52 Across (A Christmas Story)

This holiday, I spent time with old friends. A few of them showed up the Saturday before Christmas, landing on my porch at the crack of dawn with their characteristic thump. Holding my barely sipped coffee, I stepped out to greet them, savouring the burst of crisp yet concerningly unwinterish fresh air. I carried them inside to my kitchen table and unwrapped them from their blue plastic sleeve. I spent a brief few moments absorbing their features, but it would be a bit longer before we could spend any quality time together. There were errands still to run, presents to wrap and bathrooms (and children) to scrub. I placed my friends gently aside and puttered off to tackle my to do list.

The next night, after the final holiday party stragglers were sent home with bear hugs and Ziplocs full of creamy mashed potatoes, I wiped down the sticky messes that couldn’t wait until morning. I dashed upstairs to find my comfiest sweatshirt. Well, someone’s comfiest sweatshirt. I poured myself a proper pint of stout, inked up my favourite fountain pen, and after bribing my daughter with salted cashews in return for the fuzzy blanket, I plopped down in my favourite chair.

It was finally time.

I opened carefully to the gloriously empty black and white grid, beaming back at me with hope and possibility. I took a few moments to fold the giant sheet into crisp, evenly-sized quadrants, and scribbled circles with my fountain pen to make sure the ink was flowing smoothly. After a few minutes of scanning to get my bearings, I dove in. Within a few minutes I had settled into a pleasant rhythm, jumping steadily between the Across and Down sections, making small but satisfying ticks with the tip of my nib through each solved clue. Before too long I had a few good inches of ink on the page, and I started to feel the cognitive equivalent of runner’s endorphins flooding my tired brain with small bursts of delight. It felt, much like it does every year, like gently returning to the company of old friends. I carried on late into the night, steadily filling the tiny white squares. Turning, ticking, scanning, humming, and slowly carrying myself back to a place that felt a lot like home.

I sat in that chair for the better part of the week. I took periodic breaks to consume leftovers, go on rambling walks with my family in the unseasonably warm sunshine, and occasionally, to shower. I checked the basement every few hours to ensure that my kids’ developing brains had not atrophied too much from shamefully long stretches of screen time. When needed, I refilled the cashew bowl. But mostly I just sat comfortably in my chair, scanning back and forth between the clues and the grid until my neck was stiff and my eyes were fuzzy.

By day three, my son was starting to look at me with what I can only imagine was genuine concern for my well being. Finally, on one of his many trips to the kitchen for reinforcements, he turned to me tentatively. “You’ve been working on that thing a really long time. Are you, like…ok?”

I was more than ok. What my son didn’t know was that this year, the giant holiday crossword puzzle was more than just a fun thing to do on vacation. He didn’t know that sitting quietly in that chair was the centrepiece of a very deliberate strategy to re-centre myself and to recover from what I can only now admit has been among the most challenging but potentially transformative years of my life. I knew leading up to the holiday that if I did not set a specific intention to find stillness and rest, I would easily fill the time with a constant supply of chores and largely unnecessary tasks on my madey-uppedy to do lists. You can thank my working class Irish parents for my complete inability to gracefully relax. What my son couldn’t know was this year, the giant crossword offered me a tangible reason to sit a little longer, to breathe a little deeper, and to stay quiet long enough to hear anew the ambient sounds of love around me, which can often sound remarkably like high pitched giggles and armpit farts. More than anything else, working on that puzzle for days on end helped me to get re-acquainted with the gloriously beautiful business of living in the ordinary. The older I get, the more sure I am that this is precisely the place where God lives.

There were other fringe benefits to my strategy for the holidays. According to the internationally recognized Rules for Completing Giant Crossword Puzzles, you cannot look up answers, but you do get up to five phone-a-friends. I always make my choices carefully: Richard gets Greek gods and all things Old Testament, Karen is pop culture, Steve is philosophy, and my big sister Kathy is for, well, basically everything else. The truth is that these interventions are never just about solving crossword clues. The calls, or these days, the texts, are really just convenient excuses for reaching out to people I love. Sometimes these texts lead to the best kind of back and forth banter, and If I’m really lucky, they might end with a definite plan for a visit to share leftovers. I’m acutely aware that these moments of one-on-one connection have become tiny lifelines for me in a world increasingly defined by Facebook likes and group emails. Despite my fairly serious attempts over the years to hold spaces for meaningful connections online, my pre-millenial DNA can really only take me so far in this regard. Much to the horror of many of my friends and neighbours, the spontaneous in-person drop in is still far and away my favourite way to connect.

Notwithstanding the stout and cashews, one of the best things about sitting in that chair for days on end was that it reminded me of how something as simple as a crossword puzzle can, if you let it, serve up endless chances for reconnecting with the important parts of ourselves that often get pushed aside in the ceaseless demands regular life. This holiday, a five letter word for √étalian Coins became, at least for a moment, the memory of my honeymoon, walking blissfully lost through the cobbled streets of Venice with my beloved. Baseball divisions (7 letters) became Sunday afternoons with my dad in front of the television, pretending to understand the commentary. Tahitian Women Bathing Painter (7 letters) was my coming of age novel by Summerset Maugham, while Cary of The Princess Bride (5 letters) became giggly high school sleep overs. Church council, also 5 letters, summoned the community of people that faithfully shepherded me through the loss of my mother and helped fill me with a renewed sense of direction and purpose that has changed my life in ways I never thought possible. Wrapped anew as a hockey stick (7 letters) was watching my son and his dad rediscover the joy of a freshly cleaned rink, while Football pass (also 7 letters) became the sound of loud cheers as my daughter accepted the MPV award as the school’s first ever female quarterback.

Hour after hour, clue by clue, the words helped to weave a tapestry of gratitude around my heart for the people, places and experiences that have shaped me, particularly in this past year. They also helped to crystalize a few of my hopes for the year ahead. I think maybe this is exactly what prayer really is: intentionally making the time and space to look carefully at what has been, what is now, and what is to come, and trusting that God, in her infinite mercy and wisdom, is with us for all of it.

May you all find the light in whatever form it takes for you this Christmas season.  And if you need to phone a friend, you know where to reach me.  Just follow the trail of salted cashews.