Sunday, December 21, 2014
From the road, the wreath on the door and the swags over the windows look just right. From the road, they are even and balanced, the wire-edged ribbons are full and round, and the ends flutter just the least little bit in the winter breeze. From the road, the blue on the door and the blue in the ribbons match perfectly and from the road the tiny white lights on the tree fill up the windows at the corner of the house.
But that is from the road. Up close you can tell that the swags are getting a little ratty and nothing matches perfectly and spider webs crowd the corners of the windows. Up close you can see that the porch needs painting and the shrubs need trimming. You can see big splats of mockingbird poop on the arms of the rocking chairs.
And when you go inside, despite the centerpiece of shiny glass ornaments on the kitchen table and the row of mercury glass votives on the sideboard and the pewter tray spilling over with Christmas greetings – stiff cardstock with your choice of matte or glossy finish – , you will see that something is wrong. The tree, dressed in glass and shell and brass and stone, is dark along its bottom quarter. The lights on that widest and heaviest part of the tree have died and no amount of jiggling of bulbs or pinching of bulbs or pulling out of bulbs has made any difference.
I am standing there staring, hands on my hips as though faced with a disobedient child, and wondering just how awful it would be to go through Christmas with a less-than-fully-lit tree. Not too awful really. I’m the only one who will be looking at it most of the time. And, like I said, from the road, well, it looks terrific.
That’s when I realize that I can’t do it, can’t let the tree remain like this. I’m not a “from the road” person. Outward appearances aren’t enough. Delicious icing can’t make up for dry cake. A handsome face can’t make up for a cold heart. Stirring rhetoric can’t make up for failure to act.
At lunch the next day I go looking for lights. A couple of strands. One strand even. I walk into the seasonal department at Lowe’s. There are huge swaths of empty concrete. I see two pre-lit boxed up Christmas trees, no more. There are no poinsettias. No towers of boxed ornaments blocking the aisles. There are no aisles. Just empty concrete. I feel just the slightest bit of anxiety beginning to rise.
I walk a little farther and see a wall of lights. My shoulders relax only to tense up immediately as I realize that what is left are huge, 21st century versions of the garishly bright glass bulbs that donned the trees of my childhood. I move slowly down the wall to discover that I would be in luck if what I wanted was icicle lights for the eaves of Sandhill or net lights for the shrubs at Sandhill. I would be a happy woman if I wanted solar-powered lights or crystal flickering lights. I am neither lucky nor happy.
Just as I am about to walk away I see a single box of 150 tiny white lights on a green cord. I reach out and grab them quickly though there is no one else nearby. Only as I clutch them to my chest do I see the words “random twinkling” on the box. I don’t care.
It is late when I get home, but I will not go to bed until the tree is done. I pull out the lights, dig around in the fake branches for an empty outlet, and start stringing. It takes only a moment to figure out what “random twinkling” means. About every fifth bulb blinks on and off at an irregular rate. Again, I don’t care. I finish the stringing and step back, once again with hands on my hips, this time like a super hero surveying the universe she has just saved from extinction.
And then I laugh. I laugh at the random twinkling that is going on all over the bottom of the tree and in and out of the branches where I had to connect the cords. I laugh because I realize that, as it always happens, it has taken something completely unexpected and totally unholy to remind me what is going on here.
It’s Christmas. And despite all our efforts to turn it into a visual fantasy, despite all our desires to maintain the impressions other people have of us as what they see from the road, it is always going to be a celebration undertaken by imperfect, broken, damaged people who occasionally get it right. Who sometimes, every now and then, in the rare moment exhibit random twinkling. And in the random twinkling make everything whole.
Sunday, December 07, 2014
It is Advent. The season of wonder. Hot on the trail of Thanksgiving and Black Friday and just a few hours before Cyber Monday. And so far the only wonder I’ve experienced is what to do with two perfectly good pumpkins that, along with a couple of diminutive bales of hay, some cotton stalks and branches of eucalyptus, and about a dozen pine cones, made a lovely autumnal tableau for the front porch at Sandhill for the last two months.
It is Advent. And while I did manage to find the advent wreath and the new candles I bought on sale at the end of last year, four tall candles with soft white wicks, I couldn’t remember where the pink one goes so I had to Google it. And I decided that, in a world where people make Advent wreaths out of Legos, Mason jars, and/or pipe cleaners, I probably don’t need to be too worried about whether the candle of joy is in the front or back, on the right or left.
The wonder I am experiencing is not awe and amazement or childlike anticipation. The wonder that has me by the throat is speculation and doubtful curiosity. I can’t stop wondering why the focus in this season of preparation and anticipation continues to be on great deals and unbelievable bargains when, if we really believe the story, there’s only the one, the one best deal ever offered. I can’t stop wondering about the world’s unanswered questions, failed intentions, the disappointing behaviors long enough to feel the wonder of lighted trees and scented candles and welcoming wreaths.
But it is still Advent.
I am reminding myself of this when across the road flash one, two ... six ... no, eight, nine deer, long and lean, stretching out into the interruption of the headlights like dashes flowing from a fountain pen. There and gone. I sit at the mailbox for a few seconds longer staring at where the deer have been, a circle of pale yellow halogen light hovering, quivering in an ocean of night.
In 1933, folklorist John Jacob Niles was attending a meeting of evangelicals who had been ordered out of town by the police of Murphy, North Carolina, when a girl, dirty and dressed in ragged clothes, stepped onto a little platform attached to a car and began singing a single line of a song. Seven times she sang for the price of twenty-five cents for each performance. In his autobiography Niles wrote, “[S]he was beautiful, and in her untutored way she could sing.” From the single line that the girl sang over and over, that one fragment of melody, Niles composed the folk song that became the carol “I Wonder As I Wander.”
A line in the second stanza goes, “High from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall.” Rolled out over the top of the car where I sit, still and alone, over the field where the deer fly silently in a herd, over the piece of dirt where all year long I wonder and wander, the stars’ lights fall tonight. They are exceptionally bright. The sky is like a connect-the-dot picture. I get the feeling that if I can link one star to another to another to another something wonderful will appear. Something wonderful. Something wonder full.
I stare. Not hard. Not intently as though into a microscope, but with eyes wide and receptive. I can make it out now. It is the dirty ragged girl on the platform. The poor child with nothing to offer. I blink and then blink again when I recognize my own face. I am the one with dirty hands and feet, with patched clothes, with nothing but my untutored gifting and a craving to share with the world that which is inside. And I can do it only because I stand in the rain, in the reign of starlight pouring high from God’s heaven on a too-warm December night.
It is Advent. I still don’t know what to do with the pumpkins. Or any of the other things, tangible and intangible, that are left over from previous seasons, but I’m beginning to understand how to best anticipate and prepare for the best season of all. I will keep wondering. I will keep wandering. And I will keep singing one line over and over and over again. Emanuel. God with us.