years ago my family began a christmas caroling tradition. we gathered a group of friends and traveled to the retirement community where my mother-in-law was living. the kids among us made simple ornaments and pictures to hand out to the residents and we walked the halls singing from the caroling books my Nana used in the 50’s. our guide for the evening was an 80 year old woman named anna. small but mighty, anna led us with confidence. up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, telling us tidbits about the residents we were meeting. we had great fun and felt extremely rewarded by the smiles and genuine gratitude we felt from each encounter we had with a resident. toward the end of the evening we sang “i’m dreaming of a white christmas” and anna began to cry. when we finished she told us why.
when anna graduated from college she felt as though God was calling her to become a missionary. she decided to follow this call and boarded a boat headed for india. on the way her ship stopped briefly in the phillipines. world war II broke out, however, and japan took the islands leaving anna and her fellow passengers prisoners of war. two and a half years later, at her release, irving berlin had been present and had sung “white christmas” to the detainees.
all 25 of us stood, dumbfounded, as anna shared her story. she told it as though it was old news, nothing extraordinary, something we already knew. for us, however, our already meaningful evening took on an entirely new dimension. no longer were we able to consider those we’d sung to as just a bunch of retirees. there were prisoners or war here, people who had been sung to by irving berlin. there were complexities here, hearts and minds and souls here. in sharing time and space with these people our stories had intertwined.
we’ve carried this tradition on for 12 years, missing only one year in the mix. we’ve had as many as 47 people in our band of singers and as few as 22 over the years. in our early years we would gather for pizza before or ice cream after and then began sharing a potluck at a friend’s home as part of the tradition. this november i booked our usual date early, sent out emails a month before, and prepped our ornaments and books. in an odd twist of fate, however, very few carolers were available to join us and of those that planned to come, several ended up sick or called away by urgencies the day we were to sing. when i arrived at the center, knowing our group would be small, i felt discouraged and afraid. my worst fear truly could happen. i had planned an event to which no one might come.
this might not have mattered to me in other situations but i am now a known commodity at this center and among those that join me to carol. if only a few people were present, what would everyone think? doreen is a loser. all she can come up with is this? does she have no friends? no colleagues? no one who wants to spend time with her? why didn’t she just cancel? what did she do this year to make her yesterday’s news?
i’ve heard these fears and worse in my own mind many times and i hear them from others as well. why put myself out there? why risk inviting people (into my life, into an experience, into a conversation) only to be rejected? why confirm my fears that i am alone? not compelling? not interesting? a flop. a failure.
our official start time rolled around and no one but my husband, daughter, and me were present. i began to dread the time. i began to regret the request that my friend host our post caroling gathering. i began to feel foolish and apologized to my family and to the coordinator who had fit us into the schedule. i began to feel a failure.
then, it happened. two of our oldest friends, both part of our original group, arrived. one with her 16 year old son and the other with her elementary aged kids. my college freshman son sauntered in wearing his santa hat with his roommate in tow. still feeling disappointed by our small numbers, i was relieved that we would at least be able to sing a few songs. we ventured out, beginning in the main dining room then heading down hallways and into the special care units and the health center where residents were likely spending a disappointing december.
we began weakly, rushing through each song as though saying, “sorry we’re small, sorry we’re not very loud. we won’t bother you for long.” i just wanted the exposure of my ineffective gathering skills over. as the hour went on, however, something amazing happened. i stopped caring that there were only 10 of us. it didn’t matter because what was happening was meaningful. i began missing those that weren’t there because i genuinely cared about them rather than missing them because i wished their bodies would make our group larger (and my planning more seemingly effective). i settled in to the moment and saw more fully the smiles of the residents to whom we sung. i actually heard their voices as they joined in. i savored the image of 5 year old everly twirling down the halls in her fancy christmas dress and observed her and her brother hiller melt hearts when they handed wheel chair bound men and women hearts of cinnamon and apple sauce. i fully noticed my son’s countenance as he interacted confidently with the individuals on the alzheimer’s unit and my daughter’s desire to sing one more verse and linger. because our group was small we had the freedom to wander down to the basement where residents sell amazing mid century modern furniture and other things they no longer need. the two 16 year olds among us played in the motorized scooter chair as they had played on tricycles years ago. we were all relaxed in a way that we wouldn’t have been had we been managing a large group. later we shared space and conversation in deeper ways than we had in the past, the 16 year olds talking politics, a mixed age group discussing theology, and others playing board games. as we tidied up i realized that i felt joy where i feared a feeling of failure would settle.
i want to master the lesson that is in this. i want to mean what i say when i say that whoever is supposed to show up will. i want to be confident enough to invite others and then release them to do what is best for their sense of self rather than having to respond to meet my needs of having planned a successful event. when i do this i will be free to continue to take relational risks. i may have to face my fears in the mix and in so doing i just might experience something important.
i feel confident when i say that everyone, deep within them (or possibly very close to the surface), has a sense of aloneness that twinges when touched. fears of no one showing up haunt us. i hear these fears all the time at coffee shops, in my office, everywhere, really, where honest people talk. sometimes they come true and we experience disappointment and loneliness. sometimes they don’t and we are comforted. the trick, it seems, is to not stop at the loneliness, the self proclaimed “failure” when we ask and no one shows. when we stop there we begin looking only for evidence that supports our belief that we truly are alone. that the people we want don’t want us so we may as well declare ourselves an outcast. unlovable.
perhaps it is in these places that we can truly begin to see who is there, more than who isn’t there, for us. it may not be an ideal community, it may not be a perfect partner or friend or roommate or spouse, it may be a less than effective co-worker or neighbor, it may be only a “good enough” connection. we may think we’re “settling” and yet, in so doing, we may learn to flex and share and co-mingle in new and grace filled ways. who knows, we may be that which has been “settled on” in the lives of others. funny, that.
being a friend to ones’ self is an essential foundation to being a friend for another. inviting others is easier when we know that, no matter what, we ourselves will show up for ourselves...and for each other...in whatever ways, large and small, we are able. only in taking risks can we deepen our connections with others and with ourselves, becoming grateful for (and grace filled toward) the fellow pilgrims on our journey...even if they are few and far between. the less than ideal may be just that...ideal.