It started in the summer, when a good friend asked if I would write this year’s Christmas pageant for our church. I am arrogant enough that I will say “sure” to any writing request, unless it has to do with cats. However, the Christmas pageant project sat on the back burner for a long time. I talked about writing it. I’d sit outside with my husband on a warm fall evening and raise my pint glass to what would surely be the best Christmas pageant ever (no offense to the Herdmans). I thought about writing it, but every time I sat down to find a way in, I froze.
The time came for parts to be assigned, songs to be taught, and angel costumes to be altered, and I still hadn’t written a word. Ashamed, I went to my pastor and confessed. He suggested I order a script. “Why reinvent the wheel?” he asked encouragingly and pointed me to a website with loads of great Christmas pageant scripts to choose from.
Why reinvent the wheel? Because that’s what I do when I write: take a look at a thing that’s common and shine a new story on it. It’s my thing. If I were to build a brand for myself, that would be it. I felt like a failure not writing a Christmas pageant for my church.
The show must go on, though, so I ordered a script and off I went to rehearse the story of a baby boy born in a barn and come to save the world from ourselves.
After one rehearsal, my friend Gayle and I were sitting on the floor of the church library sorting through costumes when another woman walked in. Standing over us, she asked if we were assigning costumes to kids. We told her yes. She explained that each outfit’s measurement had been labeled with a piece of masking tape and put on the gallon Ziploc bag it had been neatly folded into.
“That way,” she explained,” I know exactly whose outfit to alter and how much to alter it.”
Gayle and I stared at her like two five-year-olds who’d been caught with our hands in the cookie jar. The costumes were not only out of their bags, they were strewn all over the floor, flung over our shoulders, and across our laps. The Ziploc bags were in a crumpled heap in the corner.
“Folding the costumes prevents us from having to iron them if they’re folded neatly,” she told us.
“Yeah, well,” Gayle said rolling up a shepherd’s robe,” that ship has sailed.”
I hung my head to stifle a laugh, though I also felt terrible. Moments ago, I’d walked into the library and pulled a cardboard box from a white cupboard at the bottom of the bookshelves. Inside the cupboard, there was a swaddled baby doll, a few handmade crowns, and crisply folded Christmas Pageant costumes—about forty of them—neatly sealed and standing at attention in the cardboard box. It felt reverent holding the box of clothes waiting to help tell what is surely one of the most mysterious stories of all time.
I held up a purple and gold robe, probably one of the three kings’ robes, and imagined this woman stitching together the fabric so a child would have a chance to take part in telling a story about a boy who’d come to change the world. I imagined her smoothing out the freshly sewn robe, folding it just so and slipping it into a Ziploc bag that had already been labeled with tape and a Sharpie. Why couldn’t I write a Christmas pageant? Why couldn’t I use what I believed God had gifted me with?
“I’ll fold these back up,” I told Gayle, who was busy making sure each kid had a shepherd head scarf.
“Looks like we need about three more,” she said. “I can make ’em. It’s just a simple snip, snip.”
I hung my head again. Gayle knows how to sew. Plus, she’s a doctor. And I think she makes her own venison jerky. After hunting the venison.
“I’ll fold these back up,” I said again.
• • •
Sundays are my blogging days. Not my writing days. Blogging on my own website seems restorative and appropriate for Sundays when I ought to be resting. On that Sunday, though, I didn’t see the point in logging on and coming up with a story to match a couple of pictures. Who cares? What’s useful about that?
Instead, I went through my daughters’ clothes, refolded them and stuck garments that were too small in bags to be sent to Goodwill. I hung soccer medals and pictures on the wall above my daughter Hadley’s dresser.
“This is so cool, mom. Thanks!” she said, admiring her work.
Feeling satisfied, I decided to make dinner next: a roasted butternut squash, bacon, and red onion drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with thyme concoction. I pour that over pasta, and for added drama and texture, I wilted some swiss chard in the boiling pasta water.
Candles were lit, my husband strung twinkle lights on our stairs for Christmas, and the four of us sat around the kitchen table eating dinner, playing a board game, and laughing.
• • •
In my classroom, my students and I have been creating Advent Scrapbooks. They’ve taken a file folder that was originally a prayer journal, ripped it into two pieces, slipped metal rings through each side, and we’ve collected stories, poetry, and carols as we observe Advent.
We are reading Cynthia Rylant’s Children of Christmas, a collection of short stories about a Christmas tree man, a father and daughter sipping hot chocolate in a cafe on a winter’s night, a homeless woman who is sick and can’t remember the word for “hospital” so she enters a library instead. The stories are heartbreaking and heavy but with many slants of light, just as I think Advent ought to be, and that’s why I’m sharing Rylant’s words with my students.
Today, we are studying “Ballerinas and Bears,” a story about a little girl named Silvia. She is wandering around New York City on Christmas Eve because walking makes her forget that she doesn’t know where her parents are, that she won’t get presents, that she doesn’t know what it feels like to be swooped up in a hug.
I read the story out loud while the students follow along. They’re capable of reading the stories independently, and perhaps should. But there’s something communal about my reading the story as they follow along, their heads bowed. I feel I am offering something to them, though the gift is sad and hard, and while I have no control over what they’ll do with it, still, I want them to be careful. So I read each word as best I can, as if I’m handing them a swaddled infant.
As I read, I notice how many times Rylant uses “and” or “but” at the beginning of her sentences. It doesn’t bother me, but I wonder what my adolescent students think. My students, who have just begun their sojourn into the gray, where right and wrong are intertwined and grace gets easily confused with something one earns. Can they pick up beauty from a rule that’s been broken? I ask them.
“Circle all the ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ at the beginning of Rylant’s sentences,” I tell them. After jokes and giggles (Look out for the buts! I found a but!), they do it.
“What do you think? Do they work?”
Some students suggest Rylant could’ve turned a few into compound sentences, with a comma after the “and” or “but.” One reads a revised sentence aloud, her hand waving in the air as though she’s conducting an orchestra.
“Sounds nice,” I say, and I’m not lying. I think she read it well, but I’m wondering whether the class can figure out why Rylant chose to break a rule, so I push them. “Haven’t your teachers told you no ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ at the beginning of sentences? How come Rylant can do it?”
“Because this is not the way it’s supposed to be!” a student declares from the back of the room. “’They are children,’” he reads Rylant’s three-word sentence, and his hands are in blades, bracketing Rylant’s words on his paper.
“She’s putting this sentence in between an ‘and’ sentence and a ‘but’ sentence on purpose.” He looks at me for help. Before class started, he was telling me that when he was a toddler, he loved screwdrivers.
“I had no clue what they did.” He laughed. “I just loved them.”
I wondered about the miracle of loving something without care for what it is, or what it could do; just sheer joy that it’s been created.
“Something’s not right,” I say.
“These kids shouldn’t be wandering the streets,” he goes on. “They should be in bed, thinking about their presents with their parents in the next room.” His voice cracks and I can’t tell if it’s hormones or emotion.
“So the ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ are there to make you feel uneasy,” I say, and the class nods.
“Can you do it?” I ask. “Can you write a paragraph or two with a few ands or buts as sentences starters?” They grin devilishly. Aha! Mrs. Feyen is telling us to break a rule. “Yeah! We can do it!” they cheer.
“Wait a minute,” I say. “You have to do it like Rylant did it. You have to have some urgency. Something needs to be wrong.”
Their smiles fade, the class stills, the students look to their papers and begin to write.
• • •
I wonder as I write this scene what was useful about what happened in my classroom. Was anything measurable? Surely I can’t assess a kid on how many times he used “and” or “but” at the beginning of his sentences.
In fact, I hadn’t meant to point this out about Rylant’s writing at all. I’d planned on covering different objectives, but when I read the story, I wondered, and it seemed important—urgent, even—for me to show my students and see what they thought of it.
Like the shepherds who were watching their flocks and saw the angel and were afraid. I’m not terrified of Rylant’s sentence beginnings, but as my student pointed out, it seems she’s using the words to startle us. Could it be that angels disguise themselves in words? And when we are startled, and when we understand that we don’t have to be afraid, how can we not rush to find ways to tell, over and over again, the story and the rules that were broken?
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