All is Calm, All is Bright
Our house is such a mess. It’s two nights before Christmas, and my 5 and 1/2 year-old grandson Noah is decorating a gingerbread house with Cornelia. There’s powdered sugar everywhere. Cornelia has offered Noah a candy cane to eat, but he’s really serious about this decorating stuff, so he declines.
A take-out roast chicken from Thursday night sits on a plate on the kitchen counter, in a progressive state of deconstruction, next to a couple of baskets of late season figs for tomorrow night’s salad. A mostly empty stainless steel bowl of frosting from the gingerbread housing project occupies almost precisely the center of the kitchen floor.
Photographs are piled up in front of the toaster. The sink is full of dishes, forks, straws, and implements of destruction, used in the various activities of the day. There doesn’t seem to be a bare inch of counterspace available for even a crumb.
The living room has its own flowering of disarray, the aftermath of an afternoon spent, again, mostly by Noah and Cornelia, unwrapping ornaments and finding just the right place to hang each one on the Christmas tree, a lovely silvertip we only managed to acquire three days ago. The feel of all this detritus suggests warmth and much pleasure shared.
This state of the house, it occurs to me, mirrors the sense I have of my own mental state. I’d intended to buckle down here, and write something important, something really stirring and dramatic about the significance of this time of the year, in a year such as the one just past.
Yesterday Cornelia unearthed a photograph she took while working in Afghanistan in 1962; it’s a lovely image of a very young mother and child, gypsies in a place and time when the whole world seemed to be passing through. It’s quite an evocative image, of course, and given its provenance, in both place and time, stirs up a lot of feelings. But as I sat, ruminating, Cornelia’s voice came drifting up the stairs. Would I please make a fire? It’s freezing at the gingerbread house, and she and Noah want to get warm. How could I refuse?
And I hadn’t eaten for hours, because I’d been busy taking care of errands so that, when all the various children, grandchildren, friends, in-laws and outlaws arrive over the next couple of days, there will be plenty to eat and drink, logs for the fires, scotch tape for the last-minute giftwrapping, batteries for the… you know, all that stuff you gotta have. And I already felt almost like I hadn’t eaten in four or five months, just trying to keep up with the demands of this crazy time we live in, to produce, produce, produce!!! The chance to take a few minutes felt like a blessing, and isn’t blessing what this season is all about?
After I got a toasty fire going, I separated a leg and thigh from the remains of the chicken , and put the thigh on a small plate, taking a small bite first. It was delicious, on the spicy side. I was filled with longing for a sip of red wine. Something simple and fresh. I opened a wine from the Cote de Brouilly in Beaujolais, which I’d been waiting for the right moment to try, from a producer whose wines are always pretty and mouth-watering, and poured myself a glass, a cup of kindness. Then, I sat, for just a few minutes, and watched Cornelia and Noah, at work on the magnificent gingerbread house, and enjoyed the taste of the chicken, and the red wine.
Mother and child, the promise of renewal, on the longest nights of the year, when the warmth of the sun seems so far off. On the longest nights of the saddest year when the promise of continuity and connectedness feels so imperiled. Mother and child, a story we carry not just in our memories, and in our hearts, but in our genes, in the hard-wiring of our nervous systems, an image apprehended in our skin, our hair, our bones and blood. We’re surrounded almost constantly by mothers and children, yet somehow, in time, they become so hard to see. The image is blocked, the pathway to the heart deflected. The river doesn’t run through there, anymore. That which would open our hearts, which stands before us, plain as day, passed over for the birds in the bush, the urgencies of the shopping list.
Ah, but here, with Grand mother and child (mother and Grand child), is the complete unfolding of a great mystery, in the passing of a moment.
Can I be still? Can I be here?
All good wishes to you in this dark season, turning…