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Love and Christmas (Neighbours…)

The fourth and final week of advent begins on the Sunday before Christmas. Depending on where in the week Christmas falls, the fourth week can be the shortest week of all.  This year it was as long as it could possibly be – a full week to reflect on the theme of love – made (seemingly) longer by the “gift” of snow received at the very beginning of the week.  After three other city-paralyzing snow storms in just a two-week period, the snow was really starting to pile up…


…and when life gives you snow, on top of snow, on top of snow… you shovel.  We headed out on that snowy Monday morning with shovels in hand to discover another great gift of snow: neighbours.  Six families from our tiny cul-de-sac came out in force to work together that morning, including one dad who was just moving in that very day.  Really.


I shovelled my heart out, starting in on one neighbour’s driveway while he helped to fix the snow blower of another.  Across the street a dad worked to clear the outdoor ice rink he has built for the kids to play on, and another friend pitched in for hours to clear the common areas even though he his own driveway was not affected.  Neighbours.

“Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)


Where would we be without the kindness of neighbours?  The simple gestures, the unplanned acts, the selfless thoughtfulness that happens every day in tiny unseen ways – that is real love.  The easiest way to have love, the greatest way to give love, the only way to create love is with kindness.  Shovelling for hours, thinking these thoughts, I laughed a little bit to myself at a connection that was foreshadowing at its finest.  This year, for our annual Christmas card, Mr. Martini selected this quote:

“Kindness is like snow: it beautifies everything it covers.” (Kahlil Gibran)


Those of you who live locally and have been shovelling out there just as much may not be laughing, but in a very real way the snow (and the many littles kindnesses that it sparked) has brought some of us together. Kindness is love, and in the week before Christmas I saw it flourish all around me in many little ways.  Now that Christmas has come and gone (ushered out on Boxing Day with another snowfall) I am still thinking about the love and kindness that has meant a great deal to me this year.  Through all of the challenges and loss there has been kindness, and that has made all the difference…

“There are three things in human life that are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” (Henry James)

(I have read that Henry James spoke these words in response to a question from his brother William’s son, but my own son tells me that this quote is from Mother Teresa… thoughts?)


Love and kindness are discussed at length here at the Martini house, and often philosophically, as Miss G. approaches the “Age of Enlightenment”. She asks insightful and deeply empathetic questions about human relationships and our place in the world, and challenges the adults around her especially to be better people every day.  In response to her deep and thoughtful questions, she received this letter from a guest in our house on Christmas Eve:

“Love is very important to me, to my work, and most of all to our world.  This love, in giving and sharing, has created a special kind of magic that indeed is very real.  It comes from the hearts of people who love and care for others, and casts a glow in the world wherever it is needed most.  When people feel the love of Christmas magic at work in their lives they are able to do better for themselves and for others.” (Mr. C.)


Love.  It is the simplest and purest way to express the best of our own self, and to care for others at their most human.  And really, it is the essence of Christmas: divine love comes to earth in vulnerable human form.  It is protected and nurtured by family and friends, and eventually rises above human jealousy, cynicism, anger… but that part of the story comes later.  For now, we will think about love and the place it has in our own lives as we go about our daily work of weathering the storm…

“It is love that fashions us into the fullness of our being: who we love, how we love, why we love, and that we love which ultimately shapes us.  It is love, before all and after all, in the beginning and the end, that creates us.  Today, remembering this, let yourself acknowledge and remember the moments, events, and people who bring you, even momentarily, into a true experience of love, and allow the rest, the inescapable mundanities of life, like a cloud, to very quietly drift away.” (Daphne Rose Kingma, read from our book of daily gratitude in the week of love…)

Just… love.

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Gaudete (Joy!)

The third week of advent – the midway point, just finishing now – is meant to remind us of the joys all around us. Joy comes from many places: the holiday joys as we prepare for our celebration of Christmas, the seasonal joys (strangely crisp and snowy here in the Pacific Northwest) and the daily joys – the little things- that connect our daily life to the magic of Christmas…


We spent our week of joy in a whirlwind of joyful activities – Christmas parties, family dinners, an amazing evening Christmas scavenger hunt and lights with friends, baking, delivering and exchanging packaged treats with people who have touched our lives with kindness and generosity this year…

“Find out where joy resides, and give it a voice well beyond singing, for to miss the joy is to miss all…” (Robert Louis Stevenson)


It has been a long journey from last year, when our hearts were heavy and joy felt so far away…but we have continued to live our daily lives with the belief that underneath the uncertainty and sadness there was a joy that could sustain us.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy, and keep choosing it every day.” (Henri J.M. Nouen)


Every day.  In times of trouble – in our own lives, and in the world around us – more than ever we need to reach out to the little joys and hold on tight. We need to find comfort and sustenance there, and then send joy back out into the world, wherever it may be harder to come by.

“Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials, because you know it produces perseverance…” (James 1:2-3)

Where are you finding joy in your daily life?

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Love…

The fourth candle of the advent wreath represents love. Depending on when Christmas falls during the week it can be the shortest week of advent, but love is the Christmas gift that is meant to be the most enduring. Christmas itself is a celebration of love, and when we light the Christmas candle tonight it will be with a wish for love to live in the hearts of our friends and family all over the world…

(by G. Jr.)

Love has been a constant theme on my mind over the past year, thanks to the New Year’s Day invitation from a friend to consider choosing “one word” to represent my journey through 2015. After considering both joy and gratitude – the two pillars of my daily life and the regular focus of this little blog – I decided on love. It was something I needed, and something I could give. As the old song says, “it’s the only thing that there’s much too little of…”


(by Miss G.)

I began with the intention of seeking out, celebrating, creating and sharing love throughout the year.  I was inspired by the many quotes of Mother Teresa who saw God-as-love in every person she met, and posted them over the year on Twitter to remind myself of my focus…

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one come to you without leaving happier.”

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

“Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand.”

“I have found the paradox that if you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

“Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love… The smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.”

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

“Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”
“Intense love does not measure, it just gives.”

“A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love.”

“Prayer in action is love, love in action is service.”

“Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do, but how much love we put into that action.”

Wherever I went (if you read this blog regularly you know we try to stay on the move) I found love.  Whenever I could, I shared love. It has not been an easy year, and it is not always easy to love, but I have found that the effort has helped me to grow in ways I did not expect.  More than ever I wish for love in my home, amongst friends and strangers, and in the great big world…


(Street Art, Granville Island)

(Love Poem, Miss G.)

(Classroom Graffitti, anonymous but appreciated!)

(Mothers’ Day, Miss G.)

(Street Art, New Westminster Riverfront Park)


(Loving Hearts Staff Art Project)

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One Small Moment (Joy…)

The third week of advent is traditionally the week of Joy – that moment when we have come halfway toward our Christmas celebration and pause to see the beauty all around us.  We lit the candle last Sunday but I hesitated to write about it as I was nowhere near a joyful state.  I was cranky from not sleeping and from tasks at hand, and short-tempered with the (perceived) shortcomings of others, and so I delayed until my mood improved.  We bought, put up and decorated our tree in stages over the first half of the week, and the joy in my children started to be contagious.  I thought maybe I would write about the meaning and the memories attached to the ornaments we love to unpack each year – each one is a symbol of a joyful moment we have shared… 

  
 But then the worst.  Devastating news from a dear and treasured friend – beloved by all who know her and irreplaceable for her many and generously shared gifts; the sudden return of a serious illness that has thrown all thoughts of joy into complete chaos…

Alternating between anger and tremendous sadness, I can do nothing but feel helpless and pray…  Part of the time I am angry at myself for my selfishness, and part of the time my heart is breaking for the relatives who are doing everything just to keep going right now, in the face of Christmas cheer raging all around them.  The deepest empathy, a gift my friend is so blessed with, hardly penetrates the shock and fear and sadness; how can you feel Christmas in the midst of pain?

How do we feel anything in the face of darkness and suffering? 

  
 And yet… I can’t just sit here and wallow in the darkness and despair.  My beloved friend, if she had the strength, would tell me so I’m sure.  Life is riddled with sadness, but even through the sadness there are smiles.  Even in the winter there is a promise of the spring, and even deep in advent there is joy

“Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light.” (Theodore Roethke)

My amazing friend, with her gracious spirit, shares so much of herself with me and with many: her love of life and laughter in spite of the many struggles that she has faced, and her endurance of all manner of frustrating difficulties without judgement, without criticism and without complaint.  She finds beauty in the ugliest castaway things, she brings life to places that have been ignored and neglected, and she makes note of humour when all seems to be lost… She has a powerful, joyful spirit.

  

“Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Facing the increasing darkness of the winter horizon as day by day we are still losing light, facing the scarier darkness of illness and worse, I imagine what she might say.  Like Goethe, she relishes the little things. She has found joy in giving of herself, and in the joy of others. If I have shown love and hope and mercy it is in part because I learned from her. Her joy has helped me follow that path, and through all the selfish anger and sadness that is clawing at my heart right now I will dig deep for what joy there is to be had in giving of myself to others – one small moment at a time…

“Only those who give can know joy.” (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)

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Self Acceptance (Peace…)

Preparing for Christmas through the weeks of Advent is one of the greatest gifts of our family faith tradition.  We are able to see the beauty of the season as it grows over time instead of focusing solely on the chores and chaos, and sharing this journey with my children makes it so much more meaningful…

When I wrote about accepting differences during the first week (hope) I was looking at the world around me and thinking outside myself. I shared my hope for more acceptance in a world that often seems clouded with criticism and judgement.  The best thing about sharing thoughts this way is the opportunity for connecting with  others – often the comments and responses make me see things (even my own  ideas) in a completely different way.  One of my inspiring friends responded to the thoughts about valuing diversity with her own brilliant perspective:

 

I loved her comment right away – making peace with oneself eliminates the need to measure and compare.  Being comfortable with yourself gives you the confidence and mental ability to think about others in a non-judgemental way…

I am reminded of this great cause daily by an art installation in my office made by Miss G. several years ago:

As (Oscar Wilde?) is famously quoted: “Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.”  Regardless of who said it, it isn’t always easy – in fact it is often ridiculously difficult.  I remember hearing once that the reason the habits and personalities of others are frustrating is that they remind us of the qualities we dislike most in ourselves.  We are constantly comparing our gifts and talents to others, as if there is a rubric or standard that we should be measured against.  We are miserably human in all our imperfections.  Dwelling on them can never lead to peace.

“Have patience with all things but first with yourself. Never confuse your mistakes with your value as a human being. You are a perfectly valuable, creative, worthwhile person simply because you exist. And no amount of triumphs or tribulations can ever change that.  Unconditional self-acceptance is the core of a peaceful mind.” (Saint Francis de Sales)

This week, in honour of the Advent season and the burning candle of peace, I will make an effort to make peace with myself.  I will forgive my faults and failings, and dwell only on the good.  I will let that light shine out onto the good in others, and extend the “olive branch” to those who might need to make peace with their own selves as well…

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” (Melody Beattie)

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Accepting Differences (Hope…)

This post has been rolling around in my mind for a month now, but today seemed like the right day to put the thoughts on paper.  Today is the beginning of our Advent season – the weeks of waiting and preparation that bring us to Christmas.  Last night we lit the first candle of the wreath for hope, and all of these thoughts came swirling together …


For many years I have worked in the same school.  It’s a very small school – just one class of each grade – but it has always been filled with some very big ideas.  We work hard as a community every day to teach the values and processes of social responsibility, although the result of this work is harder to see than the memorization of times-tables and spelling words.  In our school the acceptance and celebration of others has traditionally been held in very high regard – what good are math facts and scientific details if we can’t work together at the end of the day?


Valuing the diversity in humanity seems like a simple thing.  From where we stand, in the comfortable western world, there is no question that each of us are deserving of respect.  And yet we don’t have to look too much farther before that assumption starts to fall apart.  In the last month – ironically dedicated to Remembrance – there have been dramatic demonstrations around the world of intolerance and aggression – how do we make sense of it all?  How do we carry on?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

In these times of dangerous and seemingly mounting confrontation and confusion, the need for accepting – for celebrating  – differences becomes even more vital.

 In my small school there are almost 250 students.  Each one of those little people is unique and unrepeatable.  Each one of them has abilities that are absolutely necessary to help our community be complete, and each one of them has challenges that are supported by the community too.

“I can do things you can not.  You can do things I can not.  Together we can do great things.” (Mother Teresa)

In a community that not only accepts but values differences, there is unending potential for achievement. I believe we are greater together, even in the act of accepting, valuing and appreciating each other. As adults/teachers/leaders in this community we bear the responsibility to create an environment that provides for and celebrates the differences…

“Fair doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same thing. Fair means that everyone gets what they need.” (Richard Lavoie)

In our tiny school community there are many with diverse needs. It is our absolute responsibility to embrace and support the diversity in our community: a responsibility that is supported by every reputable authority:


And yet there are still mixed feelings, even in our progressive, accepting developed world about understanding and accepting. There are still many people who are afraid of being perceived as different themselves.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” (Yoga, The Empire Strikes Back)

Fear of difference… fear of acceptance… fear of inadequacy…these are the very feelings that come between us and prevent us from being honest and genuine with each other.  We are afraid to be seen as less or as different.  We are afraid of not being good enoughAs adults we can fall to the pressures we perceive around us.  Children, though, can be more clear sighted.  They have the ability to look into themselves and out again at the world.  The simple honesty in these self-portraits, made by our sixth grade class earlier this year, have an honesty that makes my heart sing.  It gives me hope.

Last night, as we lit the candle for hope, this prayer for reverence for all life came swirling through my mind…

Almighty God, giver of all that is good, we thank You for the precious gift of human life:
For life in the womb, coming from your creative power,
For the life of children, making us glad with their freshness and promise,
For the life of young people, hoping for a better world,
For the life of people who are disabled, teaching us that every life has value,
For the life of the elderly, witnessing to the ageless values of patience and wisdom.

Hoping for a better world, where diversity is defended and promoted.  This is my responsibility, and yours.  We can be kind to each other.  We can be accepting of differences, and we can celebrate the different ways that each of us contributes to the world we all live in together

Together, we have hope.

  

“Amid so much darkness we need to see the light of hope.” (Pope Francis)

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Epiphany…

Epiphany: n. a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way… (Merriam-Webster)
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(Photo by G.Junior – our Christmas tree through his kaleidoscope…)
We have come to the end of our traditional Christmas celebrations, and as always I am sad to see the end of it all…
Christmas can’t be over, however, without the final piece of the story and so today we have the final moment: the Feast of the Epiphany. The three kings, the wise travelers, arrived (after their long searching journey) in Bethlehem to see the tiny child and bestow their gifts…
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“…and being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” (Matthew 2:12)
This is one of my favourite parts of the whole story, because even though it is the end it is really an amazingly new beginning; these men, who had probably read every book that existed in the world at that time, who had invested in their learning and their minds, had no choice but to go home another way. They could never go home the same because their journey and discovery of a tiny little baby had changed them so completely… they were not the same.
Their “epiphany” had made them different – any way they went from that moment would be different too… Beginning to see the light…
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And so we are all different – we have changed. We have lived through another year, we have learned something about the world and something about ourselves. We have struggled, triumphed, celebrated, consoled, searched for meaning and maybe even found it. Our lives have been marked by the events of daily life over time, and in some cases one moment, simple and striking, defines the way our perception has shifted. It is in these moments – these epiphanies – that we find the illumination to find our way through the journey ahead…
The Christmas season may be ending, but it is really the beginning of something new. It is our challenge to let the light of Christmas shine on as we forge ahead.
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There is so much work to be done, but we have been changed by our experiences and we can bring that energy forward to go about things a different way
“Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep,copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?” (James Joyce, Ulysses)
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