Saturday, December 20, 2003

The origin of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is thought to come from a mnemonic used to teach children catechism in 16th century England when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed. Each of the gifts in the song is a symbol for the religious teaching beginning with the Partridge symbolizing Jesus and ending with 12 drummers drumming the points of the Apostles Creed. “Five golden rings” is symbolic of the first 5 books of the bible; the Pentateuch or what the Jewish faith calls the Torah. There are many that dispute this theory of origin so this, like so many other things is left up to us to choose what we believe to be true. Our belief system should be an active exercise in faith though, so whether or not this is the actual origin of the “12 Days of Christmas” Let me share with you what five rings means to me this Christmas season.

The Ring of Life. I believe that our lives move in rings. Smaller rings woven together into larger rings and again into larger ones and so on and so on as the days and minutes are woven into the fabric that is our lives. We leave for work in the morning and return in the evening only to repeat the process the next day. We move away from a city and months or years later return to the same city. We graduate from a school then return to seek a higher degree. We shelve a musical instrument our childhood and dust it off years later to find comforting familiarity or learn new songs. Sometimes the completion of these rings is obvious and self-evident, sometimes shocking, sometimes sublime, sometimes only seen in retrospect. Although the rings we create with our daily lives is fragile and fine nearly to the point of invisibility until linked together and used to create successively larger rings, it is only through this linking that eventually a fabric with the tensile of chain mail is fabricated. Our daily rings are woven so tightly and with such minute movements though, that without a guide it is impossible to detect the patterns we are generating easily seen from afar. So while we consistently look for guidance through our daily lives, we must take care to seek the same guidance in building each day upon the last and linking our rings together. Only adherence to the guide weaves the fabric into a pattern and gives it strength.

The Ring of the Telephone. We had left Denver for Jacksonville Florida only 9 months earlier when Merrill Lynch closed their Colorado campus in the wake of the events of September 11. With a ring of the telephone though, we found ourselves enroute back to Colorado as my Army Reserve unit mobilized to support military actions in Southwest Asia. I was acutely that a ring of our was closing and the new one was beginning, as we made our way back to the Rocky Mountains, but I was blindsided by another during the course of this trip. As interstate 70 passes through Kansas, it takes the traveler past Fort Riley, home of the Army’s massive 24th Mechanized Infantry Division. Fort Riley’s airfield, plainly visible from the highway and normally packed to capacity with all manner of aircraft, was on this day nothing more than a vast expanse of windswept concrete. To my family beside me in the car, this was nothing notable, but they had never been down this road before.

I was struck by the void though. I had seen this before at Fort Campbell during Desert Storm and I knew that the vast emptiness of Fort Riley on this day was the first tangible evidence I had seen that our nation would soon be fully committed to war. To me that void was as striking as the night sky east of Denver had been on the night of September 11th. The blackness of that sky which should have been filled with light of airplanes arriving and departing Denver International had been the first tangible evidence of all the horrific events we had witnessed only through electronic means. The emptiness had shaken me to the core as I realized our lives had changed forever and only the magnitude of change had yet to be determined. In the ensuing catharsis, we sold a home we thought we would occupy to old age, we left family that we had struggled for years to return to, and we moved to a region of the country I had never desired to return to, but we had gradually reconciled ourselves with the change and accepted it as God’s will for us.

With my family happier every mile closer to Colorado, I said nothing as we passed the airfield, but the significance of the emptiness didn’t escape me. I knew without doubt that our lives would certainly be changed again. Rings close. Rings open.

February found us back in Colorado with a new house, and working full time with my old Reserve unit. Reunions with friends and family was joyous, but reunions with my comrades was both welcome, as I helped share the burden of their tasks, and bittersweet as our tasks involved deploying other friends into harm’s way.

The Graphical Ring. If you place a ring on a normal 2 axis graph of quantity and time you find that the first quarter of the ring, the upper left, begins nearly vertical signifying the highest increase of activity in the shortest amount of time. It’s interesting to trace a ring through this way, noting how activity increases and decreases, faster and slower over longer and shorter periods of time, but that as you approach the end of the circuit, the line is almost vertical again, the highest increase in the shortest time.

Compare this to our rings in life, and you find that even though we have our ups and downs during any period, though slow times and the fast times, when the most is happening in the shortest amount of time, we are usually ending one period of our lives and beginning another. It may be as simple as waking up in the morning and beginning a new day, or beginning a new fiscal year at work, but as closely as all the rings of our lives are intertwined you will at times, find yourself in a confluence where several rings are closing and opening at the same time

Several years ago I attended the funeral service of a soldier that had once worked for me. The Army had detailed the standard funeral detail for the soldier which had made the 3 hour drive in a government van. After the color guard had performed their duty at the burial site, I watched them hang their dress uniform jackets in the back of the van, clamber inside, and begin their 3 hour trek back. This past May as I was filling my car at the gas station on Fort Carson, I saw that one of the other vehicles at the station was a government van loaded with soldiers and dress uniforms hanging in the back. Fort Carson’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had been deployed to Iraq a month earlier, and it was clear that the soldiers in this van would soon be performing a difficult and painful duty. At times like these, there are no small military duties, but as I watched this van of soldiers drive away, I knew it was time for me to stop being a part time soldier.
The Ring on my Left Hand. Pam and I had been married barely 4 months and I had moved her from the only place she had ever lived to start a new life in Colorado without the benefit of a stable career. After living in Denver long enough to achieve the solid foundations of a stable career and for Pam to fall in love with the Rocky Mountains, we sold the house we intended for old age moved to Florida. In the South, Pam tolerated the heat, the insects, the deep-fried everything, and the ever-present NASCAR as we clung to the advancement of my fledgling civilian career. Upon my call to duty she reveled in the purchase of our new home in Colorado Springs and once again began to sink roots in the place she had come to think of as home. In spite of all this, Pam offered no hesitation when I approached her with the news that I had been offered the return of my Regular Army commission. It is only this unconditional love and support at the confluence of so many of our life’s rings, that has kept the fabric that our lives have weaved so strong and the pattern so colorful. I know that this unflinching support comes from her understanding that pattern we weave is not for us to see.

The Ring on my Right Hand. There is a picture which we have all seen of an elderly gentleman being carried from the World Trade Center on September 11th by 5 fireman and rescue workers. Fr. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan Friar was the FDNY chaplain on that terrible day and was tragically struck down while administering last rites. Fr. Judge is now officially listed as victim 00001 of the WTC attack, but he is also listed on the rolls of St. Bonaventure University as a graduate of the class of 1957. Fr. Judge kneeled in the midst of a firestorm that day and performed the work God had prepared him for and laid at his feet. As much as we would have liked to stay in Colorado near family and friends, and as much as I wanted to continue my business career, it is a St. Bonaventure ring I wear on my right hand and it was time to pick up the work God had prepared us for and laid at our feet.

Now back in the regular Army, we find ourselves in Germany weaving new rings into the fabric of our lives. While the work is taxing, there is a direct impact for friends and comrades in harm’s way, so we have no qualms and ask require no sympathy. Even though this Christmas Eve will find us far from home, we will sleep in our own bed and wake safe in our own home on Christmas Day. When we do wake that morning, though, there will be a little sand under a tree decorated with a few extra guardian angels.

So regardless of the songs origin or what “5 Golden Rings” meant in 16th century England, this is what it means to us this year