The Steelers had just lost to the Broncos in overtime. And when I say just, I mean just. The game was on the big screen in a room full of high school students. A few of them were watching, but most were milling about, talking, goofing around. When Tebow’s pass hit the end zone, I looked around for a face that mirrored my own, but as I stood with my hands clasped behind my head, I realized mine was the only one contorted in frustration. A bunch of midwestern teenagers didn’t much care that my east coast team had just watched their post-season dreams go down the pipes.
Anyway, it didn’t much matter. The kids were poised and ready to listen. It was time to share my story as part of their monthly gathering called StoryTellers. I wasn’t sure if they’d find my story either interesting or worthwhile, but in the end I realized that I couldn’t really help that — my story is my story; not much I can do to change that. I fiddled with my headset and took a deep breath as I glanced at the fat leather chair where I’d be sitting. Speaking never gets any easier, at least not when it comes to controlling my nerves.
I started with a quick Steeler lament, then sat down and tugged at the brown paper bag that sat at my feet.
I had taken down my Christmas tree the day before, an emotional ritual that has turned into a story itself. You’d think the sentiment would be in the putting up — the stringing and the hanging and the twinkling — but with eight hands excitedly poking in the same box, I find the process a little too noisy, a little too rushed, a little too communal. Instead, I’ve come to savor the taking down, the part I do alone when no one else is clamoring for attention. It’s become my way to look back over the year and think about how this particular year has been woven into the rest.
Students waiting, I pulled the ornaments I’d chosen from the bag and, one by one, shared the parts of my journey reflected in each, slices of who I was and who I’d become and who I hoped to be.
– A pewter cross from my uncle that we always hang first, an easy way to remind my kids what Christmas is about; a reminder to me that teaching my kids once a year about Christmas is easy, teaching them about the cross as part of our daily life is hard work.
– A Dr. Suess Grinch I’d given to Eric the first year we were married after declaring we’d be exchanging ornaments as a way to commemorate the last year. He bellyached about the idea so much, I decided to give him the Grinch. Every year we laugh when it comes out, a reminder to never take ourselves too seriously.
– A handful of the kid’s school creations, wrought with glue and glitter and bright-colored pom-poms. I used to think they’d detract from the beauty of the “real” ornaments, but now they’re among my favorites, a reminder that time moves fast and is utterly, eternally irreversible.
– A wooden sled from my friend Amy, the most sentimental person I know. It was a childhood gift from her grandmother which she gave to me at the end of a particularly hard year. No one traveled more deeply with me than her, a reminder that true friendship sometimes requires we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another.
I had dozens others I could have shared, each with a story of their own. I used one final ornament that said “Ohio” (that I picked up from a gas station on I65 when we moved from Ohio to Chicago six years ago) to segue to the most current parts of my story and found myself wondering in the midst of it if anything I was saying even made sense. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it all week.
This morning, my friend Mike shared this quote from Frederick Buechner in his sermon: “To lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”
It’s when I realized that our stories are for others, but the process we go through to tell them is often for us. It requires taking mementos off our trees and pulling stuff out of our brown paper bags and watching, piece by piece, how they’ve been knit together.