When I was little, Fourth of July celebrations were marked with red and blue frosted cupcakes, little plastic flags in the lawn near the lake, potato salad and wet towels, before mosquito bites and 9:30 fireworks. It was easy to smell that mix of slightly burned hotdogs, sunscreen, and lake water and celebrate.
I am far away from those lake house celebrations these days. I have to celebrate without that little Wisconsin lake and those cupcakes that have a dozen ingredients I can’t eat. Not everyone who was at those celebrations is alive to be with me now. Celebrating as an adult is a conscious decision to choose to toast the beautiful and the good, even when it’s next to the hard and the sad. I have to choose to see the July hydrangeas and blackberries as fireworks and sweet treats.
I am not normally a gloomy person, but I am prone to a bit of nostalgia. I love history and the magic of childhood. But as I think of what I remember about childhood celebrations, I am sure I gloss over the sticky, itchy bits. I am sure I have forgotten hurt feelings or tired and crabby exchanges between family members on those hot July nights. I am sure they were there. And yet I still celebrated. I still cheered at parades on muggy cobblestone sidewalks.
Nostalgia, I have found, can work inversely as well. When I’m faced with the uncomfortable bits and bites of life, I am prone to dreaming of some future, easier time. The whole year when Evan and I were apart, I counted down the days until our wedding, when we could finally just be together.
Now, I find myself again tempted to count the weeks until we’re together more. This summer started the intense period leading up to Evan’s student teaching. Our time and money is stretched. And part of me just wants to count down until December. But life is happening now, in the middle of the intense period. And I need to pay attention to the glorious and wonderful new life that is bursting like vivid summer flowers.
We just got to spend the last few weeks celebrating with friends. We have two close couple friends who just announced engagements. They are friends we’ve known for a long time, and prayed long and hard for God to guide them to a good and sweet future. What a delight that the two guys, who we have known the longest, have found women who love them and their love for history and law.
Last Friday, we had dinner with part of our small group and we toasted one of those engagements in an apartment now filled with toys and blankets to welcome a little baby girl a month ago. We prayed for wedding plans to the gurgling sounds of an infant, her mother holding her in one arm with her other arm holding one of the new fiancée’s.
We also helped one of our very favorite couples paint the walls of their first house. What an honor to paint a room “strands of saffron” yellow-orange that will hold guests yet to visit and babies yet to be born.
Last Saturday we had dinner with cherished college friends who are expecting their first baby in the Fall. They are going to be the most wonderful parents, and over chocolate cake with raspberry sorbet we shared in their joy.
We got to visit grandparents who are recovering well from difficult medical procedures. How sweet to return to the little house that watched grandbabies grow up and held great-grandchildren under the same roof. Life! Life, in all the beautiful and wonderful ways it expands and is affirmed, is around us.
I think that really, all holidays are like that. They are surrounded by the beautiful triumphs of life and the small and great tragedies. We are walking through stressful seasons. We mourn with those who have lost parents, babies, marriages, and jobs. We cry as those in our community weep over the way that some holidays can never truly feel purely joyful as they once did. They will always be partially marked by what is not there.
But we bake a cake. We stay up late. We raise a glass. Sometimes we feel most strongly the pull to mourn and celebrate on those days that are layered with memories and traditions, like so many layers of icing and cake, the sweet and the bitter. We affirm life not because it is easy, or because we want to pretend there is not pain and loss, but because they help us to remember how precious new parents, babies, marriages, and jobs are.
And as, appropriate to July 4th, the American Dictionary reminds me, precious means “of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly, or greatly loved or treasured by someone.” A treasure can be small: ten tiny toes or a memory of laughter. Children are good at treasuring the tiny.
Once, when I was little, for the 4th of July we got those tiny sparklers, the ones in which you can trace a shape in the sky and it stays there a second. I remember how we stood around in the dark with cousins and matches and lit up the night for a minute or two. It seemed so incredibly magical, to draw in the sky.
And this Fourth of July, as Evan and I are heading to a crowded beach, teaming with life as little ones make Fourth of July memories with sandcastles and tides, I hope to choose to treasure the moments. I hope to celebrate the new beautiful and sad chapters of life with our friends, as we are in the middle of our own. When we choose to stop and mark the time with memories and sparklers, chocolate cake and sparkling wine, it helps us to remember the good that is bursting around us.
So wherever you are today on this little birthday of America, this small celebration of freedom and culture, I hope that you are filled with the joy of the now even as you feel the longing for what was and what is to come.
How do you embrace the joy and sorrow of celebrating holidays?
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