When the Magic of Christmas Dies

PARENT WARNING: This blog post is for parents only. Do not read this where your kids can see it. Don’t read it out loud to them, either (not that you would, but I’m trying to be thorough). In fact, bookmark this post and read it after the kids go to bed.

 

Christmas magic died for my daughter yesterday afternoon. It was an accident. Her little brother, looking for a stray sock, stumbled upon the hiding place where I’d stashed his Christmas gift. Being the innocent six year-old that he is, Jon didn’t understand why there was an Xbox tucked away in my bedroom. I told him it was mine and he needed to leave it alone. He said, “Cool! Maybe we’ll both get an Xbox for Christmas!” and then proceeded to go on as if nothing were out of the normal.

Ella, however, looked dead at me and I knew.

*****

This story really begins about two years ago when Ella got off the bus with a pained look on her face. She sidled up to me, slipped her tiny hand into mine, and said she wanted to ask me something.

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked.

“I promise.”

“My friend on the bus said there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. She says it’s just your mom and dad putting presents on the tree and moving the Elf around the house.”

My heart stopped. Ella looked up at me, her green eyes glinting.

“Is that true, daddy?”

*****

I’ll never forget those eyes, especially since they reappeared yesterday afternoon. The hurt. The sadness. The betrayal. It was too much to deal with, so I hustled the kids off to the kitchen and fixed them a treat — brownie sundaes — hoping to just let the uncomfortable moment pass. Jon was fine with it. Ella was not.

So I talked it over with Rachel. We knew we were going to have to tell Ella the truth, but Rachel was adamant that we not blow things up for Jon. It was going to be awkward.

I walked into the kitchen and sat down next to Ella. Jon was across from us, his back to the living room. Ella grabbed my hand. I took a deep breath. She looked at me. I looked at her. Her eyes were so sad.

And all I could do was laugh.

I know. I suck as a father. I’m used to it by now.

I laughed because Ella never let go of that question the little girl put into her mind two years ago: Is Santa real? For the last couple of Christmases, doubt has been an ever-present part of our festivities. Ella wasn’t belligerent about it or anything, but she would just have these moments when her brain would circle back around to the issue. And every time she would ask me or Rachel about the reality of Santa’s existence, we would patiently (and sometimes impatiently) explain that yes, Santa was real.

Last year, we actually softened it and said that as long as she believed Santa was real, that was all that mattered. And that seemed good enough for Ella. If nothing else, she trusted her mom and dad.

And that’s why I laughed: the absurdity of the entire situation simply overwhelmed me, and my response to absurdity is laughter. My daughter, who might just be the single greatest detective alive, finally had the confirmation she needed. Her long-held suspicion was true: mom and dad were behind the jolly fat man.

*****

To Ella’s credit, she ate her sundae and didn’t say a word. When she was finished, she got up and went to her room. I had to get ready for my company’s Christmas party, so Jon followed me to hang out and Rachel went to check on Ella.

She was laying on her bed, crying. Not because Santa wasn’t real, but because her childhood was over. Rachel sat down next to her and stroked her hair, and Ella wept over the death of a part of her childhood. The magic of Santa, of the Elf on the Shelf, of the lights and the tree and everything else was now exposed to the cold reality. Ella lifted her head, put it in Rachel’s lap, and sobbed.

“I just don’t want to grow up,” she said through tears.

My wife is a brilliant and godly woman. And God gave her the wisdom in that moment to explain to Ella about what Santa really means. How he’s a symbol for hope and good. How he inspires people to be generous and kind. How he creates a magic that we, as her parents, didn’t want to rob her of because there is so precious little magic in the world. Especially as adults. Rachel shared how Christ is really the focus of Christmas, but in a world that has gone cold to the message of Jesus, Santa is the best that some people can do.

“We’ve seen people who grew up without the magic of Christmas,” Rachel told her. “And we didn’t want that for you. We wanted you to have the memory as something precious to hold on to.”

Ella wiped her face and looked at Rachel, and folks, there is a God in heaven and he moves in our lives, because at that moment Rachel said Ella’s face changed. The tears went away and a wide and astonished wonder took its place.

Ella looked at Rachel and said, “If there’s no Santa, that means you and daddy have been the ones giving all of my expensive gifts for Christmas.”

What had been a moment of devastation was suddenly a moment of comprehension. It was a sudden shift in Ella’s worldview: in a moment, she was flooded with gratitude for everything Santa had given her, because she finally understood where it all came from.

“It was you,” she said.

Rachel explained to Ella how we manage to make Christmas fun, how we work hard to afford the gifts that her and Jon ask for. Ella thanked Rachel and gave her a big hug. It was a moment I missed, but one that moved me when Rachel shared it.

*****

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t conflicted. There’s a huge part of me that is absolutely devastated that Ella knows the truth. There’s an equally huge part of me that is glad to be done with the charade, if only because it means Ella won’t go through this season grilling me like Jack McCoy.

(Ella, being a smart little girl, quickly pieced together the truth about the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, so we had to own up to our roles there. We actually got a good laugh about the Tooth Fairy because Rachel and I both despise that ritual).

But there’s something missing now that she knows the truth. Ella woke up this morning still a little sad. After all, she has to keep the secret for another couple of years because Jon still believes. We’ve also made it clear that she’s not to spoil things for others the way that one little girl did for her. Ella, because she is kind and generous and full of light, has agreed to hold the line and let other kids keep the magic a bit longer.

I mentioned yesterday that it was strange moving deeper into adulthood. So many things for which you’re not prepared, things which no one can really warn you about because they’re too busy being surprised themselves. Some days it seems like the plainest truth is we’re all just making it up as we go along, hoping we get it right, hoping no one suffers much when we don’t.

There are things we do to try and make the world a little bit better place, and some times those very nice things bring with them a price tag of sadness when they go away. The question, then, is whether or not the magic is worth the cost. It’s still early for me, but I’m thinking I know what my answer is.

Yes.

The Trouble With Growing Up

Yesterday was one of those days when you know you’re a grown up. My collegiate alma mater hired a head football coach who is the same age as me. A young woman from my high school graduating class died from cancer. My daughter got off the bus and told me a boy asked her to go to a school dance with him.

Each of those things gave me pause for reflection. And after careful consideration, I came away with only one single thought:

When did I become an adult?

Living a Better Story

Every day is its own story; with the rising of the sun comes conflict, twists, turns, and, if we’re paying attention, character development. The ultimate author of each day is God, but within our individual spheres, we are the ones at the keyboard. It is our will that shapes our days, filling them with something meaningful and interesting or with whatever happens to happen to us.

In college, one of my least favorite writing exercises was writing about whatever happened to be closest to me. This was assigned by one of my professors as a week-long project in a writing for publication class; the theory being writers should be able to take the boring and infuse it with meaning. Now that I’m almost 40, I can understand the exercise and even practice it on a regular basis (as anyone who’s read my blogs can attest). But in college, all the exercise produced were pained descriptions of Coke cans, beer bottles, empty Chinese cartons and the ennui of people who weren’t old enough to navel gaze but didn’t let lack of experience get in their way.

Sadly, the stories many people tell with their lives are similar to those college writing exercises. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of observation, but very little in the way of meaning. So many people just drift from day to day.

*****

I walk with my kids to the bus stop almost every morning. We talk about a lot of things, mostly stuff that I consider inane but means everything to them in the moment. Whether it’s the recreational habits of squirrels, the strangely friendly cat that roams around our house, or the odd pink thing with veins lying in the middle of the road, my kids are intentional about asking questions that help them understand the world they inhabit.

As an adult, I occasionally (okay, frequently) find this incessant questioning of the world to be uncomfortable. Not because I don’t want my kids asking questions, but rather because I don’t want them asking questions of me at 7:15 in the morning before the coffee kicks in.

But in my more lucid moments (or when I’ve gotten enough coffee) I appreciate and marvel at their curiosity. In those times, I enjoy hearing how their brains work, enjoy hearing their made up hypotheses and fairy tales, enjoy the fact that they choose not to live in a world of drudgery but rather a world of magic and wonder. My morning is made better by the visits of their fairies and robots and heroes and horses, but it only lasts until they get on the bus.

Then, all too often, my world turns back into mindless detail: bills, work, chores, worries. The magic disappears with my children.

It’s my own fault, naturally, because I too often choose to see the world as drudgery. I’m just as capable as my children of seeing magic in the world but I don’t give myself permission to do so. I resign myself to living a boring story instead of a better story, because that’s the grown up thing to do. Grown up people don’t daydream, don’t have imaginary conversations in their heads, don’t invent different worlds where things are not as they seem.

But we do. Ashley Madison. Fantasty Football. Facebook. TMZ.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s not that we shouldn’t have stories; it’s that we settle for crappy ones.

*****

I read a quote this morning that struck me, and I want to share it as a way of encouraging you to live a better story, to choose something beyond the dull sheen of a standard life.

“The story of our past cannot be rewritten.”

That’s from J. Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership. And while Sanders’ context was different than my own application, the idea remains true–we cannot rewrite our stories. We may go back into our yesterdays and try to infuse them with meaning posthumously, but we cannot change the events, cannot change the outcomes, cannot change the words on the eternal page (depending on your view of time travel, that is).

Instead, we have only one option if we want better stories. We must live them today. We must live our lives with eyes open, ears attuned, hearts prepared for the magic that comes even from something as simple as a trip to the bus stop in the morning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s to keep writing, to stay at the keyboard with discipline and persistence. Not everything will be gold, mind you, but if you don’t write junk you’ll never get to something worthwhile. Inaction doesn’t prevent bad work; it prevents good work from developing.

So today, make a choice to do things differently. To have a better attitude. To see a different perspective. To imagine another outcome. The power is in your hands to make magic happen anywhere.

Live a better story.

It’s possible, today.

Help Me Find My Daughter a Comic Book to Love

This morning, Ella stood over my shoulder as I scrolled through a typical post I like to read: 10 Awkwardly Similar Marvel/DC Characters. As I scrolled through the slides, she kept asking me about various characters. A snippet of our conversation:

E: “Wait. Who’s the green guy with Hawkeye?”

Me: “That’s Green Arrow.”

E: “Who’s the red bendy man next to the blue bendy man?”

Me: “The red one is Elastic Man and the blue is Mr. Fantastic.”

E: “And they’re just stretchy?”

Me: “Among other things. But essentially, yes.”

E: “Why does Thanos have jewelry but the other two [Darkseid and Apocalypse] don’t?”

Me: “Because Thanos is the Mad Titan. He’s obsessed with jewelry that can kill.”

E: “Hold on–who are those two guys???”

Me: “Aquaman and Namor.”

E: “How are they different?”

Me: “They’re not.”

And on it went. When I reached the end of the slide show, Ella sighed and looked at me for a minute. She sat in my lap and put her arms around her neck, which is her sign that she wants to ask me about something she wants but she’s uncertain how I’ll answer.

“Daddy?” she asked.

“Yes, Ella?”

“If they ever make Guardians of the Galaxy into a comic, could I read it, or would it have bad words in it too?”

I explained that Guardians was already a comic, and that yes, the bad words were still in there too. She pouted for a moment, then looked at me.

“Can I read Batman comics?”

I explained that Batman was a bit too grown up for her, and when she pressed me as to how, I tried explaining that comics have come a long way. That they tell grown up and mature stories now, stories that often involve violence and crime and the ugly side of life, and she’s not quite ready to indulge in that type of material.

“Daddy,” she said, “I thought comics were for kids.”

I explained that, yes, once upon a time comics were for kids, and there are still outstanding titles for children her age to read. I mentioned Galaxy Man [written by my friend, Ashton Adams] and Hero Cats, both produced locally by Kyle Puttkammer.

She sighed. “But why aren’t the superheroes written for kids?”

I paused. She had me there. My daughter has grown up with me being excited over Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, and The Avengers. She was so excited when I announced that was working as an extra on Ant-Man. We’ve watched the kids shows based around all of those characters, and she loves getting lost in the stories, loves watching the characters interact and grow and learn. And whenever she asks how I know so much about all of them, I always tell her it’s because I read comics when I was a kid.

So now she wants to read comics as a kid.

And as her father, I’m struggling to say yes. Not because I don’t love comics, but because I simply don’t know if any of the titles I grew up loving as a kid would be kid-friendly in this day and age.

[And before you start, I’m well aware most of those titles weren’t “kid-friendly” when I was a kid. But you have to admit, we’ve made a BIG leap forward in themes and content since the 80s and 90s.]

It’s been a dog’s age since I was in a comic store. So, like all modern-day parents do, I’m turning to the Internet for help.

Are there any current titles featuring the mainstream superheroes that are safe for kids to read?

I want to hand my daughter–and my son–a comic book and introduce them to the joyous marriage that is word and panel combined. I want to see them get lost in the imaginative worlds that so shaped me. But I’m not ready for them to read about the Joker wearing his own severed face, or Tony Stark going back on the booze and becoming a mean S.O.B.

So help me out, Internet. Help me find a comic book for my daughter to love.

Into the Deep End

ImageOn Monday we went swimming at my sister-in-law’s pool. It has a diving board and a ten foot deep end, so Ella was all pumped about being able to dive and jump into the pool. But once she went off the diving board, Jonathan wanted to go too. He stepped up on the board and got ready to go, but the lifeguard blew his whistle and stopped him.

“You can’t go off the diving board with a life vest on. You have to be able to swim,” he said.

Rachel talked with him and let him know that Jon could kind of tread water. The lifeguard said that as long as Rachel were in the deep end, holding onto the wall, Jon could jump off and she could then swim out and get him. That seemed fine, so Jon took off his life vest, Rachel slipped into the water, and my son stepped up onto the diving board.

And he jumped.

He made a satisfying splash, and as soon as his head came back above water, he smiled. But the panic took over because he realized he didn’t really know what he was doing. He started paddling, and suddenly, for a split second, he disappeared under the water…

…until Rachel brought him back up. She had him. He was safe. Together they swam to the pool wall and climbed out. Jon had triumphed. Everyone clapped. It was cool.

But then Jon spent the rest of the day in the kiddie pool. He was too scared to even go in the shallow end of the big pool. In fact, he actually spent most of the day huddled in my lap, sipping his juice, too scared to get near the water. The episode with the diving board just chilled him on having any more pool fun.

This morning, I know how he feels. I tried to make the move to the big time as a writer. I ordered new business cards with the blog logo. Easy. Then, I upgraded my WordPress to a premium account.

Not so easy.

Well, the process was easy. Everything went smooth as silk, got the domain that I wanted, got the site linked to it. And then I went to the part I was really excited about – customization. I was ready to make the blog look like I wanted, ready to bring my vision to life.

But the tools were limited. I don’t know what I was expecting, but essentially I paid $100 for a domain and the options to change a limited number of fonts and colors. Which, by any standard, is a steep price to pay. I immediately regretted it.

WordPress has a great refund policy, so I was able to cancel my purchase. I expect to get a full refund in a couple of days. But that still left me without my goal – a completely personalized website, with my own domain.

So I did some more research and learned that I could get everything I wanted through iPage.com for around $70. Being cheap, I signed up.

I’m excited. I can download the WordPress.org package and transfer my blog completely over to my new website. I can have personalized email at my own domain. I can open up a store and sell ebooks or t-shirts or coffee mugs if I want.

But the domain is in limbo because I made that stupid mistake with WordPress.

And immediately, I felt my stomach knot up. I felt like I wanted to vomit. Like Jonathan off the diving board, I suddenly seized with fear that I’m an idiot, I can’t do this, that I’m going to make more and more mistakes until I eventually screw my life up so bad I can never recover.

The reality is, I might have to change the domain name to something ending in .net or .org. Big deal. There’s worse mistakes.

But for me, it’s part of the process of breaking free: I’m learning that I can make mistakes – even big ones – and my life doesn’t end. Before, I felt free to make small mistakes, but never big ones. Never. It was why I never risked anything; when you risk, you open up the door for big mistakes, and big mistakes can set you back.

But they can also set you free.

I’m hoping that the domain issue is resolved in a day or so, and I can begin building my website and get it transferred over by the weekend. The neat thing is I can import everything from this blog to the new site, no content lost. The even neater thing is I have the opportunity to add personal skills that can make me more attractive as a freelancer as well.

Today was a huge step into the deep end. For a minute, I thought I was going to drown. But I know now that I can swim.

That’s a victory.