With time, life starts to make sense
By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
DEC 13, 2015
Two of my sons stood in the kitchen the other day and discussed Christmas break, cooking, travel plans, guns, snowboarding and college.
They also talked enthusiastically about fire.
This isn’t surprising, considering their fascination with the subject when they were younger. I recall WD-40 sprayed and ignited in an upstairs bedroom, for instance, and, when I had my back turned, charcoal lighter fluid tossed onto a brush fire just to see what would happen.
But this conversation was different.
Ben, who is suddenly 22 years old and a senior in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, talked about his interest in combustion and an OSU project studying forest fires.
Steven, age 21 and finishing his first year in Chemeketa Community College’s firefighter/EMT program, was immediately interested, even though most of his academic pursuits have been far removed from Ben’s math and engineering.
So their interest converged on the subject of fire, once again, only this time they weren’t scheming a new way to put the house and their lives in danger.
Instead, they discussed — could it be? — British thermal units! “The stupidest unit of energy,” they agreed, and went on to mention smoldering combustion, fire suppression and unit conversions.
I am quite sure I was awake and not dreaming. Since then, I’ve been wondering: Why couldn’t God have made me know back then what I know now? Wouldn’t I have freaked out a bit less and stayed calm a bit more?
Back when I was calling my husband, desperate and in tears, because I just found out about the WD-40 episode upstairs — the boys thought it was all a big joke, there were black smudges on the ceiling above the top bunk, the house could have burned down, I feared the whole family was doomed to a terrible end, and their dad just had to do something right now — back then, I didn’t see this day coming.
I couldn’t look ahead 10 years and see two handsome, responsible grownups leaning on the kitchen counter and having an easy conversation about technical things I barely understand.
I would have appreciated a glimpse of this.
Yet, I know well that not nearly everything turns out this nicely. That middle ground between decisions and results is soil where tenacious regrets can sprout and grow.
Missing a Christmas concert was a small regret, as regrets go, yet I felt an oversized sadness about it.
Every year, I hope to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Nothing else quite elevates the Christmas season into its proper spiritual plane. I can never watch and listen objectively, detached or analytical. Instead, the music immerses me in sound and worship, the ancient words of hope and incarnation carried on voice and violin in an experience so beautiful that it feels irreverent to describe it.
Unfortunately, it’s often hard to find a local performance that fits our schedule.
Last week was an exhausting mix of attending our daughter’s children’s-choir performances, Christmas-outreach activities at church, and selling books at two of the biggest authors’ events of the year. I was vaguely aware of the kids’ plans to attend some kind of concert at OSU on Sunday after church, but by then I was desperate for a long nap.
“Hey, Mom, you can come along if you want,” they said.
I debated briefly, and flesh won over spirit. They took off soon after lunch. I stayed home and slept.
They returned that evening with reports of an orchestra and multiple choirs, of majestic Latin pieces and beautiful sacred music, and, yes, even of selections from the Messiah including the Hallelujah Chorus, my favorite.
Exactly what my soul needed, and the only local concert like it. I had chosen to miss it, for a nap. I felt so sad about this, and regretted it so deeply, that I actually mulled Scrooge’s words in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”
I could and should have, but I didn’t. It was entirely my fault. If I had only known, I’d have chosen differently.
As a person of faith, I celebrate Christmas believing that all our questions find their answers in Jesus, in God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.
Even Jesus, I am told in the book of Luke, “increased in wisdom,” which I don’t begin to understand if he was the all-knowing God in the flesh, but I find it comforting. It tells me there’s a cosmic design in this painful process of accumulating wisdom rather than knowing it all at once.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t have life figured out, and I need to trust my story and all its unknowns to someone who does, so that even the mistakes and regrets can turn into eventual growth.
After years of dealing with it every fall, I recognized my oversized reaction to the missed concert as a symptom of seasonal affective disorder, and immediately spent more time outside and boosted my dosage of vitamin D. I know this now; 10 years ago, I didn’t.
To my delight, my sympathetic husband offered to take me to a Messiah performance in Portland. It would be held at the First Baptist Church — the same church, I am quite sure, where, long ago when I was pregnant with our first child, I attended a daylong seminar on mothering. I distinctly recall my lack of sympathy that day for a friend who ended up in tears at her own inadequacy. I knew how to do it right, and logically, that’s how I was going to do it.
Would I really have wanted to know then all that I thought I knew, or would I have chosen to be loved and guided through years of mistakes and hard-won insights to where I find myself today, somewhat wiser and vastly more compassionate?
The day of the flaring WD-40 upstairs, I did not see that I would learn to rank calamities and stay calm through all but the worst or that I was receiving a hope and perspective to offer to younger moms in the future. I had no premonition of these two sons, so different from each other, connecting as adults on the very subject that had given me so much anxiety.
A divine author is shaping this story, I believe. Even my ignorance and floundering, my mistakes and regrets have had a purpose, and I have always been shepherded and loved.
I did not see these coming — the responsible young men, the ballooning joy, the overwhelming gratitude, the second chances, the grace. They were all a glorious surprise, my frustrating human limitations divinely transformed into the most valuable and improbable gifts.