Inspired by the paradox of Christmas

stockings hung by fireplace
Ready for Christmas.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Make no mistake. The celebration of Christmas is a paradox. It always has been, and likely always will be.

I sensed that conundrum even as a child. Amid all of the glitz and glamor, the singing and shopping, all was not right with the world. Even in my limited adolescent life encounters, I saw extravagance and excess rub shoulders with poverty and despair.

As a young person, I had trouble reconciling such diametrically opposed situations. That didn’t prevent me from tearing into my presents, emptying my bulging stocking hanging by the fireplace, or enjoying the scrumptious meal our devoted mother had fixed.

We celebrated the season of sharing at elementary school, too. Before the classroom party, we often made simple decorations that I later volunteered to deliver to a local nursing home.

I’m not sure how much cheer the painted plaster ornaments or the looping strands of colorful paper chains gave the residents lying helpless in those hospital beds. The scene certainly left an indelible imprint on my young mind and soul.

rural church
Old church.
I took seriously the Christmas message of a different kind of king ruling my life. Growing up in the shadows of World War II and in the daily doings of the Cold War, I felt the chill of unsettled political consequences. I didn’t pretend to understand them.

I just knew my heart, mind, and soul were open to something better, more meaningful, more fulfilling to not only me but also those I encountered. The Christmas story awakened in me as it did the shepherds eons ago.

As I grew and more fully understood that precious bit of history mixed with lore, wonder, and interpretation, I more clearly saw the point of Christmas. Life is full of contradictions, uncertainty, disappointment, hypocrisy, and greed. My duty was to counter the bad with the good wherever and whenever I could.

That belief guided my life. It stirred my career in education. It thrust me into community service via fire and rescue and as an elected official. I enjoyed helping people, and still do. I receive great pleasure in assisting others in need.

I’m no saint, however. I know I made mistakes. I am human. But I did what I could, working with those around me to get things done, mostly for the benefit of others.

So here I am nearly seven decades on this earth, still applying, still pondering that Christmas story of long ago. In so doing, I loathe that others are denied the privileges that I enjoy simply because of their beliefs, their skin color, their economic status, and their dire situation only because of where they live.

Citizens in Aleppo, Syria, Frakes, Kentucky, and Millersburg, Ohio know what I mean. Folks everywhere are hurting, and all the Christmas hoopla doesn’t always heal their hurts. The avalanche of carols, merriment, and partying might even inflame those problems.

The holidays can depress people more than they already are. They miss loved ones who passed on too close to Christmas. I can identify with that, too, having lost family and friends during the holidays.

Christmas display
Christmas joy.
Christmas is a time to ponder. It is an eternal gift that is unwrapped daily. A genuine gift of Christmas celebrates while serving, gives while receiving. It corrects injustices.

If you know a person who is down-and-out for whatever reasons, send them a card. Call them. Visit them. Feel their pain. Hear their cries.

Those are but a few reasonable opportunities to explain and experience this paradoxical holiday we call Christmas.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Don’t let the gray skies get you down

gray day, dreary day, Bruce Stambaugh
Gray day. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015.

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s not easy living in the third cloudiest location in the nation. Like it or not, that’s just what the residents of Northeast Ohio have to do.

That’s not good for people with Seasonal Affective Disease (SAD). Recurrent gray days negatively affect their daily outlook. Folks with SAD have to suffer through as best they can. I can’t imagine how they do it. It’s hard enough to wake to one gray day after the other without that affliction.

I speak from experience having been a Buckeye all my life. Strung together like a necklace of discolored pearls, these series of overcast, dull days, can get us all down if we let them. We shouldn’t.

I will be glib and say there is good news anyhow. Minute-by-minute, daylight is increasing. That’s little consolation to all those overcome by the seasonal dreariness.

Winter mornings in Ohio seem darker and colder than ever. A minute of daylight tacked on a day at a time isn’t all that inspiring, helpful or meaningful.

We can always hope for an Alberta Clipper to roll through with a few inches of snow and frigid temperatures. The passage of the front usually brings clear, crisp days.

eastern bluebird, songbirds, Bruce Stambaugh
Songbirds like this male Eastern Bluebird can help cheer up any dull day. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015.
In addition, the fresh coat of light, fluffy snow brightens the dull, dormant ground. A million diamonds sparkle day and night, as long as the moon shows its face. Even if it is cloudy, I find a certain joy in the crunch, crunch, crunch of each step to retrieve the mail or fill the bird feeders.

Indeed, these dreary, damp, cold days are what they are. They don’t have to keep us from keeping on. We have to remember that each day is a gem of a gift to treasure all unto itself.

For me, that is an important reminder. The start of a new year means we enter winter’s hardest times. The season’s coldest temperatures, harshest weather, and often the worst storms are likely yet to come.

All things considered worse scenarios than depressing weather abound in this world. Can we look beyond our personal life space to see them?

A friend of mine has terminal cancer. He unabashedly asks others what they think about each night before they go to sleep. Do they believe they’ll awake in the morning? Are they ready to pass on?

Those are blunt, but necessary questions for each of us at any age, healthy or ill. At the end of another day, what do we contemplate? Can we accept dismal skies or broken relationships, or unsatisfying vocations?

Will we wake in the morning to a new day or a new world? None of us, regardless of our situations, knows. I do know this, however. Time is fleeting, gloomy skies or clear skies.

How will we use each day we are given to the benefit of others no matter our personal station in life? Will we let the weather get us down, or will we radiate sunshine that warms and enlightens others?

Regardless of where we live, that is always a challenge, isn’t it? I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions. But at this stage in my life, I only want to be helpful to others, those in my household, my family, my community, and even strangers I encounter in my daily duties.

My personal challenge this New Year is not to let the gloomiest weather dim the day at hand. What’s yours?

Amish farm, fresh snow, rural landscape
A fresh layer of snow helps brighten rural landscapes. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015.

© BruceStambaugh 2015

Healing among the mourners

World War II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My father, Richard H. Stambaugh, 89, got his only visit to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. courtesy of Honor Flight. As part of a review of the first decade of the 21st century, this picture appeared on the front page of nytimes.com on Dec. 24, 2009, three days after Dad had died.

By Bruce Stambaugh

In August, I emotionally crashed and burned. I thought I had been dealing pretty well with my father’s death late last year. Truth is, I wasn’t dealing with it at all.

Like so many others who have lost loved ones, I kept myself busy, and suppressed any emotions and hurts that spontaneously tried to ooze out at serendipitous times. I denied my suffering perhaps afraid to let myself go. I needed to properly mourn, take care of myself and share with others just how much Dad meant to me.

I thought I had of course. But I was just fooling myself. I know now that what happened to me was inevitable. I was in denial and the resulting consequences finally had caught up to me. I thought I was alone in this internal battle, and had to be strong for our mother and myself.

In his final months and days, Dad had received marvelous care from Hospice of Holmes County, along with the staff at Walnut Hills, the assisted living facility in Walnut Creek, Ohio where he and Mom lived. After his death, I began receiving monthly mailings from Hospice. Most of them had articles and literature on grieving.

Thinking that I was doing just fine, I usually glanced at them and that was it. That information was for others, not me. I was wrong.

The day my emotions hit rock bottom another Hospice mailing arrived. In it was an invitation to attend a special five-week session on grieving. I wasn’t tolerating the depression medicine the doctor had prescribed for me. I decided to stop the meds and start the counseling.

The group was small, which allowed for intimate, personal, confidential sharing. We met once a week for five consecutive Thursdays. I knew most of the handful of people who attended. The lives of rural people tend to intertwine consequentially.

Dick Stambaugh and Bob Dole by Bruce Stambaugh
Seeing Bob Dole, who was instrumental in making the World War II Memorial a reality, seemed to energize my father. Dole is often at the memorial to greet Honor Flight veterens.

Participants made the two hours each week a priority. We laughed, cried, listened and comforted each other. Our common, profound grief, our tears and smiles bonded us together with measureless compassion.

By the end of the final session, I had a greater appreciation for what others go through, how much people hurt even years after losing a loved one. I was no exception. I learned, though, that hearing the varying situations of others helped see my own issues in a new and realistic perspective.

We learned that grieving is an ongoing process. It takes time and understanding.

Still, I saw healing in my fellow mourners, and I felt healing myself. The last night we met, each of us took turns sharing something significant about our loved ones. Pictures, quilts, special mementos were all passed around.

I showed a slideshow of the Honor Flight trip I took with my father and older brother to Washington, D.C. in September 2009. Honor Flight is a program begun a few years ago to transport as many World War II vets as possible to the memorial in their honor in the nation’s capital.

I served as Dad’s guardian for the day, wheeling him around in his wheelchair. My older brother assisted two more able bodied vets. When asked where that experience fit in his 89 years of living, Dad said it ranked right after his marriage.

Knowing how much the trip meant to Dad, my brother and I were blessed to have been a part of that marvelous experience. In the same way, I was honored to have participated in the bereavement small group. The unconditional love and acceptance I experienced were unforgettable and priceless.

The hugs and handshakes upon parting told me the feelings were mutual.

Stambaughs at the WW II Memorial by Bruce Stambaugh
My older brother, Craig, Dad and I posed for a picture at the Ohio pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12, 2009.