Friends who’d already celebrated that midlife milestone warned me to go easy on the stairs. The eye doctor told me to get used to pointing my noise at what I want to look at. And I marveled at the modern miracle of watching TV and reading at the same time.
I had taken for granted the ability to focus on the near and the far simultaneously.
I’m currently reading a rather long-haired, transcendentalist-style book by Annie Dillard called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s a book to be read in much the same way I imagine she wrote it…slowly, savoring each word, turning over phrases like she turned over rocks to study entire, unexpected squirming communities of life living beneath them. I’ve underlined and dog-eared half the book (and I’m only half-finished). I love it.
One phrase, in particular, stood out to me today:
“These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present.” ~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Considering I’d just spent two hours at the local super store with half of the rest of my town, I was immediately convicted of the fact that I most certainly am not–nor have I been–living in the present. Part of it is the holiday season: no matter how determined I am on December first to have a calm and peaceful month, I always feel stressed by the end of it. Getting three kids through finals, Christmas budgeting and shopping, and my Scrooge-ish tendencies don’t help. The other part of it is the fact that…
…I just can’t reconcile the broken places of the world with the shimmer and shine and fuss and rush and packages tied up with strings.
Maybe you can’t either.
But maybe we don’t have to.
Maybe we’re not supposed to.
It’s hard to see life up close and apart from ourselves. And yet, no matter how many strings of light we hang or gifts we wrap or candles we light, no matter how many Christmas songs we sing or cards we send or Hallmark movies we watch, the broken world is still there. Our broken lives are still there.
No wonder our culture brazenly flings itself at all the distractions of the holidays. It’s a lot tougher to live real and in the present, after all. The present means being still long enough to notice the pain in others and in ourselves. The present means living with the tension of unfinished goals and imperfect loved ones and untied bows.
But the present and the broken, well, that’s where the miracles occur.
And that’s why so many of us miss them.
When we keep ourselves busy, we lack the focus needed to see that love didn’t come when things were fixed up and dressed up and fancy.
Love came to a world of hurt and mess.
Love didn’t come in a sleigh or on a stage or to an audience.
Love came to a girl in a barn.
Love didn’t come on a bright, sunny day.
Love came kindly.
Love came gently.
And love came in the pitch, black night.
It’s not easy to look up from our phones, to give up on the contest to give more, be more and do more in this season. To do so means coming face-to-face with our inadequacies and the dark places in our hearts we’d rather avoid. But to do so means discovering a whole new way of living. To do means seeing joy can co-exist in the near and the far, the past and the future, and the broken and the healed.
Miracles, after all, don’t happen in times of plenty.
Miracles come when we’re at the end of our rope, when there’s not enough oil to keep the flame burning, when there’s not enough of us to go around.
Miracles come at midnight.
My favorite Christmas song lines are from this stanza of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear:
O ye beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps and slow; Look now, for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing; Oh rest beside the weary road And hear the angels sing.
Rest, dear friends.
The road is weary.
My form is bending low, right along with yours.
But rest anyway.
You just might hear the angels.
Enjoy this beautiful rendition of the song by Sara Groves:
Yesterday, I attended the funeral calling for a great and humble man.
Although I had only met him a couple of times, his family is dear to me and so accounts of his greatness are evident through their words and legacy.
He was a decorated marine veteran of the Korean War, and as with all stories from The Greatest Generation, I was captivated learning he served as a radio operator.
When we were in Washington D.C. this past spring, nothing except the Holocaust Museum moved me more than the Korean War Memorial. The statues hauntingly depict hollow fear and stony cold.
I don’t know near what I should about the Korean War except that like this man, and like my uncle who was a field surgeon there, they refused to talk about it. Although this is not uncommon among war veterans for obvious reasons, whatever abominable things Korean vets survived seem particularly unbearable. The extreme cold and rivers of red blood staining blinding white snow had to have been two wretched reasons alone.
Imagine, for a moment, the role of the marine radio operator.
Because I live with a husband and three sons who are consummate war buffs, I have watched (and been moved by) Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and nearly every contemporary, big screen war movie in between–and some of the old ones, too. I’ve seen depictions of radio operators in fox holes begging for someone to hear them, begging for more back-ups. I’ve seen how they had to swallow terror while on reconnaissance missions, navigating harrowing edges of enemy lines to send critical, tactical information back to officers.
And while in many ways I have no business comparing the role of the writer with a soldier, I couldn’t help but make a few connections. Maybe that’s because it’s Christmastime and conveying the imperative message of this season feels like battle. Maybe that’s because of the things I’ve learned this past year, in particular, about the politics of being an author.
Maybe that’s because I’ve been knocked down and tempted to hunker down in a proverbial fox hole and quit.
I think there are times–necessary times–in any artist’s life when they question their calling. That’s been me this year. Words didn’t flow. Plots didn’t form. I questioned my ability–maybe midlife has ruined my brain, as well as my waistline? I questioned myself–if only I wrote more like so-and-so. And most of all, I questioned my faith–if only I had more of it and lived a life more worthy of sharing G-d’s grace. If only this and more, writing would be easy.
But it was the calling of that hero, the marine radio operator, yesterday that helped shift my heart.
Lifting my eyes from the fox hole of self-pity (never a good place to be), I saw with new eyes the bloody and silent pain of people the world overlooks, and of those who have not yet felt the grace and peace of G-d.
Words are my transmitter and my receiver.
Writing is not about using all the proper literary devices, schmoozing at all the right conferences and literary circles, or garnering critiques from academically cloistered, progressive reviewers.
Writing is about listening through the static for the notes of the voiceless, and then playing their song.
These days, anyone trying to make headway with grace and hope is going to face unexpected mortar shells and miles left to go when our legs feel too heavy to carry the message.
You don’t have to be a writer to know that the battle is bigger than we are.