too-abundant holiday treats, or the decorations. Not because of the Christmas concerts and other celebrations, or the cards and letters reminding us that we’re important to the far-flung people we love.

    What made it “best ever” was the spirit of generosity that touched us in many ways.

    Every year, somebody hangs giant snowflakes and lighted wreaths along our town’s main street. While out walking the morning after Thanksgiving, we caught them in the act. Stanwood Lions Club volunteers were partnering with a TV cable company to put up snowflakes that sparkled in the fog. The man in charge told us the Lions also hoist the lighted Christmas tree to the top of Stanwood’s icon, the old Hamilton Lumber Mill smokestack, as well as install other symbols for later holidays.

    Another day, we joined a number of senior citizens at Stanwood’s Community and Senior Center for Christmas luncheon. We were all delighted when one hundred fifty children from nearby Cedarhome Elementary School filed in to entertain us with a varied and enthusiastic program of holiday music, some of it original compositions from their teacher, Mr. Rich Crouch. Thanks kids and teacher, for sharing your talent!

Dennis Bunch on his Honda 1300cc

    When we drove to Camano Island to finish our Christmas shopping, we were amused to see Santa Claus sitting by the highway, waving from a bright red Honda motorcycle. We stopped to talk with him and take his picture. Santa (Dennis Bunch) has been sitting on that motorcycle for several hours a day, every Christmas season for six years, because he feels its a way he can bless others.

    Volunteers around Stanwood come by ones, by a few, or by the hundreds. The Warm Beach Lights of Christmas, only four miles from town, is known all over the country for its more than one million lights and its family-friendly activities that go on for twenty nights in December. More than 800 volunteers band together to set up the displays, man the events, and later take it all down again. They make this a happy, well-loved destination for young and old.

    For us, what made this Christmas truly “the best ever” was a generous gesture from one of our sons. His sister lives in the Arizona desert. She’s homesick for the damp green Pacific Northwest at Christmas time and we miss her, too. His gift to all of us was to fly her home for a weekend packed with love and fun.

    What better way to celebrate the birth of One who gave the best gift ever than to imitate his giving spirit? That spirit of generosity is the thread that ties the whole package together.

A Doll for Christmas

Little girls and their dolls have always been the best of friends.

My dear friend and Minnesota “sister,” Donna Gilbertson, shares this story just in time for Christmas. Thanks, Donna!

“I was born during the Dust Bowl years, while Daddy and Mom were ministerial students at Wessington Springs, SD. Just before graduation, Mom became very ill with a neurological disease. They left school and returned to Iowa where Daddy took any job he could find so he could take care of me and my helpless mother.

The Christmas I was eight, my friends were all hoping for baby dolls that cried ‘Mama’ and opened and shut their sparkling glassine eyes. I, too, wished for a doll like that.

On Christmas Eve, I hung my stocking near the evergreen branch “tree” tied to our stair banister, even though Daddy told me Santa wouldn’t bring much this year because times were tough all over the world, not just at our house.

In the morning, I awoke early and slipped down the stairs to see if my stocking was full. It hung from the banister just as limply as when I’d hung it there. Sadly, I turned to creep back up the stairs. Just as I reached the top, Daddy called from the bed in the living room where my parents slept: ‘Donna Mae, maybe your present was too big for your stocking. Maybe you should look around better.’

I went back and looked toward their bed. Nothing there. Nothing on the dresser at the foot of their bed. I pivoted to face the stairs again, silent tears running down my cheeks. Mom’s wooden wheelchair sat beside the stairway, near my stocking. In the wheelchair sat…my doll!

She had hair, and eyes that opened and shut. When I picked her up and turned her over, she warbled a week ‘Ma..Ma.’ I wiped my tears away on the sleeve of my nightie and took her over to my parent’s bed. They made room for me between them and there I cuddled, perfectly happy and content.

My doll’s hair was not perfect, her dress didn’t fit too well, and one arm was a little loose. Her eyes were no longer shiny and the eyelashes surrounding them were gone. That didn’t really matter to me. She said ‘Ma..Ma’ and that was enough.

Later I learned that my daddy had walked up the railroad tracks in the falling snow to reach Riceville’s dry goods store before closing time. There he had found my doll, a reconditioned toy contributed by some family, and purchased it for one dollar. In those days one dollar might be a day’s wages when he cut wood for someone’s fireplace.

That’s why, when people said, ‘You were the apple of your dad’s eye,’ I could really believe I was loved. My daddy died of cancer in December of the year I turned ten. A year later in December my mom died of the disease which had attacked her when I was a toddler, and I went to live with an uncle and aunt. My doll became one of the most precious possessions I owned.”

Best Christmas Ever

We’ve had a white Christmas. In fact, it’s been white outside our windows for two weeks now, and today’s predicted rain is pelting down in more snowflakes. We haven’t had a Christmas like this since I was a child growing up in the Robe Valley of Northwest Washington.

The icy highways, the snow-blocked driveways and side roads, aren’t all that remind me of those long-ago Christmases. TV this morning told of an unprecedented decline in expected retail sales. Our culture has trained people to think that “shopping ‘til they drop” is normal and necessary. But with thousands losing their jobs and people afraid to spend what they have, for many of us this has been a scaled-down Christmas. Despite the dismayed store owners out there, a new generation is learning that joy is not something that must be purchased.

Some are finding, as my family did the year of our “Best Christmas,” that giving of oneself is the finest way to give and get joy.

That year, about 1948, the loggers had been out of work for months because of a long strike. Then winter hit hard with deep snows that kept them out of the woods. Daddy’s unemployment compensation barely stretched to cover groceries for the family. At night after the five of us had gone to bed, we lay upstairs listening, tense and frightened, as Daddy worried loudly to Mama about how we were going to make it through the winter. One night, I heard our stalwart father break down in tears. That scared me more than any of his worrying. “We can’t buy anything for the kids this Christmas,” he wept. Mama murmured something comforting. Their voices went on for a long time, too low to understand, and I lay there, thinking about what I’d heard.

At twelve, I was learning to sew. I would make doll dresses for my sisters. I could embroider something pretty for Mama. I could make candy for Daddy and I’d think of something for the boys. We could have Christmas without money.

That year, as usual, we went out in the woods and cut our own Christmas tree. We decorated it with the familiar glass balls and candles in their metal clip holders and put the cardboard angel on top. We children wrapped our homemade gifts and put them under the tree. We’d tried hard to keep our secrets, and on Christmas Eve anticipation kept us awake, whispering and giggling.

Finally morning dawned, cold and snowy. We hurried into our clothes and dashed downstairs where lamplight warmed the kitchen and the scent of brewing coffee announced breakfast. But the sight of the Christmas tree stopped us short. A beautiful doll, almost as tall as sister Patty, stood beside it. She had yarn pigtails and wore little girl shoes and socks and a pretty pinafore dress. Her arms and legs moved, so Patty could make her walk. Mama had sewed her from muslin, stuffed her parts, then painted them with a flesh-colored mixture of leftover house paint. The doll had big brown eyes and a painted smile and rosy cheeks. Patty squealed with joy and hugged her.

Under the tree, Billy found a red tractor made of wood, with wooden wheels that really rolled. Daddy had made David a sled with wooden runners and painted it red, too. For Lois and me, the oldest children, he and Mama had made sewing “birds” from plywood. They looked like pelicans, with pincushion wings and a pair of scissors that slipped through a slot in the head to make the big bill. Each sat on a plywood base behind a revolving circle studded with nails which held colorful spools of thread. A folded measuring tape tucked beneath each bird’s body. Lois and I felt grown-up to possess our own sewing supplies in such a cute and portable “kit.”

In addition to all this, Daddy had steamed and shaped the ends of some long pieces of lumber to make skis. He’d sanded them smooth, varnished them, and attached leather straps to hold them to our feet. They didn’t work very well in our usually soft, wet snow, but that was okay. We had fun slogging through our clearing and down the little hills out front. Even at our young age, we recognized the time and care and love that had gone into making our perfectly chosen gifts.

Although we couldn’t wait to play with our new gifts and were eager to get outside to try out the skis and David’s sled, first we had the fun of opening the rest of our homemade gifts. Our parents beamed with pride and so did we kids, for our simple Christmas turned out to be our most memorable one ever.

Christmas Gifts in a Seismic Economy

Outside my office, the world is gray and white. The snow has stopped falling, but is heaped almost knee-deep on the lawn. Each leaf still clinging to the native shrubs in our front yard mini-forest bears its own fluffy load and is tipped with the start of its own icicle. A solitary rufous-sided towhee flashes bright flanks as it hops past my ground-level window to scratch for bugs in the ivy under the deck. An undulating line of snow geese follows-the-leader across the dark sky beyond the drooping cedar.

I should be Christmas shopping, but we’re snowed in. I’m rereading some of this year’s Christmas letters and cards.

Each year I look forward to my dear friend Mary Armstrong’s Christmas masterpiece. No one better captures the essence of the season than she does. This year she talks about gift-giving in a “seismic economy.” She gave me permission to share part of her letter here:

“…a small sign…lettered with the message, ‘Kindness Matters’…hangs now in our kitchen, a gentle reminder of something beyond portfolio and asset value: the gift of kindness. Could our roller coaster economy, distressing as it surely is, contain a hidden lesson we may have forgotten? Perhaps beyond the mall, beyond the in-your-face glitze urging us to spend and spend some more, rests a galaxy of gifts to be rediscovered.

“This year especially, could I give the gift of listening? Real listening, without interruption, without time out for commercials, is the rarest of treasures. Could I give the gift of my presence, taking time to actually sit down with someone, hear them with focus, with eye contact, with sympathy and encouragement? Could I just once refrain from offering advice? Could I pick up the phone and simply ask how my friend is doing? Could I give an hour to help out at the food bank, or the homeless shelter, or the drive for warm jackets, or the soup kitchen, or the Church thrift shop, or push a coin into the alms kettle?

“This year, let us shop as the gold—or lack of it—in our wallets will dictate. But may we remember to shop also for that invisible gift wrapped in the beauty of kindness: the gift of myself, the gift of my time. Let us slow our pace, let us listen more, let us speak less, let us reach out to those next door, around the corner, at the other end of the phone, perhaps under the overpass, on a bench in the park, or behind bars.”

***For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:11***