In November, my family and I participated in the Lantern Fest.
This is our second year at this event, and we’ve declared it a tradition.
Last year, when we went we were letting go. We had specific things we needed to name and face and let go. The experience was an anchor for us. A moment each of us could look back on and remember. We were reclaiming and rebuilding and the event served as a pivotal point in our healing.
This year was different.
Everyone was all smiles heading to the event. We got there early so we could enjoy the music and festivities before the release of the lanterns. We were sitting in the chill of the November air amidst thousands of people and I say to Brian, “What are we going to draw on our lantern this year?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “What are you thinking?” I’m about to say, “I’m not sure,” when I feel a nudging knowing come over me.
And I know exactly what to draw.
The Lantern Fest is a space where thousands of people gather together and release their “highest hopes, deepest regrets, and fondest dreams” into the sky through paper lanterns. As you stroll through the grounds, you pass little communities of strangers who form around fire pits, markers out and sketching words and phrases and art on these thin paper lanterns. There is laughing and music and s’mores and when the sun sets, everyone lights the lanterns at the same time into the sky.
There is something indescribably moving about seeing thousands of burning lights lift off into the sky, knowing they represent the hards and highs of so many people. It’s incredible.
2016 was an incredibly hard year for our family. Specifically for Brian and me, but it seems no matter how we tried to keep it between us, those kinds of things tend to spill over into everyone in the house. And everyone feels it.
2016 was the year I became absorbed in the metaphor of the oak tree:
It was late fall.
I was talking to a very wise friend.
Deflated and crumbling, I was in tears and in pieces.
And she looks me right in the eyes and says,
“Listen to me. Look at the oak tree. On the surface, the limbs look barren and empty. But down below, all that sap is heading to the roots. And those roots are growing deeper and deeper. They are spreading wider and wider. We can’t see what’s going on under the ground, but that tree is grounding itself more and more firmly and when spring gets here, that tree will explode with green. And even as big as the tree is in its crown, its roots are even bigger.”
Silence filled the room as the image filled my heart.
And she continued,
“Things happen that try and etch their name into the side of your tree. And you may bleed for a while, but you just keep grounding yourself in Love. Your roots are deep and wide and spring will come and you will be more alive than you ever thought you would be. But right now, right now in this winter of your life, you just remember how deep your roots are and you stand tall and firm and strong. Because that’s who you are.”
It was a moment and an image that helped me and helped our family.
It was an anchor. It was perspective.
A few months back I had a heartbreaking conversation with a friend of mine.
She was full of tears over her grown-up kids making not-grown-up decisions, her heart in pieces over the effect it was having on everyone.
She was feeling so helpless.
She’s between sobs and she takes a breath and she says, “I just don’t know. I guess we did everything wrong. Or maybe we just aren’t living right.”
We talk through this notion:
We examine it. Name it. Process it.
And together we throw it out as garbage.
I think that’s how it is sometimes:
You want to have a reason. You want to blame something or someone. There must be some reason why this (fill in the blank) is happening.
Because when you’re working through something hard, you so desperately want a why.
A cause and effect.
And a lot of times you can find the why of a situation.
Because there are definite cause and effects in life: If you make bad choices, there will be some sort of bad consequence… even if it is eventual.
Of course. Of course.
But that’s only half of the conversation.
For a long time now, I’ve been intrigued by this idea of “blessing.”
That’s how my brain works: I get an itch and then I explore it—I start thinking about a concept and then I turn it over and over in my mind. And it seems that during the time I’m thinking about it, I begin to encounter situations and people who kind of spur the spiritual along, keeping the concept churning in my heart. And for a few years now, I’ve been wrestling with this idea of “blessing.”
I hear the word used so often, in so many different ways at so many different times: bless you, God bless us, God bless America, God bless this situation, blessings to you and your family.
Or in the other context: God won’t bless that, God bless us again, God wouldn’t bless that situation.
And I’ve just been pondering what the word really means.
Or maybe what I’m really asking is what do we mean when we say these things? (Because those are two different questions.)
I think I used to have a warped (or at least incomplete) view of this. I think I used to think of “blessing” as something obviously fortunate—something easy.
Operating under this conscious or subconscious definition, my naiveté makes sense now.
That’s why I used to apply this recipe for life: good decisions + seeking God = blessings.
And I still think that’s a good equation.
But now I think it’s only half of it.
Our friend Bryan has told me, during a few challenging times in my life, “This is going to be something you would never want to go through again. And you would never wish this experience on anyone. But when you get through this—there is going to be so much Good on the other side.”
He’s so right.
Because when I look back on my life, and I think of the times of my biggest personal growth—in any area of my life—it came after something hard.
And when I think of the kind of humans I want my boys to be (kind, resilient, brave, determined), I realize that these attributes come from hard things. It’s not the easy of life that makes us stronger, it’s going through the hard.
It’s true that hard things aren’t bad, they’re just hard.
There are things that are just plain “bad.” Terrible. Sickening. Things that aren’t how the world should work: sexual abuse, bullying, manipulating, murder, betrayal, physical abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, cancer, disease, death—all the ways we as humans destroy each other. All the ways we are robbed of life.
Of course there is a cause and effect relationship to good and bad choices.
But what about the person on the receiving end?
There are times in life when we find ourselves dealing with things that seem to be anything but fortunate. Situations that are no result of anything we’ve done. Events that have a “before” and an “after,” when we can look back at the event and picture what life was like before it and then how life has changed in the after.
And what do we do with those things?
Into which box, which label do they belong?
A couple years ago, I was at an event to raise money for a support organization for autism and someone stood to pray. We were all standing and praying and the person praying cries out, “God we thank you for autism. We are so thankful for autism.”
And I felt that familiar knot in my stomach twisting, twisting.
My hands start sweating and I open my eyes and have my own little conversation with God on the spot. God, I love you so much. And I love my son so much. But I am not thankful for autism. I’m not. I’m just not.
Autism tries its best to lock up my little boy inside his mind.
I’m not thankful for that.
I’m not thankful that he has to fight relentlessly to break free from those binds.
I’m not thankful that we have no idea if his stomach hurts or he has an earache or if he wants a puppy for Christmas.
But am I thankful for my sweet boy? Oh, my God, yes. Yes. Yes. Every day. Every moment. Yes.
His smile, his giggle-chuckle, his side-glances, the way he puts his finger to his mouth to “shush” me when he doesn’t like what I’m asking him to do. The unique sounds he makes when he’s savoring the moment.
The impact his life is making on me, on my family, on our little corner of the world we inhabit is huge. He’s making us better. Making me better. Stronger. With a clearer, always refining focus on what matters in life. He makes me more patient. Helps me to see, really see people and places and important things—things I would have missed.
He is a blessing.
The biggest blessing I never knew I always needed.
I once heard a talk about gratitude and its effect on the brain.
The man said there was a recent study on the brain and its response to positive and negative thoughts. Apparently the brain responds to negativity like Velcro… it just clings right to it.
Positive thoughts? The brain responds like Teflon… the positive just slides right off.
He goes on to say the way to combat this is to really soak up the positive. That when we experience something positive, we need to pause and savor it for 15 seconds. That’s 15 seconds of breathing in a positive experience and then it will stick.
This has been life-changing for me.
I can remember one day this spring I was sitting on my porch. We had just stepped out of winter and my yard was exploding with green. It was a visual display of a promise fulfilled—the leaves so full and green so much bigger and fuller than I ever remembered.
But this particular day, I was filled up with sadness and internal clouds and I sat on my porch and remembered what I learned about the power of gratefulness. I remembered the Velcro. I remembered the Teflon. I decided to think of three things I was grateful for.
But something strange happened:
I started off by being grateful for the life I was witnessing in my front yard. The lush green crowns of the trees that had been barren for so long—trees so full the shade fills our yard all day long. I closed my eyes and this single thought of gratefulness just sort of took over.
I started filling up with the power of this one thought of gratefulness and the clouds inside just dissipated.
I explain it to Knox as the Patronus Effect. Just like the Patronus spell (one of the most complicated and difficult in the world of Harry Potter) is the only thing that can cast away those depressive Dementors, it seems that gratefulness is a key to dissipating darkness.
We’re coming out of a time of Thanksgiving. A time when we count our blessings.
In the four weeks leading up to the holiday our fridge died, we had to get four new tires, my pile of hospital bills made it to our mailbox, and we received an additional diagnosis for Tobin —but this Thanksgiving was the richest, deepest, most soul-filling Thanksgiving I’ve ever had. We held it all with a lightness we haven’t had before.
So much Good to celebrate.
So many relationships to soak up.
I felt grateful all the way down to my toes.
But it was so different than I have felt before.
I think it’s because my perspective on “blessings” has evolved. Expanded.
Because I think blessings are this gray area where you sift through the debris and you find the diamonds from the coal. The treasure in the piles of ash. Finding what you seek.
Because you might not be able to choose what hard comes your way.
You might even have situations arise that are bad. Terrible. Sickening.
Things you have no control over.
So we control the only thing we can: ourselves.
The work on the inside that we all do.
And I think it’s there we find the blessings: the hidden and secret Good, the depth and breadth of life, the stretching and growing and grounding and multiplying roots of JOY.
This year at Lantern Fest, I knew exactly what to draw.
Because the year of 2017 has been a coming alive for our family.
And I’m paying attention. I’m focusing on all the leaves, all the green, all the bursting of life that came from a year where all we could focus on was digging our roots deep into the dirt.
And even though when we set our lantern off into the sky, the wind died down and the lantern took a nose dive, almost catching a man’s hair on fire—I’m sure it eventually made it into the air with the thousands of others who let their hopes and regrets and dreams into the night sky. At least I hope so.
I think blessings are a funny thing because they resist clear definition.
Sometimes they are obvious; sometimes we have to dig for them.
Sometimes they’re what we give away to others.
Sometimes they are exactly what we expect and hope.
And sometimes blessings come from the very thing we dread.
So I’m not going to get hung up on the use and misuse of the word.
Because I don’t find it helpful to put things in a box with a label. Especially something as mysterious as Blessings.
I just want to live a life with hands open to receive and feet grounded in Love.
I want to breathe in those positives.
I want to let gratefulness dissipate the clouds.
And see it all as a part of becoming.