Christmas glows quietly this year

Andrea and me, Christmas 2014 4My tree is perhaps the prettiest it’s ever been, a perfect little Fraser fir plucked off the corner lot across from Meijer. It glows quietly this morning, its white and blue lights winking where Andrea thoughtfully draped them. My beloved Jumping Jack hangs center stage. Behind him Mickey Mouse dozes dreamily, as he has every year since Emily gave him to me, while to his left Peter Pan flies over London, also compliments of Emily. She keeps me supplied with childhood whimsy.
Under the tree, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus keep up their Nativity tableau flanked by wise men, a shepherd and a couple of crouching animals. My cat Abbey knocks them over occasionally. Mom and Dad had a Nativity scene when I was a kid, and so I have one now.
This tree and the ceramic Holy Family pretty much stand in for Christmas at my house this year, along with a clutter of cards on the window sill guarded vigilantly by nutcrackers. Just one present rests under the tree, a plaid package sent along by my foster sister, Margie. It is a quiet, stripped-down kind of yule, and I am fine with it.
But when I was a child Christmas was a riot of excitement. I so looked forward to it, for weeks and weeks. Big family celebrations, driving into Detroit to the grandparents, singing carols on the way. Cousins all around. Smell of tangerines and Scotch pine. Christmas Eve full of music and delicious food, Christmas morning wonderful beyond measure.
When Emily and Max were children, much the same. My heart leaped with the widening of their eyes. Their bare feet on the carpet tickled my soul. Charlie Brown and I delighted in their every squeal of joy as the wrapping flew around the room.
Now is a different season of life. Emily and Max are 34 and 27 in the blink of an eye, with their own lives. No little ones underfoot at the moment. Ten years ago my marriage unraveled in a spectacularly ugly way. Thank God for Andrea.
Outside it’s been a damp and gray Advent, barely relieved by wisps of snow, going on a month now. The sun rarely shows himself. The neighbors bravely dress their homes in light against the unremitting darkness. It’s been a long December, as Counting Crows sang, “and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”
Maybe. However, I can’t bear to watch the news.
Karin Bergquist remarked upon the unbearableness of news last Saturday, in a concert at Calvin College. She and her husband Linford Detweiler sing as Over the Rhine. Theirs is an unusual variety of Christmas music, a blend of melancholy and lilting sweetness, acknowledging the sadness as well as the wonder of the season. Linford dubbed it a new genre, “reality Christmas.”
“Whatever we’ve lost, I think we’re gonna let it go,” they sang. “Let it fall, like snow.”
Life has largely become a process of letting go of losses – of family as it was, of childhood and, increasingly, of loved ones. The only way through it is to accept the losses, let them hollow out a certain hurting place in my heart, and then to keep my heart open so that new joys, friends and family can enter. And to cherish without regret the childhood I had, with all of us gathered around Mom at the piano and singing carols.
“Darling, Christmas is coming,” Over the Rhine sing. “Do you believe in angels singing?”
I do. I’ve heard them, singing around the piano.

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star of wonder, time of light

winter lightAs the days grow darker, longer, I have to remind myself: the light is coming.
By this I don’t mean just the Winter Solstice, Dec. 21 for us this year, when the longest night of the year gets things as dark as they’re going to get, and the light starts coming back. Our ancient ancestors used to light bonfires to help retrieve the sun, much like we do by drenching our homes in bright winking lights today.
No, I also mean the spiritual light of Christmas, which despite its runaway commercial sleigh still bathes the culture in a spirit of generosity, as well as holding deep religious significance for Christ followers.
And I also mean the light in children’s eyes, wide with delight, surprise and wonder.
That is the light I miss most at this time of year. For I remember its glint in my own children’s eyes, Max and Emily lighting up as they bounded down the stairs Christmas morning. And I remember it in my own heart, as my bare feet padded down Nana’s carpeted stairway in the magical quiet of early Christmas Day.
Nearly 20 years ago I wrote about this special wonder, in my religion column for The Grand Rapids Press. I include it here, because it is worth reminding myself of, and hopefully will remind you of the wonders of your own holiday traditions. As we grow older, it is good to keep that childlike wonder alive, like the flickering flame of a votive candle.
This piece is included in my collection of columns, “Faith on First: Thoughts on God, Nature and Sacrifice Bunts,” which includes a chapter on holidays.
Here is a bit of the Christmas wonder I felt as a child. I hope it lights some special memories in you.

Front cover

Wonder has its own magic
Christopher deVinck can still see the long, veined hands of his father holding a toy soldier and turning the key.
It was a moment of unexpected intimacy. Jose deVinck had taken an instant to show young Christopher how to work the soldier, just out of its Christmas package.
Why this image should stick with Christopher, now a 44-year-old author, is curious. Surely more dramatic things have happened in his life. But this moment held something rare and lasting.
Wonder.
The resonance of the word itself suggests its rarity. You can’t apply it to too many things. When you experience wonder, you feel it. When you don’t, you feel that, too.
Amazement, suspense, adrenaline highs: Those you can get at a movie theater, a football game or a Cedar Point ride. Wonder is not obtainable. You just have to notice it when it happens.
Personally, I don’t notice it often enough.
DeVinck made a point of noticing by writing about it in his new book, “Simple Wonders,” published by Zondervan of Grand Rapids. A hand-sized collection of meditations, the book describes such wonders as ordinary trees, elephants or an old woman who says she has God in her knitting basket.
It begins with deVinck skating on a frozen swamp as a boy. He stopped, kneeled and swirled his glove on the ice’s surface. Through the glassy ice, he saw a goldfish looking up at him.
“Under the surface of our lives, there are things swirling around that if we don’t clear the ice, we’re not going to see it,” deVinck told me during a visit to Grand Rapids. A school language arts supervisor from New Jersey, deVinck publishes thought pieces for The Wall Street Journal and other periodicals. He has written several books, including “The Power of the Powerless.”
I listened fairly patiently. I had to decide to focus on the conversation, feeling the pressure of things to do pushing on my mental periphery. Even now, other tasks tug at my attention as I write. News events demand to be covered, issues beg to be addressed, our house must be made ready for the season.
So to sit and write about something as ephemeral as wonder seems an indulgence. What does wonder really have to do with people’s lives?
Perhaps not a tremendous amount. But I have to question if we need it more than we think.
“Marvel, miracle, (archaic) magical,” says my dictionary. “A cause of astonishment or surprise.” “Star of wonder, star of might,” goes the old carol. “Thou art the God that doest wonders,” reads Psalm 77. Of Isaiah’s several names for Christ, the first is wonderful.
The wonder of the shepherds in the Christmas story is palpable, and all who heard their story wondered at it. There is fear, awe and delight wrapped up in the Nativity story. Debates over its historical details are merely interesting; what moves us is the wonder.
Perhaps that’s why deVinck finds a readership in the no-nonsense Wall Street Journal for stories such as going fishing with his son. A ladybug frozen in the moonlight merits three pages in “Simple Wonders.”
He learned his sense of wonder from his mother, Catherine, who would point out a glowing moon or a rustling leaf. He’s not sure why wonder is important.
“I just know focusing on those tiny things makes the sad things and the lonely things less sad and less lonely,” he says. “Focusing on the simple things teaches us a real sense of gratitude.”
He finds gratitude in the memory of his father’s caring hands. I find it, among other places, in our Christmas tree.
Outside, it was an ungainly green tangle held upright in a biting wind by a brave tree-seller. Inside, it spreads majestically and glows with a hundred dangling memories. After a day of deadlines, hassles and shoving shoppers, I gaze at our tree and find stillness and wonder.
Like deVinck, I’m not sure why it’s important to gaze at a gussied-up tree. But I know without wonder, the days feel mechanical, incomplete and sometimes downright nasty. If you’ve ever felt wonder in a checkout line, let me know.
Particularly at this time of year, something more wants to be seen and felt. A brief glimpse of the ongoing miracle of creation; a tiny twinge of awe, fear and delight, gently feeding one’s sense of gratitude that there really is something to celebrate here.
Too often we look right past those wondrous moments, and the goldfish under the ice slips away.

Dec. 16, 1995

From now until Christmas, readers may buy “Faith on First” at a reduced price of $12, and additional copies for $10 each. I will donate half of all proceeds to Access, a food-pantry and hunger relief network in Kent County, Michigan. Email me at honeycharlesm@gmail.com if you would like to order.

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feeding back, feeding others, feeding soul

Honeytones at Feedback 2014

Jammin’ at Founders (photo by Cheryl  Thompson Schuch) 


The week started loud, like I like it. Feedback 2014: What a blast.
The Honeytones’ 20th anniversary gig to benefit Access, its food pantries and anti-poverty programs was every bit as glorious as it should have been: packing out Founders with fans and friends; listening to the sharp pop of Domestic Problems and the garage-rock ecstasy of the Fuzzrites; playing just what we felt like playing helped by the lovely voice of Hannah Rose Graves, the blues harp of Hank Mowery and the golden sax of Rolly Smith.
There’s something marvelous about the fact that John Sinkevics and I started this journey in his Comstock Park basement more than 25 years ago. We plinked out tunes by Tommy James and Steve Earle on his Casio keyboard (which was little more than a glorified Mattel model), a drum machine that produced maybe two or three beats we could actually use, and an electric guitar that I’d borrowed from Mom. With us was Ron Hovingh, like John and I a refugee from The Press newsroom, all of us brought here by the simple fact that we loved rock ‘n’ roll and for a long time had wanted to play it with other people.
Thus was born Sink and the Honeytones, later shortened to The Honeytones for strictly utilitarian reasons, although our ex-Press comrade Ted Roelofs will claim it was a brazen bid by me for greater glory. If so, looks like I won!
And so we played and played until one day we came above ground to play at a Press holiday party. Our first number was “I Think We’re Alone Now,” when in fact we were finally not alone. We were playing with and for other people, and what a happy fact that was.
Hundreds of songs and scores of gigs later we are still playing, John and I, the Click and Clack of The Honeytones. Ron tragically passed away some years ago but his sweet, high harmonies linger in our memories. Many drummers have come and gone, none of whom exploded on stage although their hands did set off pyrotechnics. Currently we are more than ably backed by drummer Tom Taylor and bassist Matt Fouts, and rejoined by the gifted vocalist Susan Beerens, who first sang with us some two decades ago.
All of which is to say that last Sunday’s 20th anniversary Feedback was not just a day of rock ‘n’ roll joy, as always, but a true treasure and gift. To still be able to make music all these years later, as part of a giving community, for an agency that feeds others, is a wonderful way of feeding the soul. As John wrote in his music blog Local Spins, “It made for the perfect pre-Thanksgiving party.”
The following night saw a much quieter kind of pre-Thanksgiving party: the 15th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. Andrea and I huddled into Westminster Presbyterian Church with several hundred others to hear expressions of gratitude from our community’s wide array of faith perspectives: Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, secular. Here too was food for the soul, whether singing a responsive hymn with Dominican sisters, or listening to a beautiful praise of God by a young woman from the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
For Andrea and me, the week ended with a more traditional kind of food, courtesy of a smorgasbord at a local restaurant. With family spread far and wide, we celebrated Thanksgiving Day with a movie and a meal and the cherished company of each other. We fed more than our tummies; it was love and gratitude that filled our souls. It was not nearly as loud as rock ‘n’ roll, but just as joyful in its simple way.

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finding warmth in winter ice

winter iceWinter ice has encased my house. It hangs from my gutters like tinsel on a Christmas tree or stalactites in a cave, dripping in columns up to 10 feet long. Unless they melt away today I will be imprisoned.
Last winter one of these suckers fell from my roof and bashed in my AC compressor. The thing looks like it was hit by a meteor.
I love the ice, dangerous as it is. I love its sleek elegance, the way it catches the morning sun and glows from within. And I love how it signals the superiority of winter. We like to think we can master the elements, but the ice and snow tell us otherwise. One false step and the ice on my porch steps could paralyze me.
Winter has come to us with a wallop, apparently here to stay. Welcome winter! I am so ready to hunker down and live within your icy envelope. Just give me a working furnace, hot coffee and a good book and I will gladly submit to your mastery. For a bit.
Not so the woman I visited the other day who lives in a trailer with four girls. She has no gas heat with which to hold the cold at bay. A space heater is no match for the icy air seeping through broken windows and an inch-wide crack around the door. The floor offers no warmth for them to sleep on, beds being temporarily unavailable.
What for me is a season of happily hunkering down is for others a season of terror. Some will endure it sleeping in ratty bags underneath freeway overpasses. A few will die there. I once spent a night with a man who hunted these people up and invited them inside shelters. No thanks bud, they said. I’d rather freeze my butt off out here than warm it up with a bunch of drunks, then have to listen to the damn Bible lesson.
Winter nights must seem like an eternity under an overpass. But for me time has gone into fifth gear. All things are pulled forward by the tractor beam of Christmas. No one is making plans till it’s over. “Let’s get together after the first of the year.” Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. For now, the Christmas blitz is more than enough to keep me occupied.
For all the warmth I cherish this time of year – bundled up in my easy chair with a book, watching “Homeland” by the fire with dear Andrea, glowing inward at the sound of ancient carols – there is a coldness too. What once was family filled with parents and grandparents, cousins and aunts and uncles, has largely died off or scattered. My daughter, sister and brother live hundreds of miles away. Between divorce and jobs, there is no centering hearth now. The old family homestead, where my parents once welcomed us like lost sheep, sits empty.
A new kind of family is in process, anchored by Andrea and me. It is precious and will become more so with time. Yet the family that once was, full of singing and laughing and enticing aromas from the kitchen, hovers in my memory like a ghostly movie of Christmas past. I can’t help but miss it, even as I gratefully embrace all the blessings of now in another sacred season of love.
And I can’t help but wonder about who is out there in the cold, bodies shivering, or memories of joy encased in ice.

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Emily, Max and Father Time: love you all

Maxwell Honey, front-yard troubadour

Maxwell Honey, front-yard troubadour

Emily Hamilton-Honey, smart professor

Emily Hamilton-Honey, smart professor

So I recently looked up my daughter on the website of State University of New York-Canton, the upstate New York school where she teaches. I wanted to see if she had a photo of herself in the faculty listing yet.
Yep, there she was: Emily Hamilton-Honey, Ph.D., assistant professor of English and humanities. She looks very professional, confident and, dare I say it, smart. She should be, with all those universities and degrees listed next to her.
Yet as I look at the picture of this very professional and smart woman, I can’t put out of mind another photo. This one shows her also very confident, smart and cheerful as you please. But in this photo she is about 2 years old, with a pink bow in her hair and big round glasses framing her twinkling eyes. She is utterly darling.
Would Dr. Emily Hamilton-Honey be embarrassed by her dear old dad swooning over her 2-year-old portrait in this way? Perhaps. But sorry Emily, this is how it goes. When you are a parent, the child in your child never quite goes away, no matter how hard you try to see the actual adult.
Emily turns 34 today, Thursday, Nov. 13, the same day of the week she came into this world at Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital a little after 6 p.m. The 13 doesn’t bother me. What I am wrestling with right now is that first number. There’s nothing wrong with the number known as 34. I just can’t put it next to my first child and make any sense of it.
Same with my son, Max, who recently turned 27. That number is also wrong.
Max in my mind’s eye is still about 5, running across the living room and tackling me full force. His rugged little body knocks me over from the impact but I am able to wrestle him to the floor, where I proceed to tickle him mercilessly. Emily, 12, piles laughing onto the fray, but I am able to contain her as well with my free arm. We go on like this for a while, grappling and tickling and laughing.
Nothing else ever felt quite as glorious.
Now come on Dad, wipe away those tears. It doesn’t do to live in the past. Your children are grown and healthy and happy. That is the way it’s supposed to be. You want them to be happy adults. That’s how being a parent works.
Besides, if you tried to wrestle Max today he would kick your, ahem, behind. You’ve seen him throw larger adults than you to the floor in aikido demonstrations. Plus let’s face it, my tickling and grappling strength isn’t what it once was. This too is how it’s supposed to be.
But forgive me, Max and Emily, if I tear up occasionally over those floor-wrestling days. It doesn’t mean I want to turn back the clock. It just means those times were precious, and I do miss them.
We still have our precious times, of course, just not the same kind or as often. It is 613 miles from my door to Emily’s door, too far to see her more than once or twice a year. And though Max lives just a few miles away, the rhythms of his life and mine rarely coincide. Sometimes the easiest way to see him is to go to the restaurant where he works.
Now I know how Mom felt when I would come in the door at the family homestead in Williamston. Her face would light up like a Christmas tree and she would give me a big kiss. Dad would give me a strong hug. I’m sure they both saw, behind my ever-maturing adult mug, the 8-year-old kid who used to throw tennis balls against the barn roof and mysteriously disappear when it came time to pull weeds.
In this way, I recognize that Emily publishes articles, gives talks at academic conferences and lectures college students. I grasp that Max has a working knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, teaches martial arts and plays a mean guitar. I acknowledge they are grown-up people.
But I will always envision Max playing Scott Joplin at a school assembly and striking out batters in Little League. I will always see Emily twirling around the house to “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel and singing the Disney Pocahontas song, “Colors of the Wind,” in a church talent show.
And I suppose I will always tear up thinking about tickling the two of them on the living-room floor. That too, apparently, is how it’s supposed to be.

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in the last light of day, October 2012, 6:32 p.m.

In last lightthe last light of day
On my tree-lined street
The leaves are changing color
The breeze is stirring them mysteriously
And everything looks a little brighter
Even as it fades away.
Like the last few sips of wine in the bottle
Or the last 30 seconds of a song
When you know it’s going to end soon
But it is still rocking and you are loving it
And its glorious sound fills you up
But you feel a little twinge of sadness
Because you know it’s almost over.
So it is with this day
So lately just begun
With limitless blue sky
And brightest warm sun
Like anything was possible.
Now come the clouds to the west
And the sun sinks lower
And the light begins to fade;
But still here, just a bit longer
The glory of this day
Fills me up with slightly sad sweetness
Just before the song ends.

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so long summer … well, not quite yet

Lake Michigan sunset
Labor Day 2014: The air is warm and moist, with just enough occasional breeze to slightly stir my American flag. The undercurrent sounds of crickets, birds and a train whistle remind me I’m not working. But tomorrow I will be. That’s how Labor Day works.
Remarkably, the window of summer has already begun to close. How quickly it has come and gone. Feels like yesterday I put up the flag, Fourth of July morning, when summer seemed broad and long. Now it’s narrowed and short, only so many mornings like this left. Only so many more sunsets on Lake Michigan. There are never enough.
But what a sweet summer it’s been! So many glorious days. For some it’s been: “Hot enough for ya?” “No it’s not as a matter of fact!” But for me it’s been perfect, a welcome abundance of mid-70s days and cool nights, and a surprising scarcity of sodden, muggy, sun-blistered afternoons. It’s been a summer of going outdoors and not wanting to come inside when the street lights come on. Boyhood revisited.
Thanks be to God for the glory that has been: Watching the stars come out over Crystal Lake. Holding hands with Andrea on long walks. Playing Frisbee in the Big Lake with old friend Gary. Watching the Tigers win behind from home plate with old friend John. Taking early evening bike rides through Millennium Park. Ordering up an ice cream cone, Mackinac Island Fudge, sugar cone single-dip please. Sitting on this porch reading the morning paper with good strong coffee.
All without leaving Michigan. What a beautiful place to celebrate summer.
But then came the quickening signs of fall. High school cross country runners loping past on city sidewalks, or high school football players crunching helmets on Union field. Time to start thinking about fixing the porch steps before another winter of ice build-up. Time to start planning out those projects at work. Long meetings.
It is Labor Day, after all. This means labor restarts in earnest tomorrow. Not if you’re a roofer or a farmer or a highway builder. But if you work with your head, it’s time to seriously start using it again. Summer has given you its peace and quiet and blissful walks along the shore in bare feet. Your footprints have long since washed away, and you may have seen your last sunset sinking into the big water.
It’s OK to miss it already. It’s just the rhythm of the great world turning round. It will all be back soon enough, calling you to the water and the sky and the lazy languid days.
I’m not quite ready to say goodbye, though. Just for this Labor Day, at least, summer is still here, sweet and moist with the slightest of breezes.

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