Craig and I dread the holidays for many more reasons than the average Scrooge. Transition is tough on OCD, prone-to-defcon-levels-of-anxiety Lauren. Figuring out how to introduce new music, activities and decorations to our lives without disturbing Lauren’s peace has required some Major General level strategic planning. Thankfully, after many years of exposure to the bling that is the Christmas season, Lauren (generally a fan of bling) is now a fan of most things Christmas. For about 6 or 8 years now, Lauren’s been happy to allow the Christmas tree and stockings to remain once we put them up. About 3 years ago, she began to appreciate that wrapped gifts are omens of good things to come—even worth the stress of idiot grown-ups telling her “Break the rule! Rip the paper!!!” (Yes, we are always sorry come January when we are trying to tape back together entire favorite books of torn out pages, while stupidly reminding her, “If you rip it, it’s broken and you can’t read it anymore.”)
Lauren’s especially thrilled when we bring out beloved Christmas movies, all now on DVD because she wore out the VHS versions from continuous viewing. (One of the few understandable phrases Lauren said as a child was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” That claymation movie, along with all its characters in stuffed animal form, is still a favorite. Perhaps because the main character is born different, is rejected as a result, but is hero in the end? That tends to be her favorite theme—think her most beloved character, mute Dumbo! But I digress.) In fact, the greater problem nowadays is not introducing Christmas themed new stuff to our lives, but when to take them away. There was a time when the Christmas videos stayed on the shelves with the rest of the videos all year long. But after a 100th viewing of Frosty the Snowman in July, Mama had to pull the plug/rip off the bandage/whatever image helps you imagine Lauren’s heartbreak at not being able to find her current favorite. I was heartbroken and unsure it was the right thing to do the first year I took the Christmas videos away. But the excitement she exhibits every Thanksgiving week when we offer them all to her again (now in picture form in her movie choice book) is priceless. In fact, it’s the first way I think I ever sensed the joy in her about Christmas the way typical people experience joy about Christmas—“It’s here! It’s here! All those fun creatures and emotional songs are here again! I love them so!”
Well, here it is the end of January. I easily met my relaxed goal of having all Christmas decorations away by Lauren’s birthday, the 27th, but we still have her Christmas movie page in her movie choice book. How can I take it out now? She just rediscovered the most peaceful movie of all—The Snowman. The years she was up all night in pain or anxiety, Lauren watched The Snowman, or Fantasia, all night long, over and over. We knew she was hurting and just yearning for rest from the pain when she picked a movie that was really just an orchestral concert. So I don’t know when the Christmas movie page will disappear this year, especially because she’s mixing it up with “Ordinary Time” fare, so there’s no fear yet that I’ll slit my wrists if I hear that Santa Claus Is Coming To Town one more time.
But the thing that is getting to me is entirely Craig’s fault. Okay, partially my fault. For many reasons, last November, I was definitely in a Bah Humbug mood about the approaching holidays. My mood was partially because I knew our older daughter, Bryn, wasn’t going to be home for any vacation from college until late Christmas Day. Since she was about 5 years old, Bryn has been my excuse for celebrating Christmas, certainly for even considering decorating the house in traditional fashion. The years Lauren pulled the Christmas tree down over and over again, each time, despite our desire to throw it outside and start a bonfire, we put it back up for Bryn, making light of the ornaments that broke with each fall—me saying, “They’re just material objects. We don’t fret about losing material objects.” (Harsh. Some of those ornaments were heirlooms and/or very cute and/or very pretty. But we seriously would have fretted all my kids’ childhoods away if we fretted in this house about broken material objects. Broken people and animals took up enough time.) So this year, my excuse for operating according to worldly Christmas traditions would be missing.
“No Bryn? Yea! We don’t have to put up a Christmas tree!” I said to Craig, knowing my OCD side likes not to have to move my particularly placed everyday decorations to accommodate decorations that stay for only a month.
And Craig said, “Yes, we’re putting up a Christmas tree.” But I knew he wouldn’t do it on his own. He’s not good at planning into our schedule things that take that much time; every moment of his time off from work is pretty well used up by home chores and Lauren activities. It takes “Super Planner” (aka Mom) to work in that annual miracle. So I thought I’d “won.” We were likely not going to have a Christmas tree and that would be fine with me.
Craig didn’t mention decorating again right away, but he had something up his sleeve. We often take an evening ride in the car, because Lauren simply loves to ride. It’s a time and place where we can all be together, chat, and just be happy together, with no option to do chores. One night after Thanksgiving, Craig took the route through the fancy neighborhoods so we could see the incredible light displays we look forward to each year. But before we’d even backed out of our garage, Craig had thrown in his favorite Christmas CD, Christmas with The Rat Pack. “I believe...I believe” he starts singing with Frankie. I roll my eyes, but he’s adorable pretending to balance a cigar with the fingers not on the steering wheel because the other hand is waving a pretend martini glass in the air. Okay, fine, it’s Christmas. Hearing The Rat Pack is verification. Craig pulled down the driver’s side visor to show me that he’s changed out all the CD’s that were in it. It’s now filled with Lauren’s favorite Christmas CD’s. Yes, ‘tis the season.
The other thing up Craig’s sleeve was something only a man does find time to do at my house—putting up outdoor Christmas lights. On a few excursions, we made stops at some hardware stores so he could get new lights, and that is how he spent the next Saturday, stringing those lights. And that’s how he won me over to the “Joy to the World” side of the matter. Hearing Christmas music on our excursions and arriving home to see our house festively lit softened my heart and made me think that maybe I did have a little energy for getting the tree and decorations out, even without Bryn around as my mommy-motivator.
So that is how it began—“it” being what was Craig’s fault of four paragraphs ago. We have since had a lovely Christmas. Bryn came home for five days. Lauren loved opening her Christmas gifts, and loved having her sister home even more. Bryn is back at college and the tree and decorations are down and away, even the outdoor Christmas lights, we’re proud to say. I mentioned that Lauren is still watching her Christmas videos occasionally, but she’s mixing it up, so that’s okay so far. But the Christmas CD’s are still playing in the car. Actually, that’s not true. Just one Christmas CD is playing in the car.
You see, the first outing after which Craig had switched out all the usual CD’s in the car for a favorite Christmas assortment, Lauren was immediately unhappy as I pulled out of the driveway to the sound of Dean Martin slurring “but, Baby, it’s cold outside.” Always one to look for an external cause for her discomfort (or at least an external solution), because the internal ones are harder to cure, I turned to Lauren and said, “Hey, Sweetie, we can listen to something different. How about Snoopy?” And I put in what I felt guaranteed to be a calming favorite—Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. A mile or two later, she seemed just as agitated. It was more likely gas pain than the music; but, probably only because of Lauren’s distress, the jazzy syncopation was making me feel a little yucky, too! I pulled out the CD and looked at the overhead selection while sitting at a long red light. “Let’s see, did Daddy put Casting Crowns in here? Yes! My favorite!” And Casting Crowns’ Peace On Earth CD went into the player.
And there it remains, virtually the only music heard in the car since about 60 days ago. Lauren calmed instantly when I put it in that first day and seemed so happy the rest of the trip. Every time I got into the car after that, if I turned on the radio, Lauren acted agitated; so I would ask, “Do you want to hear your Christmas CD?” and she would vividly nod her head. I deny nothing (immoral or illegal) to a vivid nod from my pretty silent kid, but sometimes she even added a big smile or giggle to the vivid nod. This girl loves this CD! And I have to admit, I love it, too. It is some of the most peaceful, beautiful music I have ever heard. It starts with my favorite version of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day and ends with an amazing violin arrangement of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that gets pretty crazy speedy and makes me wonder how this piece never upsets Lauren, but Charlie Brown does. It’s like Lauren knows the words, the meaning, the sentiment, the intentions of the artists—she’s connected, somehow, to someone, or something special when she hears this CD.
But it’s 10 tracks. There are only 10 tracks on this CD. There are 25 tracks on her Pixar Disney Greatest Hits CD, so I never hear a song more than once on any outing when we play that. But I hear this whole CD more than once no matter where we’re headed! I’ve said to quite a few people, “I have got to transition Lauren away from this CD, but she’s unhappy as soon as I put on the radio or anything else.”
“Buy another non-Christmas Casting Crowns CD” friends have advised and I’ve considered. But I’ve listened to all the Casting Crowns offerings. There’s some good stuff on each of their CD’s, but they’re all much more rockin’ than this Christmas CD. I don’t think any other one will give her what this one gives her. Maybe I’m being an enabler, but I’m slow to make the switch. The Christmas CD stays in the player and we play it. And I put my iPod’s stereo-monobud into one ear and listen to what I want to listen to while Lauren happily rocks and smiles to what she wants to listen to.
The other night, I was in the car by myself running some non-Lauren-friendly errands before and after a yoga class. I hadn’t brought my iPod and was listening to the radio, when I couldn’t find one station that didn’t seem like someone was just hollering at me. On every station, either a sponsor was trying to sell me with volume and speed, or a singer was even losing me on his or her point because they were all whining or bellowing it. I turned the radio off, thinking I’d rather be alone with my thoughts, but it turned out that my thoughts were yelling at me, too! Without giving it too much thought, I flipped the stereo back on and quickly hit “Disc” landing on my favorite of all songs on “Lauren’s CD,” God Is With Us. Ah . . . it was like a warm massage after a long day. ‘I can see what this does for ya, Lauren,’ I thought.
For a change, I listened to the song for what it was as a song—from the start: a single, low female voice with simple, lovely keyboard accompaniment to draw attention to the lyrics. I listened like a person discovering a new, unknown artist in January, rather than a Christian band’s hymn around December 25th. The words I heard, kind of for the first time, were:
Love is raining down on the world tonight
There’s a presence here I can tell
God is in us, God is for us, God is with us, Emmanuel
First, it made me think, ‘Boy, does Lauren love the rain.' And, ‘If Lauren could clearly talk, and only had these words to say (because she should certainly know them by now!) . . . Wow. . . and would anyone listen?’
I listened a little closer to the 2nd verse:
I feel compelled to tell all who will listen
That peace on earth is not so out of reach
If we can find grace and mercy and forgiveness
He has come to save, He is all of these
I thought of my virtually mute little girl (she may be bigger than me now, but she’ll always be my little girl) thinking about the words, I feel compelled to tell all who will listen. Is she compelled but unable? What would she say? Is she picking her words carefully . . . by insisting on listening to (and having others hear) this music? She’s shown us that she understands forgiveness and she has certainly helped me discover grace in a way I don’t know I could have without her in my life. It’s taken me a while to appreciate this music on a level greater than “Hooray, Christmas spirit! . . .Okay, it’s January. Enough of the Christmas spirit!” Has Lauren been experiencing this song at a level of understanding I’m just appreciating tonight? Is that why she’s unwilling to let it go gently into that good night?
Then I thought about the fact that the next day was Lauren’s 20th birthday and I was perplexed. 20 years old. I had published Dancing in Cornmeal: Life with Autism when Lauren was 10, so I thought it apropos that I publish a blog post on her 20th birthday. I felt I really had to get the Dancing in Nut Flour blog up and running with a first post about what had happened in Lauren’s life over the last 10 years. In fact, my intensely organized self thought there to be no other option for getting this blog up and running than to tell the story that gave the blog its name. But after hearing this song, my intensely organized self is relaxing about this notion. This song is seriously like a good massage. Thank you, Lauren. What a sweet gift that this CD was in the car.
You see, I’m almost done writing my blog post about the past 10 years. It’s been hard. There’s some painful territory to gingerly cover. Lauren has been through a lot medically. We’ve all been through a lot (if I may understate) emotionally. That essay needs some fact checking, then some proofreading. That’s hard work. What wouldn’t be hard work, what would even be fun, would be writing a blog post about Lauren’s attachment to this beloved CD and what a gift I recently discovered it to be. And you know what? That’s really, predominantly, what Lauren has been over the past 10 years—one surprising gift after another.
Maybe that’s part of what she hears in the song. Maybe one way God offers us grace, mercy and forgiveness is by seeing us as the gifts we have to offer, rather than as the sum of our actions and experiences. Maybe if we look at the people in our lives as the sum of the gifts they offer, rather than as the sum of their histories—good, bad and ugly—we’ll get in on this whole grace, mercy and forgiveness thing. Maybe Lauren’s already figured this out.
Happy 20th birthday, Lauren.