Oh, that final verse!

Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.

And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*

This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.

You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.

The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”

But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.

I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.

Well, of course I hadn’t.

Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.

The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.

The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.

The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”

So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.

There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.

***

*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and  J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)

A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A short history of awful pets

You know what’s no fun? Being a scapedog. This noble creature

boomer head shake

has simple needs. He just wants a crate with a blankie and lots of wet coffee filters and styrofoam meat trays hidden under it. He wants people to tell him what to do, and he wants to smell their wonderful, wonderful feet. He wants to go outside and then come inside and then to outside and then come in and then maybe go outside for a bit. He wants to eat snow. And he wants to protect the HELL out of the baby, which is sweet.

However, pretty much all I do is yell at him, and the more I yell at him, the more devoted he becomes, trying to win my favor.

Boomer only pawn in game of life.

Boomer only pawn in game of life.

This is why we got a boy dog. I’m not saying that all men are like this, but I will say that this is why we got a boy dog.

I know he’s a good boy. So I’m trying to make myself feel better about him by reminiscing about all the other pets we’ve had, and how much more awful they were than this supremely irritating dog. For instance . . .

The cat who was our prisoner. I’ve written about this wretched animal before.

black cat

Never in my life have I been hated so passionately as I was hated by that cat. This is the animal who would sit on the couch, wait for me to walk in, make eye contact, pee profoundly, and then casually get up and walk out, making sure to brush past my ankles in a devastatingly ironic pantomime of feline affection, just to show us that she could if she wanted to. This is the cat who, in the time it took for me to get my shoes on to go to the vet, chewed her way out of the cat carrier and disappeared. This is the cat who actually burrowed into the wall and didn’t come out for several days, presumably plotting some horrible vengeance on the family who so barbarically gave her food and shelter.

One night, I had a moment of clarity and simply opened the front door. Propelled by a white hot loathing, she sped off into the darkness whence she came, and we never saw each other again.

The frog that died of ennui after costing us millions of dollars. If you factor in the emotional cost. My son found this frog in the sandbox, and we made some kind of bogus deal that I never thought he’d be able to fulfill — keeping his room clean or some pie-in-the-sky like that. So of course he did it, and he earned a frog.

frog

Happier times

We quickly learned that, despite spending his days doing exactly nothing, a frog is a needy creature. He needs a tank that has water and gravel, sand and moss. Okay. But he also needs live crickets to eat, and, even though he is a yard frog, he can’t eat yard crickets. Nope, they have to be crickets that cost money. And those crickets have to be gut loaded with special stinky calcium powder or something, and you have to time the feeding so that the crickets’ bellies will still be full before the frog eats them.

Les_remords_de_la_patrie

not how I imagined my life

At one point in my research, I came across the phrase “economical cricket husbandry” and sobbed aloud.

Now, the crickets get dehydrated pretty easily; but they will also drown themselves if you give them water, such as the water you might find in a frog tank. So you have to buy a separate container just for the crickets, and in it, you must put special hydrating gel, which the crickets absorb through their horrible abdomens. Whatever you’re imagining, it’s more upsetting than that. Oh, and do not leave a bag of crickets on your dashboard when it’s hot out, or you will have to make a second trip to PetSmart. And all the PetSmart people will know what you have done.

Also, froggie needs sunlight, but not direct sunlight, because that will burn him, but not indirect sunlight, because then he won’t get the correct gamma rays or something, and he will develop some kind of crippling bone disease.

GodzillaBlockparty

oh, the frogmanity

Froggie must have a special light fixture to prevent him from becoming Noodle Bone Frogzilla. But don’t worry, you have a PetSmart discount card! So the special bulb will cost a mere $38.

My question is, how the hell do frogs survive in sandboxes?

Anyway, our frog did not survive. He simply was miserable and made us miserable for many, many months, and then one morning, he looked even more dead that usual, and that was the end of that.

The worst mother fish ever. I’ve kept fish off and on for decade, and I’ve learned two things: One: when you have a really nice set-up, with plants and bottom feeders and Roman ruins, and you buy a new heater and it doesn’t seem to be heating up the water? So you keep turning it up, and it’s still not heating the water? So you turn it up some more, and then some more, and it’s still not heating the water up? You might want to make sure it’s plugged in. And, you might want to make sure you turn it down again before you plug it in. Unless you intended to make bouillabaisse with a side dish of ancient Roman ruins.

Again: not recommended.

Again: not recommended.

The second thing I learned was: do not get too attached. One time we had a fish who turned out, in keeping with the general theme of the household, to be pregnant. It gave birth to approximately 93 teensy little adorable fishlings. Or, was it only about 70. Huh, looks like there’s only about 30 now. Or, wow, there can’t be more than– OH, THIS IS HORRIBLE. Quick, look up what to do when the mother fish is eating all the babies! Okay, run out and buy this expensive little mesh isolation nursery thing! Phew, now they will be safe, and shame on you, you unnatural mother! I know you’re just a fish, but–

OH, THIS IS HORRIBLE!

Yep, the mother fish was sucking her babies through the mesh and eating them anyway.

WORSE THAN THIS.

WORSE THAN THIS.

At this point, a responsible pet owner can only put a blanket over the tank and take the kids out for ice cream until they stop crying.

The three doomed parakeets. One escaped out the window when we cleaned its cage. One got a chill and keeled over suddenly. And one simply got more and more despondent until it started kind of falling apart, which is the worst thing I’ve ever seen a bird do. I wasn’t sure how to handle it, and so my husband asked grimly, “Do we have a paper bag?” His plan was to put the bird in a paper bag and run over it with the car.

horror

This is actually not a terrible idea, and I’m not sure why it makes me want to laugh hysterically; but it was about 17 years ago, and I’m still giggling. (We ended up bringing it to the humane society, who charged us $15 to gas the poor s.o.b. And they didn’t even give us the cage back!)

The tadpole of futility. We have this wonderful town pond, which has one section full of tadpoles and salamanders. The kids love seeing how many they can catch.

Eeek!

Eeek!

One day, feeling expansive after basking in the sun for a few hours, I made a tactical error, and allowed them to bring a tadpole home. We installed it in a pickle jar and it became the centerpiece on the dining room table.

OH BOY!

Mmm, appetizin’.

We named it “Bingo” and prepared to watch the miracle of life unfold before our eyes.

Mmm, appetizin'.

OH BOY!

Instead, it basically acted like a dead pickle with a mouth. It ate and ate and ate and ate, and got more and more bloated. And that’s it. One day, the kids started spazzing out, shrieking that the tadpole had pooped. It turned out to have sprouted a leg. Just one leg. And that’s it.

Was willst du von mein leben?

Was willst du von mein leben?

More weeks went by, and it never grew any more legs. It just continued to eat limp lettuce until I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore, and dumped it into the stream. Vaya con dios, pickle.

Adios.

Adios.

The phantom hamster. Our most current terrible pet. We had some gerbils, and they were pretty good, but then one died. So, because I don’t argue about these things, we got a dwarf hamster, and he was pretty good.

IN FACT SO TYOOOOOT!

IN FACT SO TYOOOOOT!

Until he got out. How he did this, I do not know. He certainly doesn’t appear strong or intelligent or even competent, but somehow he got out. This produced extreme sadness in the boy community of the household for a week or so, until — and again, I would like to note that boys are different from girls — the joyous news was spread that the hamster appears to be alive and well, only he is living inside the walls! Hooray, apparently!

So now we have what may be, according to your point of view, the perfect pet: he requires no food, at least not any intended for him; he requires no care; he requires no changes of bedding, for reasons that I care not to think about. But we know that he’s there. And he is ours.

 And that brings us up to the dog. Well, he does love the baby. Boy, does he love the baby. And I know for a fact that he would not fit inside a paper bag.

It’ll have to be enough.

 

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Parents who fail (and parents who don’t)

Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”

Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew darn well what would happen if we found out she was pregnant.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.”

Failure: “I have no idea how to help my child, but I’ll be damned if I let someone stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for parents who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”

 

Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”

Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”

 

Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”

Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my husband, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I can’t allow this. I’m the mom.”

 

Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”

Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish her double, one for each of us.”

 

Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”

Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”

 

Not a failure:  “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”

Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is gay.”

Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”

 

Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”

Failure: “I refuse to speak to my child who has left the Church.  How could he betray Me this way?”

 

Not a failure: “I just said exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”

Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”