“Santa Came! Santa Came!”

Dear Will:

I grew up in a loud, frenetic home. In addition to my parents, there were seven of us kids, born oldest-to-youngest in just a 10-year span. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.)

Imagine Christmas in that house. When we were little, the place pulsed with nervous energy. I can remember scrambling around the tree together, counting and sorting and speculating over what made one gift rattle or gave another its unique shape. Who knows what kinds of calculations took place in my parents’ quiet hours together (did they even have quiet hours together?) as they tried to ensure that no child felt overlooked or under-loved.

By Christmas Eve, the wave of excitement crashed upon the family shore, sending its exuberant spray in all directions. As I recall, the yule feast was typically a rib roast with Yorkshire pudding and . . . I have no idea what else. Afterward, we would gather for an abbreviated Christmas program of some kind. There again memory fails, but for sure we sang some, with Santa songs woven indiscriminately among the sacred hymns and carols of Jesus—it was all Christmas to us kids.

Eventually we hung our matching stockings and scurried off to bed. From that point, the living room was technically off limits, but you can bet that by 4 a.m. anticipation would overwhelm sleep, and one or more of us would begin slinking up and down the hallway, flashlighting our way through the fresh booty that had appeared while we were “asleep.” (One year my younger brother Michael woke me with a beam of light to the face. “You got a bike!” he announced. My corneas have not recovered.) Once we had assembled a critical mass, our clumsy eagerness would betray us and we would be shooed back to bed by a disheveled parent. But rather than return to bed, we would huddle in one of the bedrooms, chatting anxiously while we awaited the celebratory signal: my father shaking a string of bells and exclaiming, “Santa came! Santa came!”

All these years later, my memory clings to a smattering of snapshots from specific Christmases, but the details of those gleeful hours have mostly faded. Faded, that is, with one prominent exception: Every Christmas Eve, as the after-dinner festivities drew to a close, we would gather for a reading of the familiar King James account of the First Christmas Ever. My father would drag out the family Bible—one of those gigantic tomes meant mostly for display—and share with us the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke. My siblings and I were never what one would consider especially (or even somewhat) reverent, but in my memory we sat quietly for this. He was not an especially religious man, my dad, so when he read scripture, it was a very special thing.

Hearing my father recite that familiar account remains for me the most sacred thing imaginable. It had a greater effect on me than any of the baubles stuffed into stockings or concealed beneath the tree. Among my sundry childhood memories, it remains among the most precious, perhaps because of how it made me feel. Memories of the Spirit are that much harder to forget.

Oh, but how time passes relentlessly on. As we grew, whichever of the brood was near enough at hand would reunite each year in my parents’ home, now with our own children creating the energy of anticipation and wonder. As marriages added in-laws to the mix, new traditions mingled with the old; but the most treasured tradition remained inviolable: We would sit, and my father would recount the tale of angels and shepherds and a miraculous, life-changing, world-saving baby boy. Until he no longer could. The year his eyes failed and my dad asked me to take his place with the family Bible, I felt both disappointed and unworthy. I did the best I could, but clearly it wasn’t the same. Nor is it. My dad has been dead now for over ten years, and still I miss him all the time—never more than on Christmas Eve.

In a couple of weeks, a smaller group will gather in my own home. It will be just Dana and I, Seth and (maybe) Bryn, plus a couple of dear friends. There will be no Yorkshire pudding (who knows how to make Yorkshire pudding?), but it will be lovely nonetheless. We’ll be missing the magic that small children lend to such an event, but when we read of the Nativity, we will still feel the spiritual warmth that story always brings. Come morning, my grown children will sleep until I can stand it no longer. Eventually, I’ll reach for a string of bells and make the big announcement: “Santa came! Santa came!”


Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Dear Will:

If you’re in a hurry and trying to get from wherever you are to someplace else, you might think twice before you decide to bring Nacho. Our dimwitted family mutt, the Mexican orphan, has a tendency to lose focus within the first three steps of any walk. Everything around us is just so . . . sniffy. Take that wall over there. Sniffy. That rhododendron? Also sniffy. That random patch of grass in the middle of a much larger patch of grass? Sniffier than you can imagine.

In fairness, historical records indicate that we do eventually make it around the block. But if you’re trying get out, get back, and get on with your evening, forget about it. Between the sniffing and the peeing (and the peeing and the peeing), there isn’t a lot of time for, say, walking. Were it not for the frantic flaring of his sniffomatic snout, sometimes we might find it hard to trigger a motion sensor. The wild bunnies in the neighborhood don’t even bother to flee when this bloodhound approaches. Mostly they just blink in whiskery bemusement.

These “walks” often remind me of when my kids were little. We didn’t call them walks back then. They were “explores.” Luke typically found it necessary to load up on gear and supplies before we stuck his little sister (temporarily) in the stroller to cruise the neighborhood. On one occasion when he was maybe five or six, before we could leave the house he filled his backpack with the following (I kid you not): calculator, kaleidoscope, dice, popgun, flashlight, toy car, koosh ball, two plastic coins, stuffed lion, plastic dimetrodon, top, magnet, football, trumpet, rubber snake, wristwatch, shell lei, knight in armor, and, of course, a brochure entitled Wildflowers of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Forget the ten essentials; this kid was prepared.

What he needn’t have been prepared for was a lot of walking. With Bryn along, we tended to stop and start, lurching here, wandering there, constantly pausing so that she could hand us things to fill the abandoned stroller: sticks, rocks, leaves, snail shells—the sort of neighborhood whatnot that is treasure only to a two-year-old. I once cracked that if Bryn had been along when the pioneers were crossing the plains they would still be in Nebraska. At which point Dana surely would have reminded me that, on these family treks, getting “there” was not really the point.

True story: On one such explore, I was growing increasingly impatient with my children’s lack of forward momentum. When I turned to snap at Luke to pick up the pace, I discovered that he had—literally—stopped to smell the roses. (For my children, this is the sort of thing that qualified as “parenting.”) This scene played itself out again recently while Bryn and I were backpacking in the Uintas. While I was tromping through a meadow, frantically searching (again) for the poorly-marked trail, Bryn was standing gobsmacked in a gentle rain, admiring a mother moose and her baby. I was trying to get from wherever I was to someplace else; Bryn was having an explore.

Bryn gets it. And perhaps Nacho does too. For me his twice-a-days can be a bit of a chore; but for him, every time he senses potential pre-walk activity he’s all a-jitter for what might come next. He paces and paces, eager to get going so that we can . . . not go much of anywhere, as it always turns out. But the going and then not going and then going again, sniff-sniff-sniffing along the way, makes him deliriously happy. While I’m charging through the neighborhood with, I don’t know, “Radar Love” or something as my inner soundtrack, Nacho is sniffing to the beat of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” And by the time we return home, it’s not hard to guess which of us is feeling groovy.

Pretty smart for a dumb dog.


Our Defining Moment

Dear Will:

In March of 2020, my friends Khalil and Najia* said a tearful goodbye to family, bade farewell to home and homeland, and boarded a plane bound for the United States. It may have been the last flight out of Kabul before the pandemic brought a temporary end to international travel. What they now owned they carried in two large suitcases; everything (and everyone) else they left behind.

They had been married for barely over a year. With the assistance of the US government and various charitable organizations, the newlyweds made their way to California where they were welcomed (temporarily) into a two-bedroom apartment already occupied by a cousin, his wife, and two small children. Soon after their arrival, they learned that Najia was pregnant with their first child. So exciting. So terrifying.

This is how a new life begins: no job, very little money, almost no possessions, struggling with a second language and unfamiliar culture, surrounded by people and things you can barely understand. “Settling in” hardly seems possible, but you adapt and adjust and try your best to make do. So Khalil now works night security, and when he gets off at 4 a.m. he spends an additional four or five hours driving for Lyft. He and Najia have moved into their own apartment, and somehow they manage to cover their bills while trying also to go to school to qualify for something better. In December they added baby Camila* (so cute!) to the mix.

The outpouring of support from people from within our church and elsewhere has been overwhelming to them. Donations have poured in—furniture, clothing, appliances, gift cards—so many basic necessities that have helped them get on their feet. Still, the road ahead will not be easy. Given the odds and endless obstacles, you might wonder why anyone would even attempt it.

But then, you more or less know the answer to that question.

In this specific case, Kahlil spent several years working as an interpreter and cultural adviser to the US Army stationed near Jalalabad. His work with the Special Forces put him at the center of many combat missions and compelled him to interact frequently with enemy combatants from ISIS and the Taliban. Perhaps inevitably, he was wounded in battle, taking several rounds in the ankle and thigh. Were it not for impressive work by a US Army surgeon, Khalil could easily have lost his foot. He deals with constant pain to this day, but you will never hear him complain about what he’s lost or given up. Mostly he and Najia remain inexpressibly grateful.

Had he stayed in Afghanistan, Khalil’s life would surely be in jeopardy—now more than ever. The Taliban do not look kindly on those who assisted the Americans during their 20 years in the country—especially those as active and visible as Khalil. Although he was fortunate to get out, he left behind parents and siblings whose own lives are now threatened because of their association with him. It’s impossible to know what will become of them. For now, you can be certain that Khalil and Najia worry and pray and hope for some sort of bureaucratic miracle that will enable their loved ones to escape to someplace safer. Needless to say, these days they don’t sleep much.

Of course, there are thousands more in Afghanistan just like Khalil and Najia, full of fear, grasping for hope, trying beyond reason to believe that it might be possible to somehow, somewhere live without the constant fear that at any moment a knock on the door could change everything—irreparably—for the worse. All they want is what you and I want: to raise their kids, to dwell in peace, to laugh and love and live.

“This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

Patrick Kearon

Tens of thousands of displaced, hungry, frightened people will be arriving in the United States in the months ahead, and we must do what we can to welcome them. In the words of Elder Patrick Kearon: “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

If you can help, please do. You might start here or here. Or simply drop me a line and you can join me and Dana and many others in the effort to turn strangers into neighbors, foreigners into friends, refugees into fellowcitizens as they try to find a place that feels a little bit like home.


*not their real names