Sometimes it pays to look up when times are hard

This isn’t a perfect holiday season. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that it is. But there is joy, always, if you remember to look for it.

The sky was aflame at sunset on the east side of Billings, Mont., on Dec. 7, 2020. (Jeff Michael / Special to Agweek)

On a recent Sunday, I slipped on a pair of light coveralls and boots and helped my husband cut out a sick calf to be treated. The sun was shining and the ground remained bare — same as it did for days after and maybe longer. The girls played in the yard but walked up to the feedlot as we worked. They missed us, they said.

This December, like much of this year, seems surreal. My “memories” on Facebook show numerous Decembers with blizzards and cold, where the wind would cut into even the thickest of layers. And there I was that Sunday, without a coat and with only light gloves, placidly walking behind a calf that, although fighting a respiratory bug, was full of spitfire.

The temperature has remained dozens of degrees above normal, and it doesn’t quite seem like the holidays are upon us. It probably doesn’t help that we’re all trying to stay out of stores and away from people more than usual, that our older daughter’s holiday concert will be virtual, and that it doesn’t quite seem like a time to celebrate when each day brings reports of accelerated death counts and overflowing hospitals.

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And yet, on that Sunday afternoon, our world was about as pleasant as it could be.


The girls and I put up Christmas lights, without fighting gloves or coats or snow or ice. As the sun started to sink in mid-afternoon, we went inside to finish cleaning the living room to put up the Christmas tree.

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Our tree is not of the carefully planned or color-coordinated variety. We buy a new ornament every year that may or may not symbolize something. There are a pair of “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments, a tiny gingerbread house from the year Brandon and I bought our first home, and a black and brown puppy from the year we got Cocoa, our Australian shepherd. But there’s also a Clark Griswold ornament that sings “Hallelujah” when you push a button, because we love "Christmas Vacation" and we have never pretended to be classy. We round things out with handmade ornaments, old favorites from my childhood, a few pretty things we’ve picked up here and there, and some garland. The star goes on the top, a little crooked because my taller stepstool is in the basement and I haven’t gone to get it yet and might not get to it, even by Christmas morning.

It’s never perfect. But it’s always joyful.

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This isn’t a perfect holiday season. I can’t think of anyone who would argue that it is. Many people will spend Christmas alone or away from the ones they love, all in an effort to keep people safe and healthy. There is death and drear and heartbreak. But there is joy, always, if you remember to look for it.

The day after we put up the tree — another beautiful, unseasonably warm and brilliant day in the region — my Dad sent a photo of the sunset to our family text group. Orange and red clouds rolled together like ocean waves, with deep purple in the shadows, above the silhouette of the ground. As I look at it again now, I’m struck by the truth in the text that accompanied the photo:

“Sometimes it pays to look up,” Dad wrote.


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This year has been tough and weird and unpredictable. But it pays to look up. It pays to enjoy the simple pleasure of a beautiful afternoon when it could be snowing. It pays to enjoy the people in your life, even if you have to enjoy them over a screen instead of in person. It pays to remember that Christmas isn’t about big parties and shopping and holding to tradition. It’s about something much deeper and more important.

May you find joy, whatever way you can, this Christmas.

To read more of Jenny Schlecht's The Sorting Pen columns, click here.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at or 701-595-0425.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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