Ordinary People

Candlelight Carol

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He’s sleeping, now. My baby. My son. Red-faced from crying, his breaths come in little hops and skips, tiny fists curled against his cheeks. So small. So fragile. So perfect. I’m afraid to move, to make a sound – afraid he’ll wake up again and those eyes will pierce me through, demanding that I make his world right. Me. A brand new mother alone out here in the barn with a brand-new father beside me. Neither of us with much of an idea what to do – how to do this. How to be what he needs.

I’m afraid to move, but I do. Shifting slowly to sit beside the manger, I trace one finger across his forehead and down his cheek, barely touching him. He’s beautiful. But, maybe I’m biased. Maybe all new mothers feel this way. Elizabeth did. I remember her childbed, the way Zechariah had knelt at her side, silently praying, his eyes wide with wonder as the tiny screaming infant was placed in his arms. I had thought the child ugly and wrinkled, like a shriveled date, but Elizabeth had pronounced him perfect and handsome and her husband had shouted with joy.

Yesterday, in my own childbed, my eyes had filled with tears when Joseph placed my son in my arms. Joseph’s hands were bloody as they wrapped the boy in the clean cloths the innkeeper’s wife had provided. The baby had been squalling and messy, tiny arms and legs jerking, his face screwed up with cold and fear. Wrinkled, his head shaped like a cone, my babe had been no more sweet or handsome than Elizabeth’s John. But, after I  put him to my breast, after the first panic and excitement passed – for mother and child – he changed. Changed from a strange, shrieking thing to this soft, precious child. My child. My son. Nothing could be more beautiful.

The ache in my back is less now. The journey had been hard – we had so far to go. Relaxing now against the pile of hay Joseph has gathered into a bed, I have trouble remembering much of it. That is a blessing, I think. I don’t want to remember mile after mile of hard road beneath the donkey’s hoofs, each step sending a sharp jolt along my spine. I don’t need to remember how pale Joseph’s face became beneath the dust, how he leaned more heavily on his staff at the end of each day. His sandal strap had broken two days ago, and the sole is now tied around his foot with rope. And yet he still works to make sure this rough barn is warm enough for his new son.

Settling back against the hay, I tug the rough blanket higher, shivering a little. Joseph is busy with a kettle of water over the firepot, a heavy metal vessel that a shepherd had brought, the coals within it warm and red. The innkeeper had frowned at first, afraid for his barn, for his animals and livelihood, but his wife had taken him aside and whispered sharply in his ear and he’d been content to lecture Joseph about the fire and its care. I can feel the smile on my face as I watch my husband – this new father. No one is more careful than Joseph. All this time, through all the strange and wondrous changes that have come upon us both, he has made sure to care for me, and now, for this child.

Our child.

Somehow, some way, our child.

The shepherds came last night, in twos and threes, their flocks swarming nearby hills. Simple men whose faces were filled with awe, shining with the light of heaven, coming to greet their promised Savior, their King. My son. They said very little but brought what they could. The thick fleece that lies across the baby’s chest. Half a bushel of grain. A leather flask of watered wine. Most of all, they brought their prayers, their praises, and I watched, silently, as God’s favor touched each one through a single look at my sleeping babe.

As if drawn by a tight cord, I turn again to the baby. In the quiet while the child sleeps, as I watch his small chest rise and fall and the pursing of his hungry lips, the promises of God’s messenger come to my mind. A child. A King. A Savior. The Son of God. Such a weight of glory for such a tiny babe. A weight of glory and the burden of a Kingdom beyond imagining.

The messenger’s words became a solace to me on the journey. They soothed my heart during the long nights and my bones during the days of travel. I had little to do but think and remember, to imagine the shining king, the savior of God’s promise. I’d wondered if he would look different, if he would be born with knowledge behind his eyes, eyes that could see through to my soul, could see all my doubts and fears and wonderings. If he would judge my fumbling hands and my Joseph’s worries. If he would be bigger, stronger than other babes. More beautiful. More serene and wise. If the stamp of God’s favor would shine out like golden light.

But, once I held him that first time, all I could do was what every mother did. Through tears of relief and a deep, blossoming well of joy I counted.

Two eyes. Dark and warm like my father’s. Two ears, tiny shells perfectly formed. A nose, barely there, a bump between two round cheeks. Two arms, two hands, grasping for me, for me, a mother now. His mother, or at least trying my best to be. Two legs and feet, kicking and squirming against me. Ten fingers and ten little toes.

I had counted, and I forgot, for a moment, that this baby was different. That he had come to me by God’s miraculous hand. That I was not an ordinary mother and Joseph not an ordinary father. For a moment I forgot that he was not mine, not ours, not the way an ordinary child belonged to his mother and father, blood and bone and skin. He was a miracle. A gift.

A gift to the entire world. A gift God placed in my two hands, my ordinary, awkward hands. How could the God of the universe trust me with so precious, so extraordinary a gift?

“Mary?” Joseph kneels beside me, brushing a hand across my wet cheek. “Are you well?”

I turn to kiss his palm, tasting salt. “The Son of God, Joseph. He is the Son of God.”

“He is our son, Mary.”

“Is he? Is he ours?” I ask, my voice trembling.

He takes my hands between his. “He is. He is ours. Our child. Our charge. To love and raise and teach and cherish, for as long as we are given him. Just like any ordinary family.”

I shake my head. “Not like any other.”

“Maybe not, but God gave this child to you and me, Joseph and Mary, two very ordinary people.” His laugh is low and deep. “We can only do what ordinary people do, can’t we?”

My stomach churns with fear. “Why did God choose us? He’s special and we are not. What can we give this child of God, this Savior? This King?”

Joseph touches my cheek, urging me to turn and look again. The babe had found his fist and was sucking on it, making slurping sounds. “This baby,” he reminds me. “This infant.

“For now,” I begin.

“Now is all that we have. All anyone has.” Joseph leans closer. “We give him what every father and mother give their children. Because each babe is a gift from God. Each one has a special purpose and plan. You,” he smiles and presses my fingers to his lips, “me. Our parents. Your cousins.” He rolls his eyes. “My unruly nephews. The shepherds who came. Others already on their way. All children are a miracle, Mary.”

I know it to be true, but the angel’s words echo in my memory.

“He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. The holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

The Son of God. “Not like him,” I reply.

“No.” Joseph grunts and shifts from his knees to sit beside me. He sighs, sliding one arm around my shoulders, taking rest for the first time in weeks, it seems. “I know of no other baby visited by shepherds kneeling before him. Or greeted by the Gloria of the stars themselves.” His eyes shine in wonder. “He has been given amazing gifts and promised amazing things. But I believe our God knows what he is doing. He has given charge of this extraordinary child to ordinary people. Perhaps he wants us to give him the ordinary things of life. Perhaps,” Joseph holds me close, “we are the perfectly ordinary people to do just that.”

I let the weight of my fears fall away as Joseph’s words sink into my spirit. “I can be ordinary,” I murmur. “An ordinary mother for an extraordinary child.”

I remember faith, and trust, and God’s promises – not just for this child, but for me and for Joseph, for shepherds and innkeepers, for wise men and simple, ordinary people. For all the ordinary mothers and fathers who are afraid of making a mistake with their own precious gifts.

“We’ll be ordinary together,” Joseph promises. “A mother and father seeking to do their best in God’s eyes for their child. Trusting in Yahweh to show them the way.”

 

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Everyday Miracles

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My wife is watching me from her chair. She pretends to pick apart the uneven strands from the shawl she is weaving for her cousin, but I’ve caught her eye more than once. She’s been watching me a lot these days. She’s worried. Since I lost my words, since they were taken from me, she’s been hovering a little closer, making sure to keep her eye on me. I don’t mind.

Her eyes are kind, warm and compassionate whenever they look at me. Dark golden, the color of burnt honey. When we first met – formally introduced at our betrothal, not like nowadays – when she was so young and I was so, well, me – I remember thinking how they sparkled. Her eyes. One glance and I was smitten. Smitten? Does anyone use that word anymore? Doesn’t matter. I like it. It’s a good word. The perfect one. ‘Struck down by a firm blow.’ Yes. Exactly.

Her eyes have always been better than mine.

It’s funny. You’d think I’d be the one worried. After all, a man of my age knows that he has far fewer years ahead of him than behind. All the young faces in worship tell me this. Those I’ll forever think of as children having children of their own. But, no, I’m not worried. Not about me. I know what comes next, and what a blessing that is.

I lean my head on one hand and look at my wife. Since it happened, since my words became tied up inside my mind, my spirit has been calm. Contented. As if, for the first time in this long, pious life I’ve lived, I realize that God has me firmly, gently, safely in his grip. And my Elizabeth, too.

It is a different way to live. To see God moving all around me. You’d think a man like me, raised in my family, in the church, with tradition and study, praise and prophecy in my blood would have eyes trained to see and ears trained to hear all of the subtle signs of God’s presence. That I’d feel his touch on the world all around us. That I’d revel in the evidence of His hand of healing as well as his sword of wrath and proudly point them out to others.

Instead, it’s always been Elizabeth. My beautiful bride was the one who would point out the bright red blooms of calanit peeking through fields of grain, or the brilliance of the stars on a particularly cold night, or the abundance of blessings to be found in the humble gift of a pauper’s widow. Even with my much-respected education, my pride of place within our community, and my responsibility in the church, it’s my wife who truly sees God.

“Everyday miracles,” she would say with a smile. “Those are what I look for, husband. Not signs and wonders.”

Everyday miracles. Eyes opening to another dawn. Safety when traveling. A warm hearth. Friends. A full belly. Elizabeth’s hand in mine at the end of the day. All things I had overlooked. Until now. Until my world was changed by God’s messenger. By a promise unfulfilled and a blessing I had given up looking for years ago.

Did you ever hear the saying, “a little learning is a dangerous thing?” That was me. Yes, I knew the sacred scriptures. I could draw the lineage of each priest, each king, and each prophet from Adam to Aphras. The poetry of David and Solomon was often on my lips and I was trusted with the holy things in the holy places. But even these things, even the knowledge of Jehovah and the wisdom of His message and the business of His ministry can become a veil between one’s soul and God’s presence. A veil of pride. Of self-importance. As if God’s call on my life, the responsibilities and outright gifts he’d given me had elevated me to His side. Fellow King and Prophet.

The veil between my eyes – my soul – and Jehovah God wrapped around my head until it glinted like a crown. A crown I’d hammered into shape with harsh words and an arrogant spirit and set upon my own head.

My wife – my Elizabeth – well, her beautiful eyes have always been clear. Unveiled. She’d kept them that way with an open heart, and gratitude and humility of spirit.

Through the best and the worst of times, she finds something to delight in, some small gift dropped from God’s hand to be grateful for. Every day. Every hour. When we were first wed, she delighted in every new discovery. After a year, while my status – and my worry – grew, she found more reasons to rejoice. Through her decades of prayer, of waiting, of empty, childless arms, and a silent home, and the careless, hurtful remarks of others, she was grateful to God.

I am ashamed to admit that her contentment often angered me.

Why wouldn’t she rage? Why didn’t her anger smolder and burn like mine? Why didn’t her heart grow as cold and bitter and unbelieving as my own? A childless home – and me, a priest. Every morning tasted like ashes in my mouth. Every evening, I avoided her gaze across our table. Blamed her. Blamed God.

How could she insist with the same faith, a faith so deep and so wide that it would never drain dry, that God would have His own way and that it would be for our good?

Just a few months ago, it was my turn to serve, to stand within the holiest place and burn the offering. My robes had been brushed, the tassels measured, the ephod shining with the labor of Elizabeth’s hands. I had walked past the penitents, my head high, my mind focused on my duty, while my soul grumbled within me with the same old demands and accusations.

“Why, O Lord? Why have you cursed me with a barren wife? Am I not upright? Am I not faithful?”

My unspoken words seemed to rise to heaven with the scent of the incense. And, suddenly, in a beam of golden light and with a rush of wind, I was given an answer.

God’s messenger appeared before me and I shook with fear. Until I die, I will never forget his words:

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.  He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

A messenger from God. Words spoken from Heaven. Oh, how richly I had been blessed. My spirit soared. My heart swelled with joy.

I sigh to myself. If only. If only that had been my response to the Lord my God’s messenger. If only I could go back to that moment and take back the foolish, arrogant words that sprang from my mouth.

I will never forget – or forgive myself – for my answer:

“How can I be sure of this?” I confronted Jehovah’s messenger. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

All my life I had looked for signs and wonders, never content with my wife’s “everyday miracles.” And yet, here stood Gabriel, an angel of the Lord, bringing me the news that I had coveted for decades. And still I doubted. Still I lifted my chin and demanded more of God.

And He, Jehovah God, condescended to give me yet another gift:

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time,” Gabriel replied. And then he was gone.

Now, it’s my turn to watch. To let all my fears and doubts dissolve, unspoken, while I watch the miracles that God gives. Now I watch my lovely wife. I look on her steady hands at her work, the peace and joy that surround her, the faint smile that lingers on her lips. Our child – promised by the Lord God Himself – grows healthy and strong in her belly. And now my unbelieving lips are sealed by that same God, my resentful laughter and frigid disbelief silenced, and I find I am more content and hopeful than I have ever been.

I’m grateful that my wife couldn’t hear my mocking words within Jehovah’s holy place. That my shame was revealed to Jehovah God alone. Even at my worst, God gave me – God gave us – another everyday miracle when his messenger sent me out to greet my wife with tears of awe and joy rather than an arrogant speech filled with distrust. He didn’t let me hurt my Elizabeth with my doubt.

I’d gladly remain mute for the rest of my life rather than utter one syllable that doubts my faithful God or hurts my loving wife.

And when my child is born, as he will be soon, and he takes my hand and looks to me to teach him about our God, I will gladly use every sense God provides to tell him of joy, of faithfulness, of glory and majesty and truth. Of his role in turning the hearts of Israel back to their Creator and King. Of the coming Messiah. I’ll treasure each everyday miracle of my son’s life. And I’ll pray that I’m found faithful enough to raise this new Elijah. My son. John.

Elizabeth has caught me watching her, now, and she’s smiling at me. I rise to go to her, to take her hand and help her from her chair. Her cousin, Mary, is arriving soon. There is some great news that she wishes to tell us. I wonder, as I lead my wife to our night’s rest, if this will be another everyday miracle that God grants us. Or, perhaps, something more.

Whichever it is, I’ll praise God for it. For love. For faith. For family. For children’s voices and a foolish old man’s silence. For the fulfillment of every single promise God has made. For flowers and stars, honey-colored eyes and the warmth of my Elizabeth’s hand in mine. For a quiet and contrite heart and the wonder of birth.

The Kids’ Table

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My second Christmas story was written in a difficult year. In 2009 our beloved pastor, mentor, father, brother, and friend retired to Heaven. We needed a much different Christmas story that year, one we could laugh at, one that had no special memories attached. And so, ‘The Kids’ Table’ was created.

 

The Kids’ Table

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

 “Hark! how the bells, Sweet silver bells
All seem to say, ‘Throw cares away.’
Christmas is here, Bringing good cheer,
To young and old, Meek and the bold”

Jason paused on the next to the last step and closed his eyes. Pine tree scent, check. Christmas carol playlist ringing out, check. The sounds of voices and laughter – kids, parents, spinster aunts and mostly deaf Uncle George hollering over everyone else – yes, he could hear it coming at him from every room. This was the Franklin house at Christmas time, where nothing ever changed. Nothing. Ever.

He hopped down the last few steps and turned left into the living room. Change was too much to expect, he supposed. Jason peered into the sea of festive sweaters and tweed blazers hanging around the punch bowl under the watchful eye of the GE angel that had been leaning crookedly from atop the Christmas tree every year for as long as he could remember. He’d just finished his first semester at college. He’d been away from home for four months, taking care of himself, handling classes and a job and normal life pretty well, he thought. A lot had changed for him. But after five minutes back home he’d been reminded that here, among his family, no matter how much time had passed or how many birthdays he counted, as the only child of his parents, he’d always be a kid.

Jason made it through the edges of the crowd with a few smiles and mumbled ‘hellos.’ Grandma Eleanor gave him a hug and a peppermint. The New York cousins, skinny jeans and plaid shirts and thick-framed glasses worn like some kind of uniform, surrounded him to talk craft beer and Instagram accounts. Jason nodded, hands in his pockets, and slid as smoothly – and slowly – as a glacier into the dining room. There he found it. Parked just east of the family’s massive dining room table. The proof that his semi-independence and lofty stature of adulthood had disappeared.

The kids’ table.

Six mis-matched chairs around a plastic folding table. Vinyl reindeer-decorated placemats at every place, red paper napkins, and assorted plastic cups were festive enough, but had nothing on the crystal and china and cloth napkins in glittering napkin rings on the main table. Jason stared down at the further evidence of his mom’s craftiness. He poked a finger into the hollow eye of the cardboard snowman that smiled around his pipe-cleaner pipe and clutched the dreaded place card labeled ‘Jason’ in awkward calligraphy in its wooly-mittened hands. He felt his lips twist in a wry grin.

“Hey, Google, play Blue Christmas!”

The song changed and suddenly Elvis had been invited to Christmas dinner, too. Jason wouldn’t be surprised. This year The Franklin House seemed to be the place to be. Every family member, from 92-year-old Great Aunt Sarah, to the Atlanta contingent wearing all Bulldog red and Arch black and chortling about the Rose Bowl had accepted his parents’ invitation to a ‘traditional family Christmas.’

“I know.” His father laid a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “But someone’s got to bite the bullet, son.”

Jason shook his head as dad walked on, swiveling his hips along with Elvis. His father had been quick to remind him this morning that the elegant dining room table was a finite space and if they tried to sit one more person there, with the adults, the very universe itself could implode because of Pauli’s exclusionary principle or Einstein’s theory, or, as Jason wasn’t exactly listening in the first place, maybe Mr. Spock’s senior thesis on wormhole physics. Jason shivered. Far be it from him to contradict Mr. Spock.

The snowman smirked up at him with its one remaining eye and Jason sighed. Yep. It was the kids’ table for him – again. Just because he thought living away from home might nudge him over the threshold into adulthood didn’t guarantee that any other member of the Franklin clan would acknowledge it. Oh, well, he dropped his shoulders into a melodramatic slouch; maybe it wouldn’t be that bad this year.

“Hey, Jase.”

Then again, maybe it would. Jason turned from his torture of the now winking snowman place card to confront the owner of the sticky voice behind him.

“Frankie,” Jason drawled.

There he stood in all his glory – Franklin D. Franklin.  A thirteen-year-old collection of every murky strand of DNA and personality defect that had ever surfaced in the Franklin family gene pool. Jason laid most of the blame at the feet of the kid’ parents – Aunt Virginia and Uncle Jack – who had saddled their son with the most redundant name since Galileo Galilei. Galileo, Jason surmised, had never had to contend with school bus bullies or the occasional sight of his own jockey shorts flapping from the top of the flagpole. But Frankie’s parents had also insisted on dressing him like a rhinestone cowboy, complete with steel-tipped boots, fringed jackets, and an unfortunately large collection of bolo-ties. They had, thereby, consigned their only child to one of two schoolyard classifications: perpetual victim or bad-tempered bully.

“Yikes, with that hair I thought you were a girl for a minute there,” Frankie chuckled, the fat fingers of one hand wrapped around an oversized candy cane.

No great surprise which stereotype little Frankie fell into. Frankie was five years younger and still the kid could dredge up fond, nostalgic memories of steamy locker rooms filled with sweaty jocks, wedgies, and massive feelings of inferiority. Was Galileo a bully, Jason wondered, before idly considering whether or not a steady diet of country music led to brain damage.

“You’re short,” Jason replied obliquely, shoving both hands back into the pockets of his jeans to remove the temptation of wrapping his fingers around his cousin’s throat. The kid’s neck had to be in there somewhere between the cow skull bolo tie and the proudly jutting chin.

The candy cane endured some more abuse as if Frankie could suck some wit out of the red and white sweet, and Jason watched his cousin’s eyes narrow in concentration. Jason stood patiently, rocking slightly up and down on his toes, waiting. Waiting. Waiting…  C’mon, kid, don’t strain something, he thought.  The candy cane was finally pulled from Frankie’s sticky mouth with a loud pop.

“My momma says if a guy’s hair is longer than his collar, he’s a momma’s boy.”

Jason could only blink a moment at the irony. He let his gaze linger on the kid’s blond buzz cut before trailing it down the blue and black plaid shirt straining at its mother-of-pearl buttons, pausing at the oversized belt-buckle in the shape of stampeding horses, down the starched jeans to the steel tips of the carved cowboy boots. “I suggest she take the matter up with Troy Polamalu and then get back to me.”

He strode towards the punch bowl figuring he could grab a handful of Chex mix, a cup of eggnog, and probably re-read War and Peace before Frankie’s lightning-fast intellect caught up with that one.

“Robert – where did you get these glasses?  Ellie – Eleanor!” Grandpa Eddie grabbed at the sleeve of his wife’s red, reindeer infested sweater and waved his cup of eggnog through the air. “Ellie– look at these glasses – look!”

Grandma Eleanor took a step backwards to avoid the wave of thick yellow liquid that punctuated Eddie’s outburst and sloshed onto the pale grey carpeting at her feet.

“Oops, sorry,” Jason’s grandfather laughed, clutching one antler of the moose head glass he was still brandishing towards his wife.

Jason made a swift detour to the kitchen to pick up a wet towel and gave his mother a quick hug from behind to thank her for being so normal… considering.

“Jason!”  The shriek was ear-splitting. “You made me lose count!”  His mother huffed loudly and plucked the cucumber slices from the top of the large salad bowl and began again. “One, two, three…”

Mostly normal, anyway, Jason thought. Ducking warily under Grandpa Eddie’s waving arms, Jason bent to wipe up the stain while trying to tune out references to the ‘jelly of the month club’ and whether or not squirrels really are high in cholesterol, hoping that someone would get the man off of his favorite Christmas movie before Jason was wearing his next glass of eggnog in his apparently too long hair.

“Oh, what a nice boy you’ve raised, Robert,” Great Aunt Sarah gushed as he climbed to his feet. “Didn’t even have to be told, did you, sweetie?”

Jason smiled down… and down… at the tiny old woman, leaning over as the wrinkled hand rose to pat him on the cheek.  At least she didn’t –

“Ow!”

– pinch, he thought grimly, rubbing one hand along the offended area as he turned to keep an eye on Aunt Sissy who stood smirking at his back – and wasn’t THAT name the worst pairing of personality and title in the history of names everywhere? With her wide shoulders, short, wiry hair, and square jaw Sissy should have been named something less … prissy and more – well – linebacker-y. Like Gertrude. Or Wilhelmina.

“Jason has all the characteristics of an only-child – or ‘super-first-born’,” Jason heard his college-professor father ramble on in the background as he stared down the thick grasping fingers of his least favorite maiden aunt.  A nun – she would have made a great nun, he thought, having no trouble imagining Sister Sissy putting the fear of H – E – double hockey sticks into tiny children everywhere. But she’d taken care of Aunt Sarah for years and was fiercely protective of the fragile old woman, so Jason was willing to cut her a little bit of slack over the whole butt-pinching incident.

Inching his way sideways out of the line of fire, he hurried back towards the kitchen, carefully bypassing little pools of relatives as he walked down the wide hallway decorated with holly, pine boughs, and his mother’s collection of nutcrackers. An unmistakable high, tenor voice oozed around the corner of his father’s study. Uh-oh. Jason froze, the proverbial deer watching those fatal headlights come closer and closer.

“… but it’s the perfect time, Nathan, you’ve got to jump on this volatile housing market – get them listed – they don’t have to be perfect, just putty, patch, and paint. I’ve got the best stagers in the business – they can make a cracker-box look like an HGTV masterpiece. You can’t be waiting around for tile from Italy or let the county catch up with you for permits…”

Ah, this is where cousin Grant was hiding. He was determined to make his first million before age 30 and didn’t mind sharing his Five Keys to Financial Success with anyone who slowed down long enough to get caught up in his fun-sucking whirlpool. At Jason’s high school graduation party, he had been backed into a corner by the man and subjected to a twenty-minute lecture, complete with visual aids by way of the PowerPoint App on Nathan’s phone. Jason slid along the wall like a particularly stealthy ninja, hoping to ease past the open doorway before he was spotted.

Whew! Made it.

“Jason!  We’ve been looking for you!”

Oh… Holy Night, he sighed, screwing up his eyes. Just when you thought it was safe to go into the kitchen. It was the triplets.

“Whatcha doin’?”

“Do you like our dress?”

“Did you see you’re sitting next to us at dinner?”

Squinting one eye open, much like a soon to be eviscerated snowman place-card, Jason knew his goose was cooked. The three little girls looked, to the unsuspecting, like perfect Christmas angels – long blond hair, fancy silver dresses with different colored satin sashes, and the tenacity of bull terriers. And, apparently, while he’d been away, they had not found a new object of their stalking- er – affectionate attention.

“Hi Staci. Traci. Lacey.”  Was there some kind of naming curse that ran in his family? “You girls look nice.”

They preened. They posed. They chattered like little feral chipmunks. Jason threw a glare at his mother’s unsuspecting back. The kids’ table. Maybe next year he’d take his roommate up on his invitation to spend Christmas with his crazy family. What was it his dad always said? ‘A change was as good as a rest.’ Well, he was certainly willing to give it a try.

After the usual adjustments, the strategic placement of chairs, the perennial grumbling of Grandpa Eddie, and one more plea to Uncle Dan to leave his perch in front of yet another college bowl game on the television, everyone was finally seated. Jason had managed a quick sleight of hand while the other kids were distracted, and his own tattered snowman now sat firmly between Frankie and the youngest cousin, five-year-old Matthew, who could not have done anything bad enough this year to have earned a place at Frankie’s side. Across the table, the triplets frowned a moment at the unexpected change in position, but Jason only looked down crossly at the snowman, silently warning it to keep its mouth shut.

The kids had been allowed to fill their plates first, but Jason was kept busy, hopping up and down to fetch this or that that one of them had forgotten, or hadn’t had room on his plate for the first time around.

It was strange, constantly traveling that no-man’s-land between the kids’ table and the adults’, especially after the first face-stuffing silence gave way to semi-sated conversation again. Jason listened, considering.

“I know the fix was in on that one, Danny, or Pittsburgh would never have lost to Cleveland – Cleveland!  Seriously!”

“Last weekend we made snow angels all along the front walk – and mommy made hot chocolate for after – I love snow!”

“But with the volatile nature of Chinese imports right now, the Consumer Price Index is pretty useless.”

“And I asked Santa for Legos. The new Harry Potter set. It’s huge!” Matthew’s grin wobbled. “Will you help me, Jason? Mommy says it might be hard for me.”

“Sure thing, runt,” Jason answered as he headed back to the big table for another bowl of cranberry sauce.

Uncle George was shouting. “What’s in this, Annie? It’s after six, and what with the diabetes and the high blood pressure, I gotta be careful or I’m gonna spend the rest of the night in the…”

Jason moved off hurriedly, juggling the cranberries and a basket of warm rolls, and quietly reciting the words to The Twelve Days of Christmas under his breath to block out whatever came out of his uncle’s mouth next. He glanced out the dining-room window during his escape and noticed that the first flakes of snow were just beginning to cover the ground. Wow. Nice. How often did that happen? Snow on Christmas?

Smiling, he plunked down in his seat and turned to his young cousin. “What else did you get from Santa, Matthew?”

From his other side, Cowboy Frankie snorted. “C’mon, Jase – you know-”

A well-placed kick under the table sent Frankie howling and Jason turned back to the wide-eyed child sitting to his left. “Matthew?”

“I got this really cool Transformers helmet – it makes my voice sound just like Bumblebee, and it looks like him, and plays stuff from the movie and everything!” Matthew gushed. “And a new sled – I hope it snows, Daddy said it might. He said he could work from home and we could go to the big hill at the park if it snowed.”

Lacey – or maybe Traci – bounced in her seat. “Yeah, my Dad said the same thing – it would be like another Christmas! Jason, is it gonna snow?”

“Did it snow when Jesus was born, Jason?” Another triplet asked, frowning. “The preacher didn’t say.”

Jason frowned. “Good question. I’m not sure how much snow Bethlehem gets.” He reached for the phone in his back pocket and then stopped. All eyes were fixed on him as if he held the secrets of the universe. “Um, the shepherds were out with their sheep, right? The flocks were grazing and, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to do that if there had been snow.”

“And the stars were bright, ‘member?” Matthew nodded.

“That’s true,” Staci agreed. “And the angels came to sing, and nobody said anything about not being able to see them because of a blizzard.”

“The roads weren’t closed.”

Jason turned, eyebrows rising, to stare at Frankie’s not-snotty, not-snide tone of voice.

“Momma says just a little snow makes the roads bad. And, well,” the irritating pride seemed to have run out of the kid, “the kings got there from far, far away. On camels. I think that would be pretty hard in the snow.”

“I think you’re right,” Jason found himself agreeing.

Matthew rubbed the back of one hand across his nose. “Still. It would be nice. I think baby Jesus would have liked some snow.” His eyes were worried. “He only got three presents. Snow would be like a special one, from his Daddy up in heaven.”

Something warm glowed in Jason’s chest. Maybe it was just the jalapenos in his mother’s cornbread, but Jason suddenly had a great idea. “I don’t know about Bethlehem, but I heard it might snow here.” He leaned low over the table and whispered. “Maybe we should go look.”

Lacey glanced over towards the adult table where her father’s face was red from his enthusiastic defense of his golf hero. “Can we?”

“Can we, Jason?”

Weird. Where did the Terrifying Triplets, the Bronco Bully, and the hyped-up munchkin go? With just one little promise of a peek into the yard on the off-chance of snow, the kids Jason had happily resented had turned into real little people. What was up with that?

“Okay, but let’s try to be quiet,” he whispered.

The kids scrambled quickly from their seats and Jason looked down to find that Matthew had slipped one hand into his.

Straightening, he put one finger over his lips and led the little troop into the shadowy family room. The lamps had been turned off by eco-conscious Aunt Mickey and the room was lit by just the colored bulbs on the Christmas tree and the orange glow of the dying fire, adding a touch of mystery to the familiar furnishings. Jason noticed a thrill of anticipation beginning to creep up his own spine. Huh. Maybe he belonged at the kids’ table after all. This was a lot more fun than fielding questions about his college life or fending off Grandpa Eddie’s gall bladder stories.

The heavy curtains over the wide bay window hung silently, as if they were hiding a deep dark secret. Frankie and the triplets climbed up on the couch and propped themselves over the back, waiting, and Jason plucked Matthew up and perched him alongside the others before reaching for the cord.

“Oh, look!”

Big fat flakes dropped from the sky, a blanket of white covering the cars parked up and down the driveway and frosting the pine trees along the edge of the yard.  Feeling like a stage magician, Jason gestured with one arm at the glittering scene and turned back to his audience.

Eyes big, the five children sat transfixed, faces pressed closer and closer to the glass until their breath misted its surface. The silent tableau held for a moment before Traci slipped from her spot and ran towards the dining room.

“Daddy, Daddy! It’s snowing! Come and see!”

Jason stepped back as a few of the adults crowded around, the little girl merrily tugging her father towards her discovery.

“Oh, great. Just what we needed.”

“Gonna be a nightmare trying to get home in this.”

As the men and women slowly made their way back to the dining room, Jason stood quietly in the corner by the tree, watching. Watching the happiness of the children, listening to the grumbling of the adults, and wondering why he’d wanted to sit at the adults’ table so badly anyway. These kids could teach their parents a thing or two about appreciating Christmas. About being thankful. About what was really important. Not snow, or presents, he thought to himself, but Christmas miracles, a baby in a manger, and, especially, joy. Joy in all the little things.

“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.” Matthew 19:13-15

Frankie glanced over his shoulder and noticed Jason there. “Hey, Jase – remember when I creamed you in the face with a snowball last year?” He chortled and turned back to stare at the wintry sight.

Jason felt his mouth crook up into a half-smile. Yep. The kids’ table was still better.

My Father’s Voice

Years ago, I began writing Christmas stories to be read in our church on Christmas Eve. For the rest of the Christmas season, I’d love to share them with you.

Gesu Bambino

It’s Christmas Eve again and the house is quiet. I’ve left the lights on – white among the greenery – I’ll turn them off, soon, when I head up to bed. But I’m not ready yet. The family has returned from Christmas Eve service, from hearing the Christmas story and singing all the beautiful carols. We’ve laughed and hugged our friends, exchanged last minute gifts, and then bundled up for the trip home. A couple of turns around the neighborhoods to see the Christmas lights is our traditional way of wrapping up Christmas Eve. My daughter is too old for Santa to have to stay up late and “magic” the gifts out from hiding and under the tree – she’s been too old and too wise for years, but my memories are heavy on my shoulders, so sleep won’t be coming soon. Not for me.

Don’t get the wrong idea – my memories aren’t dark with regret or tearfully maudlin like so many popular Christmas movies. But they’re very present, tangible, too bright to let me close my eyes. My childhood self is here in the room with me, my older sister and brother sitting near the tree, mom and dad over there by the old Lester spinet. Even though I’m the mom, now, my daughter nearly grown with Christmas traditions of her own, my heart is in the past, in that little house on Londonderry Drive, drifted around with piles of snow and wearing one single strand of colored lights along the eaves.

My childhood memories are sharp at this time of year. Many are comforting, and some are not. But my thirteenth year stands out – and always will. In many ways, it was the same as every other Christmas before, but, in one particular way, it was eternally different.

It’s funny how memory sneaks up on you. The smell of pine. The silent countryside after snowfall. A familiar line from a favorite book or movie. For me, it’s Christmas music that drags me back to Pittsburgh; the music of the church, carols and melodies that are hauled out and dusted off at this time of the year. Especially that one song, my father’s favorite. The one he practiced beside that old spinet, my mom’s hands drifting across the keys. The one he sang every Christmas Eve in church from my earliest memories. I heard it on the radio tonight. And, suddenly, I’m back there, listening to my father’s voice.

I can still close my eyes and hear the sounds of my home. There was always song, music playing, someone tinkering at the piano, or organ, or guitar, or recorder. And my father, very much the head, boss, chief, and sovereign of my family, dominated in every way – even musically. His voice soared, it echoed. A deep, rich bass, it overwhelmed every other sound. In person, he was loud, volume set permanently at eleven. On the phone, you had to hold the device away from your ear to retain your hearing. But in song, in song my father’s voice was magnificent.

My mother played the piano for him when he practiced at home, and he practiced every day, learning the sacred music he sang in various churches and choirs around the city. We all heard him – you couldn’t help it in our small home – but I got to hear it most. I was the youngest, and so, the most housebound – while my 16-year-old brother had a car, such as it was, and a job, such as it was, and my 19-year-old sister was at college all day long, I was stuck at home, listening again and again to my father’s voice.

At thirteen, after years of listening, my father’s voice had become part of our home’s landscape. Ugly nubby green couch, check. Harvest gold kitchen appliances, check. Weird horse/bird thing my brother made in woodshop on the shelf, check. My father singing, leaning over my mother’s shoulder? Yes, that, too.

When you hear something repeated often enough it becomes a part of you. Multiplication tables. Latin verb conjugation. The Lord’s Prayer. In my home, the songs of the Christmas season were sung every year, over and over, relentlessly. At the age of thirteen, I had every song memorized – every verse, every voice’s part, especially my father’s. All those songs – lyrics, notes, arrangements – slid in through my ears and took root in my memory. I can’t remember what happened to me last week, but, yes, I can sing all five verses of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” perfectly to this day. Not very helpful unless you find yourself on Christmas Carol Jeopardy, but I will be your phone-a-friend if you ever need all the lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas.”

As you can imagine, my father’s voice was not always raised in song.  It was raised in many other ways throughout my childhood. My brother’s report card usually brought about some added volume and teaching us each to drive was accompanied by a whole range of vocal exercises. But something that set my father off to rare vocalizing was putting up the family Christmas tree.

No traditional, live Christmas tree for us, my family had a modern, aluminum tree, very much in style in the tradition-ignoring sixties and disco seventies. It came with a revolving tree stand that played Christmas carols, and a colored light wheel that made the tree appear blue or green or red or yellow as it turned. Unfortunately, those who designed this tree were evil, sadistic men, as the correct placement of the branches depended on a system of colored dots painted on the end of each branch. As time wore on and the dots wore off, many hours of trial and error were spent by my father, crouched under the shiny silver branches. I learned many, um, colorful metaphors, from my father’s voice.

We did have some great Christmas traditions.  Our advent wreath, piles of Christmas cookies, eggnog, those paper luminaires that our neighbor used to line his driveway. We had school Christmas plays – not Winter Holiday plays, mind you, real Christmas plays. We shopped for presents in actual stores with actual clerks exchanging actual dollars for merchandise, with the actual nasty Pittsburgh weather threatening every move.

We had train sets. The black Lionel engine, the coal cars, and mail cars, pipe cars, and cars that carried cars. We even had a plastic gas station and I would take the autos from the train and drive them all around the basement. Vrrroooom. The hum of the transformer and the smell of the ozone are indelible parts of my Christmas memories.

But Christmas time was, in our house, about song. Songs of the long-awaited birth of Jesus. Familiar carols, Christmas hymns, and special songs that our choir director handed to my father to start practicing sometime after Thanksgiving. Every year, every Christmas since I could remember, my father sang them all.

He sang carols and hymns with the choir, and I learned the bass parts better than the melody from listening to him practice. He traditionally sang one King’s part in the carol, “We Three Kings.”  Unfortunately, the one written to the deepest voice was not a particularly cheerful verse: “Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone-cold tomb.” Very festive!

My father concentrated intensely on his music, and, looking back on it, I realize that he sang beautifully – technically perfect, with wonderful tone, moving and inspiring. And yet, he totally missed the point. And, listening, so did I.

My thirteenth Christmas will always stand out in my memory. That Christmas, the sounds of our home were harsh, and voices were raised not in song, but in anger. My sister, a somewhat independent college student now, had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ as she never had during all of our Catholic upbringing. She’d brought her new insights home to share with excitement and wonder: words like grace and mercy, the sufficiency of God’s Word, and the Lordship of our Savior. And she ran straight into the backlash of my father’s reaction.

The days were filled with arguing and rage, while my sister’s nights were full of tears and prayers. And then came the threats. My sister was anxious to share the good news, news we should have been prepared to hear from our close ties with the church, our Catholic school, the lessons and songs that filled our home. But the message of grace and salvation was silenced. She was told that if she tried to “preach” to us – to me in particular, the youngest, the baby – she would be thrown out of the house and cut off from the family. And so, she despaired of ever reaching us with Christ’s message of grace.

As a young teenager, my own thoughts and feelings were confused and anxious, knowing only part of the story – the part that meant turmoil every day, knots in my stomach and a feeling of helplessness.  The songs of the season were lost to me; they were just background noise to the more immediate sounds my family was making.  My father was deep in rehearsal for the season’s music, but the words were now sung with an undercurrent of anger that made me sad. But I had heard the hymns and carols hundreds of times before, and I felt better for their familiarity. These traditions were comforting. They let me believe that everything would be okay – that my familiar life would not be destroyed, and our family broken.

I hung on to those traditions with both hands. I watched the silvery tree glow, I shopped, I helped mom bake. I gladly went to church, knowing that nothing new would ever happen there, that each service was exactly like the one before, with the customary prayers and responses. It was a relief to know I wouldn’t have to think, or feel, or even pay attention at church.

But the dread lay like a ball of uncooked dough in my stomach. I waited, Christmas approaching, expecting the explosion.

It was Christmas Eve. My father had practiced his special song for church, my brother had finished wrapping last minute purchases, and my mother was putting dinner in the oven. For some reason, my parents decided to have our celebration on Christmas Eve, before the traditional midnight Mass, instead of waiting until Christmas morning to open our gifts from one another. Perhaps they felt that this would bring a spirit of love and peace to our Christmas that year, or maybe they were just exhausted: tired of preparing for that ‘perfect’ Christmas that everyone longs for, yet that never quite arrives. Not this year, not at our house.

Down to the Rec Room we went, a Christmas 8-track playing, the silver tree glistening. I remember opening a record album from my brother, and a stereo from my parents, and other items from distant relations. But then I received something I did not expect. My sister handed me a package. It was obviously a book, and since I read every book, I could get my hands on, I was excited. Then she handed an identical package to my brother, who hadn’t read anything but motorcycle manuals in years, and one to my parents, her eyes filled with worry, her hands trembling. She was afraid. But, squaring her shoulders, my sister met my father’s scathing glare and did not falter.

Carefully unfolding the wrapping paper, I discovered that my sister had given each of us a Bible.

A Bible? I had never had one, except the Children’s Story Bible my godmother had given me on my First Communion. At first, I felt disappointed – it wasn’t a story, not a mystery or science fiction. But then I looked at my sister and saw the joy and fear on her face – unsure of my response. I smiled. She loved me, and she’d braved my father’s wrathful voice to give me something from her heart.

I turned at my mother’s anxious whisper to see her clutching my father’s arm with one hand. His face wore an expression of tightly clenched fury. “It’s a Living Bible,” my mother was saying. “Look. It’s okay.”

The Living Bible was one of only a few translations that, as Catholics, we were permitted to read. My father ground his teeth and, with only a few dark comments rather than an angry tirade, settled back in his chair. The storm clouds weren’t gone, but they were quiet, for the moment. and I could breathe again.

After the final package was opened that night, my sister came to my side.

“What do you think?” she asked me.

My hands flipping through the pages, I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know where to start,” I whispered back.

She stilled my nervous fingers and opened the Bible to the Book of Luke. “Try here. You’ll recognize this story.” Her eyes were kind as she continued. “God wrote this,” she murmured. “He’s been writing it since the beginning of time. It’s a story, and He’s proud of it. He wants to share it with you.”

I thanked her, something in my heart whispering that this gift was different from any I’d received before.

I headed to the bedroom I shared with my sister and plunked myself down on my bed and began to read. I found out my sister was right. I knew this story – I’d heard it over and over again from the lips of our priests, from carols, even from Linus on A Charlie Brown Christmas. In surprise, I found that the songs my father sang were in there, too. The Magnificat, the song of joy that Mary sings, was there. The heralding of Emmanuel was there. The visit from the Kings was there. They were all there, in this book, this story that God had written to me, and I had never really heard them.

“Pay attention,” said something within my heart. “Listen to your Father’s voice.”

Later, shuffling into our familiar pew at Midnight Mass, nothing appeared to have changed. We rode there in our familiarly strained silence, saw the same familiar sights along the way, and looked up at the familiar view of our father up in the choir loft above the altar. The incense stung our eyes and set my brother to sneezing. The parishioners were dressed up, jewelry glittering, new coats and hats and gloves in abundance.

But then, something different happened. It wasn’t the smell of too much perfume, or the glow of the candles, it wasn’t the priests’ shining vestments, or the heavy solemnity in the air. The majestic pipe organ was silent as the voices of the choir, my father’s voice leading, rose, unaccompanied and pure. The words were the same as they had always been, the choir singing softly, beginning as a murmur, so quiet that I must strain to hear:

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, as with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly minded, but with blessings in His hand Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.”

And as the sound of the first verse of the familiar hymn died away into the silence of the full church, it was the Holy Spirit who spoke within me, “Listen with your heart.”

And that Christmas Eve, I began to understand what my father and mother never had: that the music and the singing were not the goal, that perfection of pitch and rhythm was not the objective – the highest aspiration of the season. No, my father’s clear, steady voice, his “performance” was not the purpose of Christmas, the ends, if you will – it was the means. The means given to my father by God so that he could lead others to rejoice – in the words of the hymn, that we might pay our full homage to Him.

The Christmas music came alive for me that night as it never had before. I found myself listening more than singing with the congregation, and I found the love of God communicated in the words of the Bible, and the deep faith of the composers in the music. I heard my father, even in his anger and confusion, striving to give something back to God with the gifts He had graciously given him. The music hadn’t changed, the words were certainly familiar, but suddenly everything was different. Now, I was listening for the sounds of hearts set free from bondage, hearts of joyful gratitude for the precious Christmas gift of Jesus Christ.

We sank back into the pew as the lights grew dim. It was time for my father’s solo, a song that I had heard him sing many, many times before. I knew every word, and every note. I knew my mom was listening for perfection, for clear notes and proper timing. I knew my brother wasn’t really listening at all. I looked at my sister and squeezed her hand, trying to tell her, to share without words, that, for the first time, I heard.

“When blossoms flowered ere mid the snows upon a winter’s night, was born the Child the Christmas Rose, the King of love and light. The angels sang, the shepherds sang, the grateful earth rejoiced. And at His blessed birth the stars their exultation voiced!”

“Again, the heart with rapture glows to greet the holy night,
That gave the world it’s Christmas Rose, its king of love and light.
Let ev’ry voice acclaim His name, the grateful chorus swell.
From paradise to earth He came that we with Him might dwell.”

“O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

I learned the meaning of worship that night as I thought about the gift that my heavenly Father had given to me. Compared with the perfect gift of the Savior, the pains and trials of my family seemed small and unimportant. I knew they would still be there when I returned home that Christmas morning:  my mom would not abruptly turn into June Cleaver, my brother wouldn’t immediately become kind and considerate of my feelings, my father would not decide to stop yelling, and my sister, wanting so much to share her joy would still be bound by his rules. But these troubles were overshadowed, for a moment, by the joy of hundreds of voices raised in song, and the memories of millions who came before, joining from heaven in worship and praise.

As I stand in front of my Christmas tree, in my home many miles from the cold and slush of Pittsburgh, many, many years away from my thirteenth year, I can still feel that first bright joy I felt that night. The sudden spark of the Christmas star in my heart. And I thank God for his gift of Jesus Christ, for his word, and for my sister who was brave enough and loving enough to share them with me. Where would I be now, I wonder, if God hadn’t sent her to me that night with a Bible in her hand? And where would I be if God hadn’t planted all those seeds in me beforehand through the songs of the season and my father’s voice.

Mom and dad are gone, now. My sister is hundreds of miles away. But tonight, looking up at the clear winter sky, I know we’re joined by something no distance can measure. By our love, by God’s grace, by our memories – good and bad. By music and singing and laughter and tears. By sparkling silver trees and 8-track carols. I know that she’s attending her own church services, playing the piano so that the congregation can fill the air with their worship and gratitude. And that, this year, every year, just as she taught me, she’s listening with her heart.

Low and sweet, so that my voice doesn’t wake my new family sleeping upstairs, I sing. “O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.”

 

StargateNow

daniel doesn't die

Something exciting is happening. Something no one expected. We’d heard rumors, we’d seen disclaimers. We’d gnashed our teeth at the murmurings about a reboot. We rolled our eyes at the “streaming” concept. But the fans of Stargate SG-1 and Atlantis stayed strong.

We kept our fandom alive when the powers that be tried to kill it.

We wrote fanfic. We made fan vids. We went to conventions, large and small, all over the world and packed the biggest ballrooms to hear our favorite actors talk about their Stargate journeys. We paid for autographs so we could snatch a few minutes with our favorites. We dressed up in BDUs. We attended auctions started in honor of our beloved Don S. Davis and we passed around ownership of some awesome props while supporting charity.

Most of all we talked. We chatted. We did re-watches together and discussed everything from Daniel’s character development to Teal’c’s hair. We shared insights and cobbled together screenshots. Some of us wrote a Virtual Season 11 for SG-1. A Season 6 for Atlantis. We made friends from all over the world to share our love for this franchise. And even 11 years after SG-1 left the airwaves and 9 years after Atlantis ended, we’re still here. Still fans. Still hoping to see more Stargate.

@BaronDestructo, aka Joseph Mallozzi, tells us that it’s time. Now. We have our 38 minutes. MGM is listening. More television Stargate – not a reboot, not a re-imagining – can become a reality. A show that is based on the 15 years of wonderful, deep canon that has already been established. He wants the fans to show the studios that, “if they build it, we will come.”

We want to believe.

But we also remember Stargate: Universe. The series that killed the franchise. The one that took established canon and turned it into military officers who cheated and lied and tortured to get ahead. That stripped Stargate of its honor, of its hope, of Daniel Jackson’s heart-filled diplomacy, Jack O’Neill’s cheek, and Teyla’s wisdom. That filled our screens with darkness – literally and figuratively – trying to catch the Battlestar Galactica gravy-train, tacking “Stargate” on the label to try to guilt fans into watching.

We also remember Joseph Mallozzi’s blog post insulting Stargate fans. Insisting that people upset with Daniel Jackson’s death should get over themselves, hey, there were only like nine of us, right?

So, can you blame us if we’re wary? If we have one foot in the StargateNow campaign and one foot out? As a famous Scottish engineer once said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

I’m choosing to believe. I’m getting some flack from my fandom friends, some disbelief, some negativity. They’re afraid this will be another Universe, not at all resembling the wealth of great episodes and world-building from SG-1 and Atlantis. They’re afraid Jack and Sam’s love-child will be the main character. And, in our current climate, they’re afraid the show will devolve into typical anti-military stereotyping and political bandwagonning instead of focusing on journeys through the Stargate to meet new allies and fight the new, exciting villains.

Right now, I’m choosing to believe Stargate can come back to the small screen. That we can still get glimpses of Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter and, yes, even Rodney McKay. Heck, Daniel should have moved into Atlantis to take over processing the Ancient database. McKay probably spends hours heckling science with Sam. And, on the weekends, they meet Jack at the cabin for some fishing.

Or maybe Daniel is finally getting ready to introduce the world to the Stargate, with Teal’c in formal Jaffa robes raising an eyebrow beside him.

Whether you choose to believe with me or not, head over to the StargateNow social media center on Twitter. Watch the posts. Put in your two cents. Tell the world what you think.

I’ll stick my arm in the wormhole and keep it open for you.

Writer: Employee or Artisan?

What is a writer?

Is she an employee? Since you purchase her work, spending a little of your budget, time, and energy consuming what she makes, do you consider her your employee? Do you have the right to complain about her product if it doesn’t suit you? If you take it home and open it up and find that, although excellently made with good structure and grammar and plot design, you just don’t resonate with her characters or her storyline or her view of the subject matter are you entitled to your money back?

Is this writer, this employee, less important than her readers, her employers? Should she bend her neck and apologize for her subject matter, her choice of character, who is the protagonist and who the antagonist? Should she be careful to read every letter, ever post made by her readers and take their suggestions as orders, as the demands of her employers? That character cannot die, this one must be redeemed.

Should this writer be constrained by her readers’ feelings? Should she be careful not to offend or irritate for fear of reprisals? In this Internet world, should she keep a low profile and try to appease those who might heap up bad reviews or comment endlessly on her site that she is callous and mean to not take her readers’ advice?

Or, worse, it seems, should the writer be compelled to warn her readers of violent, upsetting scenes within her work just in case a reader has had a bad experience in his past and reacts badly? Beyond a general rating, she shouldn’t just assume that readers understand that a book about a rape case might contain difficult images or a romance contains sex scenes, should she? She should be aware, shouldn’t she, that some readers have problems reading about self-harm, or insults, or child abuse, or violent crime, or suicide, or bad haircuts, or torture, or anger, or cursing, or religion, or politics, or hunting. Her book should be wrapped round with warnings and alerts for any and all problems encountered within, shouldn’t it, even if these warnings kinda ruin the suspense and the plot?

She must take responsibility for her readers’ inner struggles.

On the other hand, perhaps the writer an artist.

Is she a creator, ruled by her imagination and skill, working with the clay of words and punctuation and the brilliant colors of characters and plots? You are not her employer, but her patron, encouraging her with your words and hard-earned money to continue her art, to develop and grow and, perhaps, create more and better works. If you find her art on the shelves at an art festival and purchase her work and decide it is not quite what you wanted, do you demand she change it? Change the color? Maybe this flower should be over there on the other side? If it doesn’t go with the living room décor like you thought, do you take to the Internet and call her names? Tell the world that green is the new pink and she should instantly change her surreal paintings into marble busts of famous thinkers?

In this second scenario, generally, the market will decide whether or not an artist pleases her patrons. If her books are purchased, if she earns enough royalties to allow her to eat and have heat and a home and, in our world of dreams and visions, health insurance, she may continue in her art, writing as she pleases. If her books are not purchased, she may think twice. Examine her art with a discerning eye, ask fellow artists to help her determine what isn’t communicating with her patrons.

If she doesn’t change her art, if she is bound to write as she pleases and it does not please her public, then her readers may shrug and move on, wishing her well and looking for other art to purchase, to encourage. They will not insist she soothe their inner wounds with her art, or change her colors or subject matter just in case it might hurt their feelings. They would simply move on and spend their coin elsewhere.

Today, the fan fiction writer is treated as an employee. A serf. A minion. On most public posting sites on the Internet, where, I might add, the writer posts her work for others to read FOR FREE, the writer has no rights. She is the employee – working, again, FOR NOTHING – and is liable to be banned or warned or taken to task for any negative comment by any reader.

She has many rules to follow when posting a story. Not just rules about proper grammar and punctuation, etc. (Those rules are not well enforced, unfortunately.) These are rules about content, about structure, about, believe it or not, warnings. Trigger warnings, they have been named. If any word, scene, character, or plot development could in any way ‘trigger’ bad feelings (yes, it is that subjective and arbitrary), then the writer must WARN their readers about it. They must. Because if one reader complains, the writer will be warned to fix it and possible banned. Yes, the writer must try to imagine how anything in her work could make a reader upset and then warn about it.

I’m not talking about explicit sex of any kind or graphic violence, there is a rating system for that.

Warnings I’ve seen: Kissing. Cheating. Character death. Possible unwanted touching. Adultery. Religious Imagery. Illness. Vomiting. Blood. If the writer doesn’t want to spoil her plot, too bad. She must warn.

The writer must also allow any and all comments on her work. She can moderate them, deleting those who attack her personally or curse at her (yep, it’s happened to me) or call her other names for her choices. BUT, these readers always have the option to report her work to The Powers That Be on the Internet site, accusing her of being mean or not warning properly or many other so-called offenses in order to get the writer into trouble.

These readers act as employers, as masters who are entitled to control the writer who they DO NOT PAY. They are put in control by the websites. And the websites act – the writer is ALWAYS considered at fault. Further, if readers’ feelings are hurt, their demands are not taken into account, they go to the Internet to drag the writer’s name in the mud on Twitter, Facebook, and other fan fiction sites. Not because a story is simply bad, no, because the reader is not happy.

Many fan fiction writers are taking their stories down from places like Fanfiction.net or AO3. They are deleting stories from these patrolled sites and putting them solely on their own websites where the WRITER is in charge. The stories are still free of charge to read, but the writer is in control. She can’t be slapped for not warning about a scene of nose-picking in chapter three. Or because her view of the main characters would never include sex.

What will this do to the fan fiction world if it continues? Readers will become even more entitled if they are allowed to control major sites. So, in order to have any say in their work, the writers will disappear to their own sites where we will have to be diligent to search them out. Writers will have fewer readers. Works we’ve loved might go away forever.

Solution: We must change the thinking for fan fiction readers. We must rename these sites: Fanfiction Library, not Bookstore. At the library, you can choose any book you want and read it without charge, but you don’t get to complain and lash out if you don’t like it – you just bring it back. I’ve seen new websites warning readers to “Enter at your own risk.” Ratings are important – just like at the movie theater – but, when done correctly, they place the onus of responsibility on the reader to choose wisely rather than on the writer to WRITE AS THEY DEMAND.

What do you think? Employee or artisan? Are writers responsible for the hurt feelings of their readers or are readers responsible to make good choices?