Zen Buddhism and Bedtime Stories: A Holiday Reflection

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The day after Christmas, I was reading my daughter a bedtime story. It was Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth, a book about three siblings who each learn a Zen principle in an encounter with a giant panda named Stillwater. One such lesson was “misfortune becomes good luck.”

It was not my daughter’s book. I wasn’t reading it in her bedroom. In fact, we weren’t even in our own house.

Ava and I were staying for an uncertain length of time at our friends’ Michael and Nicole’s home just 10 minutes away. Earlier that day, they had traveled with their children, 9 and 14, to Atlanta when Michael passed out at the American Girl store. (It’s okay, you can laugh; he’s all right now, we just weren’t sure at the time.) He was rushed to the ER. Our friends are transplants to the South and don’t have family to call on, but they do have us. And having fixed us a fabulous Christmas Eve dinner, I guess we owed them. So when Nicole asked if my husband Ray could drive to Atlanta to get the kids and bring them home so she could focus on the situation at hand, he hopped in the car without a second thought (I mean, it was a really good dinner).

But let’s rewind to Christmas morning.

It was our second Christmas alone. Ever. We didn’t have the money to fly home to our families so we raked up our sorry-for-ourselves feelings and tried to make the best of it. It was working, right up until the wee hours of Christmas morning when I suddenly woke to my throbbing upper lip, or what used to be my upper lip and was now a suitable perch for a barn owl. By sunrise, it had grown so large it could sustain a flock of seagulls. Better yet, the Flock of Seagulls, their groupies and a touring bus.

I lay in bed considering the possibilities. On Christmas Eve, I thought I might be getting a cold sore, but this was clearly so much more. Flesh-eating virus came to mind. How inconvenient.

I woke my husband and told him that we might as well enjoy our last Christmas together, or at the very least, my last Christmas with this particular lip.

“What are you talking -” he rolled toward me and opened his eyes, “Whoa!”

Yeah. About that.

As our daughter merrily tore through her Christmas stocking, I drank my coffee through a straw and felt bitterly sorry for myself quarantined and alone on Christmas Day. I dodged Ray’s picture taking even as he tried to convince me that the size of my lip “didn’t translate two-dimensionally.” Apparently he was lying because when I Skyped my mother she shielded her face with her hands and yelled, “Oh my God! Dad, come here! Quick! Look at Andrea’s face!” Dad and Mom gawked and pointed in horror like I was a legless giraffe at the zoo.

“It’s spreading up the side of your face!”

It wasn’t; makeup just wasn’t a priority that morning. But thanks.

Clearly, it was bad. But it was going to have to wait. It was Christmas, after all. And more than that, even my dermatologist couldn’t see me like this.

Things improved moderately overnight. I went from circus freak to Botox gone horribly wrong. We had just gotten the call from Nicole, so I knew I would have to venture outside sooner or later. There I encountered my neighbors and quickly acknowledged the elephant woman in the room.

“Ray got me lip injections for Christmas.” Cue the recoil.

“Just kidding. I have a lip funk.” They laughed, somehow comforted with the thought of a communicable disease over restylane. Clearly I played this right.

Sure, they dispersed moments later, citing a variety of made-up errands. I couldn’t blame them. Survival of the fittest. And I was not fit for public consumption.

All the same, I had things to do. I had our friends’ children to care for. When they arrived, they kindly averted their eyes and never mentioned my lip until two days later when the swelling mercifully subsided.

“What happened anyway?” the 14-year-old asked.

Christmas happened. Somewhere between my over-inflated lip and the rush to our friends in need, the holiday spirit swept through virtually unnoticed.

Or maybe not.

Maybe I need to heed Stillwater’s Zen wisdom. All this bad luck was actually good luck in disguise. I didn’t spend Christmas “alone.” I spent it with a husband willing to drive ten hours to help our friends, friends willing to trust us with their children and home, and my daughter willing to believe the whole thing was one big adventure.

And the lip? Well, if I had gone home for Christmas I inevitably would’ve run into 50 people I went to high school with who would then permanently fix the vision of my lip into their collective memory and forever refer to me as the girl who “used to be pretty.”

Thank you, giant panda, for a memorable Christmas.

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