Saturday, December 20, 2008

Celebrating Christmas 2008

I do not know if I will do it right.

I do not know if I will do this week approaching Christmas right.

In years to come, will I always think of “celebrating Christmas 2008” as a phrase that requires mental quotation marks? Will celebrating seem a tricky word for a process of adapting day by day to a different emotional landscape from which to view the approach of the great festal event?

It hits me in the waiting times – waiting for a lunch companion, waiting for a bus. Late yesterday afternoon, I stood by myself at a bus stop where five major roads would normally be teeming with traffic at that hour. Instead, only occasional ploughs and sanders crisscrossed the area in the midst of a snow event that was significant but foreseen early and forecast accurately. No one who did not need to be out on the roads was out.

It was actually calm although the air about me with its windblown snow was growing darker and darker. Across the road someone was waiting for a bus travelling in the opposite direction, but I could not make out much about the person in her long winter coat and hood – neither her age nor her mood as the wait continued for both of us. I was only a twenty-minute walk from home, but I had opted for the bus ride to avoid the effort of planting boots in all those blocks of uncleared sidewalks.

I was tired but I was in good spirits after lunch with a friend. He and I had arranged to meet when the snow forecasts signaled an earlier than usual let-out for many of the city’s workers. It was a comfortable time to claim four hours of a waiter’s attention in a popular restaurant. We would not get to toast one another’s Christmas any closer to the actual day, so we sank into long and earnest conversation, treated ourselves to oysters, unwrapped what I kept referring to as a “gewgaw or two” with which we showed what we remembered about the other person’s interests and history.

So I should have been fortified to face the half-hour wait for the bus. I had taken care of myself. I had shared time with a thoughtful, dependable friend who was ready and eager for the kind of conversation I love. We had talked dreams and asked questions and heartily laughed over the inevitabilities of our lives.

The bus arrived that was travelling in the opposite direction from the one I wanted, and my lone company at that snowy intersection boarded the well-lit coach. The bus started again and moved into the darkness of one of the five roads. Soon I was back by myself with the ploughs and sanders.

It was an intersection at which three churches stood, none of them now open. Snow swirled around the random steeples of this New England town center and smudged their outlines against the evening sky. It was a Matthew Arnold moment as the normal uncertainty with which any commuter awaits a bus scheduled for every half hour turned into an awareness of standing by myself – in more ways than one – on that darkling suburban plain a week before Christmas.

What kind of waiting had I opted for?

What certainties had I foregone months earlier – familiar home, familiar companionship, familiar patterns – for… well, for what? For standing by myself? For waiting with no obvious one person to call should the waiting extend longer than expected? For watching the outlines of church and other familiar havens smudge as the hours went by?

I would have done well then to recall a moment five hours earlier when I had sat in a major city church in another part of town waiting for my lunch companion. I had arrived unaccountably early and with some pleasure entered a church that has always been a favorite. Up in the sanctuary two individuals were working to prepare the church for the greening later this weekend. After I texted my lunch friend about my location, I got to sit undisturbed in a pew and look up into the ceiling murals high above me. I was suddenly praying and admitting silently to God and to myself that this was a strange way for me and for other people I have known so well to be awaiting the arrival of Christmas.

I cried. I grew quiet. I stayed looking up even while I heard doors open somewhere behind me. Without needing to turn, I felt my friend enter the pew and take a place beside me. I knew from the kind of quiet that followed that he was praying too.

And with a quiet, snowy lurch my bus rounded the corner and pulled up in front of me.

I boarded, and I was heading home.

Photo of church ceiling uploaded on Flickr by innusa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent Joy, Advent Waiting

The first morning in a home with a freshly decorated tree feels different.

Maybe it’s a visceral awareness that within your familiar walls there are now unfamiliar branches – the nearby presence of some organic mechanism still intent on surviving, even growing if it can, drinking in whatever water is nearby.

The day before was about leaving home in quest mode. It was a day aimed at locating and acquiring, making fit and making sure, a day of arriving back home with a longed-for prize. Years of instinct and example then came into play in deciding and arranging, illuminating and decking, occasionally venturing to say “No, this year why don’t we…”

The first morning in a home with a freshly decorated tree is exceptionally quiet after the previous day’s inevitable mulling and reverie. The freshly seeing and the freshly smelling. Memories stirring and sometimes tears needing to be quieted. Some unsuspected cycle is recalled with the installation of even the humblest of table top trees.

That was the case for me yesterday.

Against the backdrop of a bookcase, a tree brought the parts of my life into the orbit of its lights. An occasional brightness picked out book titles, enamel roses on a family vase, a hammered pewter frame.

Growing peace, growing contentment.

Yesterday was about surveying a job well done – conscientiously, earnestly done.

It was about the ancient call of Gaudete on this Third Sunday of Advent.

Advent joy in Advent waiting.

Image of firefly lantern from Firefly Forest

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Winterwise" and Zephine Humphrey

This week I begin the observance of an annual tradition. I take down from the bookshelf a 1927 copy of Winterwise by Zephine Humphrey and begin my yearly reading.

December 1st:

It is snowing today, and the mood of the world is hushed. The crests of the mountains are not to be seen, even their lower slopes climb vaguely into the shrouding mists; there is no sky at all.

When I first read those opening lines almost fifteen years ago in the aisle of a used book store in Boston’s Back Bay, I was smitten. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, now an online establishment, used to be located on a block of Newbury Street. It was standing in the shadow of its tall bookcases that I made my acquaintance with Zephine Humphrey, a Vermont writer whose books – long out of print – I would subsequently track down on other online sites and carry with me and pore over and savor in the years to come.

A Southerner happily transplanted to New England, I responded deeply to this journal of one particular winter in Vermont, a record full of musing and unabashed reverie:

Winter is the supreme season of reconciliation. Stripped and austere, the earth ceases from her long activity and gives herself to the repose which waits at the end of every cycle of growth. The naked trees are reconciled with the gray sky, the brown hills with the russet fields, and when the snow falls, as today, even the white houses are merged and lost.

Steeping myself afresh in the first ten pages of Winterwise can make me aware that the seeds of my own blog are recognizable in how Zephine records the flavors of her life with artist Wallace Weir Fahnestock. Zephine might be a guest blogger writing a post for Writing Cabin:

But it is in the evening that the living-room is at its best. Then, with a lamp and the fire lighted, Christopher in his big chair – Tommy on his knees, I in another which I share with Grizel, the daily paper disposed of, books and a pipe in action, the winter wind without, the wall-flower smelling very sweet – then the quintessence of home seems distilled for our beatification.

Home. What can people have in mind who do not prefer it to any other place? Home: one’s own life, one’s innermost, ultimate concern, the center from which alone one can radiate effectively and mean anything.

Maybe passages like that, the instincts that prompted the author to include just those details and feed a full range of the reader’s senses, first captured my attention and my eye and made me suspect a kindred spirit.

I want to travel some of December with Zephine Humphrey again this strange, new year. I intend to face the approach of winter in the company of her words and her moods.

And so I settle down to read.

As soon as I was clear of the house, swinging down the road with my hands in my pockets, I found that the day was not really dismal at all, only very solemn. The hills underneath the low-travelling clouds were dark gray and lavender, purple and brown, with a delicate brushing of silver frost on their tree-rough summits. They were not depressing – quite the contrary; but there was something stern and inexorable about them. The incredibly brief December day (I never remember from year to year how short a day can be) was already drawing in and dusk was preparing to claim the world. Winter dusk, of all earth moods the most mystical.

Image of "Snowfall" by Wallace Weir Fahnestock at AskArt

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Advent Wreath 2008

The month before Christmas is busy enough. Who in their right mind – to use one of my mother’s favorite expressions – adds an Advent wreath to the December to-do list? My mother balked one Christmas season when I insisted on finally lighting some candles that had been given her as a gift several years earlier. Candles were décor to her thinking, and I had just marred her setting of candles, intact wicks ready for a hostess to light before the arrival of her guests. It’s how Better Homes and Gardens must have instructed her.

The idea of an Advent wreath whose four tapers had to be lit every night for almost four weeks would have affronted my mother’s sense of home safety and economy and cleanliness. Let the sisters in the local parish school light as many candles as they wanted to, both in their convent chapel and in their classrooms. The well-heeled ladies of the parish who played the role of rectory groupies might boast of the family devotions they orchestrated in their houses as well. Matches were for lighting the gas heater in the bathroom wall of our New Orleans home and for jumpstarting the gas range when the pilot light went out.

I would have loved occasionally lighting a votive candle before the statue of the Blessed Mother on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The David and Ann series of grammar school readers used in my parochial school had an illustration of a frightened child waking up in the darkness of her bedroom; through the open door, however, she can glimpse her parents saying the evening rosary, standing before a home shrine with its statue and votive lights.

I knew I would not be able to talk about that picture to my parents or to my brothers. Despite the devout upbringing we all received, the idea of a family devotion that might aid family communication in ordinary times of difficulty and stress was a foreign one.

So I was drawn to it even more.

A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to the other members of your family must happen somewhere. A home where people talk about the hopes for their lives could not be impossible – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God could be a reality.

Deep down I had hoped for that kind of home when I entered religious life in my early twenties.

The hunger for other aspects of home life, however, made it difficult for me ultimately to feel “at home” with the vows and the kind of community they created.

Last Saturday evening I had an experience that reminded me of what I had wanted during some of those early Decembers of my life. I had a friend who went with me to the Christmas tree lot a mile from home and picked out a wreath with me for my kitchen table. Then I drove with him to the nearby Whole Foods and purchased four clear-glass votive holders.

The remarkable thing was that his interest in each aspect of the trip was as keen as mine. When we had assembled everything back at home, I lit the first votive candle. No other light in the room, we each took a seat at the kitchen table. We settled ourselves before the light of the wreath and began to talk about the times in our lives when we had watched other Advent wreaths. We talked about the people long ago who had communicated their delight in this winter devotion and made us each want to welcome it into our homes as adults.

Suddenly I knew that I had not been mistaken earlier in my life. A home with religious devotion as a way to feel close to other people can happen – a home where the mystery of our individual lives and the decision to confront that mystery together in the presence of God can be a reality.

That was an Advent grace worth waiting for.

Photo by David Ennis