Ties that bind strengthened during the holiday season

This article was originally published in North County News.

We packed the pew. I parked my wheelchair as close as I could, bookending a collection of folks never assembled before. Snippets of my life’s chapters, filled with both pleasure and pain, scooted and scrunched together, beautifully coifed and clothed as we all faced the same direction and waited for the Christmas pageant to begin.

To my right was my father-in-law, or is it ex-father-in-law? I do despise that term. I always think of an ex-whatever as being some kind of convict or horrible mistake that a red “X” marks wrong.

So, we shall say my former father-in-law and mother-in-law sat beside me. It was the first time we’d been in church together since I married their son some 20 years ago. On the other end of the pew, sat their son – and his new wife. Her parents joined us as did mine, all at my invitation.

Products of that marriage – some of our best work together, I might add–our lovely children were sprinkled in-between. I watched them as they talked to their array of family. And my heart warmed.

Holidays pose some of the greatest challenges when it comes to family gatherings. Traditions that once celebrated family ties often trap our new lives with painful memories of what once was but can never be again.

With no pattern to guide us, we piece together remnants of our past with the new fabric of our present. We search for perspective, seeking the common denominator that weaves a seamless interface between disjointed and often difficult situations.

Taking a child’s view helps. As I watched my children talk to each member of their family, old and new, I realized their circle of relationships had grown. Granted, the so-called nuclear family had divided, but it had also multiplied, putting new people and new relationships in their lives. So far, we’ve prevented the permanent explosions that so often accompany the demise of a marriage.

Yet that perspective did not come readily or naturally for me. Divorce is never easy. As one pastoral counseling speaker told our Sunday morning Adult Forum class, “Divorce is a shipwreck. Let’s be clear about this. The real challenge is to limit the disaster of divorce and its affect on the adults and the kids.” Damage-control, as I see it.

Understandably, the adults’ first reaction is self-preservation, complete with boundaries and walls to limit the pain. Like the flight attendant reminds us when giving emergency directions for the use of oxygen masks, “Put your mask on first, then place one on your child.”

Yet, for true perspective, sometimes we need to get down to the child’s level and view the world with their eyes, their questions and their feelings. They need for their lives to make sense to them. We can help with that – or not.

Life is too short to exclude people that are in our lives (through no choice of our own) by shutting them out with a wall. Boundaries certainly serve their purpose to protect us from hurtful situations.

However, after a while, we need to look at that wall and make sure it isn’t a contrived obstacle to moving forward. That judgment is clearly individualized and clearly subjective. Only we know in our hearts the true nature of our boundaries and the spirit in which we use them.

Holidays provide a unique opportunity to be inclusive. They give us a reason to rise above the routines and rituals to create new traditions, packing our pew with our players of choice as we face the same direction – forward – and wait for life’s new pageant to begin.