Wednesday, December 27, 2006

exception to the rule

Brendan often chooses particularly challenging projects near bedtime—the Lego car kit that requires tiny pieces placed just right, or braiding, or just the other night he turned over a jigsaw puzzle with a photo of the sun’s surface, then he wept because he just couldn’t make the frustrating pieces fit back together. He didn’t do it to make me mad; he really thought he could do this puzzle, just the same as he could when he is fresh, in the morning. I don’t rescue often—I am the parent who doesn’t give boosts for climbing, doesn’t push swings once children grow capable of pumping their own legs for momentum. “You got the wrong mama!” I laugh when children beg me for things they must do themselves. “If you can’t get yourself up on that high rock, then you don’t need to be on that rock.” Sometimes my children wish they had a nicer mama, but a tough mama comes in handy, too. They are strong climbers, and good on the swings.

But bedtime is a different matter: without that sun picture completed, there will be no sleep. And if tears go on long enough, even if the sun picture is completed, there will be no sleep. “Let’s do it together, B,” I say in what I hope is a soothing tone. It’s late. I hate jigsaw puzzles. “Put all the straight edge pieces in this pile, and then we’ll separate the other pieces by color.” I ask Madeleine to go get my glasses— my eyes show the weariness first.

I place the edge pieces inside the border, and too many pieces are shaped similarly. It’s a 48 piece puzzle designed for eight year olds, and I am swearing at it under my breath, muttering and wanting to pound them with my fist like Brendan does. Fifteen minutes of frustration later, I realize we got two similarly-shaped pieces mixed up, and that’s why the puzzle is not coming together. I pat the sun puzzle with pretend satisfaction, kiss all goodnight and tuck them in, and tuck the puzzle in its case, too. I walk out quietly to my desk, where the urge to type in capital letters I HATE JIGSAW PUZZLES AND I WILL NEVER DO ONE AGAIN IF I CAN HELP IT. But I have other things to write, so I don’t waste my time.

But here I am. Mount Ypsilon, Bear Lake, The Twin Sisters.

My Christmas present from Brendan is a jigsaw puzzle of Rocky Mountain National Park, a topographical map of a landscape I loved intimately twenty summers ago.

The Twin Owls, Sprague Lake. Bridal Veil Falls—there are two different waterfalls sharing the same name, and I used to know which was which, but I don’t now.

I don’t know every single piece. I didn’t own a car when I spent my two college summers working outside of the Park boundaries, so my travels were limited to hikes sponsored by the conference center where I worked, or places I could arrange to hike with friends. My second summer I logged 186 miles over sixteen weeks of summer break, as a slow hiker with a short stride trying real hard. I worked the night shift, then caught the first hiking group available two or three mornings a week, when I wasn’t collapsing due to lack of genuine sleep. Most hikes returned by two p.m. to avoid the afternoon thunder storms so typical in the Rockies. I’d stagger to my little village of staff housing, shower and throw myself into bed, just as the morning kitchen and cleaning staffs arrived home from their shifts to make happy mayhem. Often sleep seemed impossible, so I’d grab my pack and hike to the Big Thompson River, to sleep on my favorite sun-warmed boulder. I had the best tan of my life, joking that my goal was “skinny, tan and godly.” My erratic schedule and my solo work at the conference center’s night switchboard made me half crazy, but “work” constituted stacking the fireplace with wood, playing my guitar and waiting for the phone to ring. And I got to hike more than anyone else but the hikemasters. I invited other staff to come enjoy my fireplace, and the fabulous meals the security guard brought me—steaks and fresh vegetables, delicious strawberries, much better than regular staff rations. With the exception of sleep, it was the perfect job.

I closed my eyes to the cover of the puzzle, so each little piece I turn over from the big box finds me delighted. Keyboard of the Winds, Pagoda, Sunset Lake.

Not much makes me nostalgic. I don’t idealize high school or college—those were lonely years. My first years in the working world were grueling. But I’m nostalgic for landscapes, astounding landscapes like those mountains, the first place I laid eyes on when I left home, the most beautiful place on earth. I long to go back, though I can’t imagine how our lives would need to change to afford such a trip.

Long’s Peak—I don’t think I could train hard enough to climb Long’s easily. It’s a tough, long hike with some very scary precipices. I am not in any kind of condition for it. Altitude sickness occurs in even the fittest of tourists—it would take most of week to acclimate to life two miles above sea level. I am pale and definitively not skinny. Godliness may be different now than it was before, but that spirit-flame is not quite as dependent on circumstances.

I hiked to Eagle’s Cliff at least one afternoon a week, often by myself, to write letters and enjoy a sunset. From there I could see the vast green Moraine Park, which take up half a dozen pieces of this puzzle, with it’s snaking blue river.

Teddy’s Teeth is not a high ridge, but it’s the ridge between Estes Park and Boulder, and the best place to watch fireworks exploding below you, in dozens of cities, for miles and miles of fireworks in bright splashes over the lights of Denver in the distance. Teddy’s is the last peak I climbed, for a picnic lunch with Peter Reigle, 1985, my last day in the Rockies.

I do hate jigsaw puzzles, and I may never do another. But I’ll gladly assemble the Rocky Mountains, each new piece a dream of where I might go someday, if I haven’t seen it already. Five hundred interlocking pieces, some of them falling into place just as I remember them. It’s all I can manage not to obsess over the whole project right now. I will not pound these pieces with my fist or swear at them. Each one is a dear vision. I’ll just go do a few more, just one or two…

Sunday, December 24, 2006

the people in darkness have seen a great light

This elf is "done" earlier than I've ever been, on Christmas eve. I could finish a few more projects, but this little nagging sore throat has me worried. Scott just left for the midnight service. I'm wrestling to upload the photo of my son's spectacular art project/meditation on Isaiah 9 ... it will have to wait.

Meanwhile, when they are awake, and can be coaxed away from tasteless renditions of Jingle Bells (they don't even know who Batman is, or what a Batmobile is, but that doesn't stop them from trying...) in magical moments, they sing this...

People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.

Furrows, be glad. Though earth is bare,
One more seed is planted there:
Give up your strength the seed to nourish,
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the rose, is on the way.

Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Angels, announce with shouts of mirth
Christ who brings new life to earth.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the Lord, is on the way.

"People, Look East" was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) and was first published as "Carol of Advent" in Part 3 of "Modern Texts Written for or Adapted to Traditional Tunes" in The Oxford Book of Carols, 1928.

Blessed Christmas to you. Thank you for reading.

Friday, December 22, 2006

what my education lacked

The Adjectives

We are the adjectives—artists, too—
We stick to the nouns
As your skin sticks to you.
I call the man great or good or sad.
I call the beast large or fierce or bad.
I paint the grass green
And the flowers gay.
We dance through the world
In our colorful way.

Madeleine brought this home from her third grade classroom. Two years ago, her class memorized a lengthy poem about the vowels and how they work with each other…

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

madness which will not be repeated

This is only a partial reporting of last year's holiday madness, which Will Not Be Repeated for Christmas 2006. Kids seem to be in a remarkably good and settled place, thanks be to God and special thanks to me, their supervisor orchestrating calming activities like eating and sleeping. Not that the mood cannot change, of course, but right now, all is good.

I just peeked in on Madeleine, Brendan and Scott hibernating in a big snoring pile where they settled two hours ago, after I put a halt to the “celebration” of Christmas, hauled away the remaining wrapped presents, and declared Quiet Hour.

I need to admit here a truth that is hard to speak: every single Christmas celebration up to this 2005 one has been so breath-takingly sweet. Ours has been the house you’d hate to phone, our children entertaining themselves for hours with the new marble tower or the new art project. There’s never been a cranky moment, except the Christmas evening we attempted to build a gingerbread house, starting far too late and underestimating the time required. But we’ve never seen anything but sheer joy the morning and lunch of Christmas. My husband and I have, up to now, spent hours grinning quietly at each other over our cups of coffee, agreeing that it is a good idea to give children piles of presents in order for them to entertain themselves quietly across the room.

But this Christmas wasn’t like that.

Scott and I finished our elf-work by midnight last night, and I had waffle dough rising and kitchen clean by one a.m., probably a world’s record Christmas prep for our house. Kids woke at three-thirty to crowd into our bed, and Scott returned them shortly after. They returned at seven, a merciful hour, to wish us Merry Christmas and snuggle for ten wiggly minutes before running for the stockings.

Sounds sane enough, so far, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, we have been consistently underslept and battling colds for two weeks, with children in that regression/tantrum zone one minute and drawing elaborate renditions of Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary the next minute— I need to check to see whether we are dealing a child in the midst of thoughtful creativity or The Other Mood. (I found a paper nativity scene in colored pencil under my pillow, maybe two inches square, offered by my six-year-old son and just breath-taking.)

Yesterday was just the kind of happy-edgy madness we live in: we put off buying a Christmas tree until the tree lots were nearly closed on Christmas eve. Kids and Scott rushed out when we realized everything would be closed by the time the church Christmas pageant was over. They came dragging it home at three p.m. as I finished preparing the extremely late lunch, leaving just barely time enough to dress children for the four p.m Christmas service at our church.

The service reflected none of our madness. Simple and ethereal, readings and music to break the heart, while elders smile at the din of babies and toddlers by the dozen. Three boys, ages seven and eight, read the gospel with the slightest of lisps and the greatest of enthusiasm. A choir of six each holds a single handbell with gloves twice the necessary size, and their faces glow with gusto as they sing. Madeleine and her friend Helen take the offering, holding hands against the fear of such an adult activity. Brendan processes with three other young children, carrying porcelain figures for the crèche near the altar, and like the others he is serious and intent, not performing so much as fully present.

We leave church with tins of goodies, gifts in shiny bags. We arrive home to that tree needing placement, propping and trimming, all of us hungry and cranky and everything is running late, interrupted by children behaving like fraternity brothers at a tailgate party. We force them to eat food with protein and vegetables, cajole them into a bathtub, dress them in the traditional new Christmas Eve pajamas, bribe them with hot cocoa and whipped cream, beg them to stop whining and shoving. They obsess over ornaments for an hour and a half past their bedtime, which would be fine except for the previous night’s pajama party, the sniffles. And the elves still needing time to work and sleep.

I am just now reckoning with a job outside of the academic schedule, a job without “Christmas break.” There are benefits—Scott picked up nearly all of the wrapping duties after I burned my hand cooking, cooking tired after a full work-day on Thursday, after a late faculty party for his school the previous night. And the burn, as well as my limited schedule, brought my expectations of myself to a new “minimum,” comfortably enough. My job, itself, has been buzzing with activity and energy, and it’s easy to love, despite the schedule—we sell beautiful things, lovely scents, delicious foods, and shoppers have been very merry. But my children are long on excitement and short on my time and flexibility, short on the healthy food in comparison to the quantities of sugar consumed, and we are fraying around the edges.

This Christmas involved “time outs” and hauling several wrapped gifts from the room to let them rest in a closet until tempers cooled down. This Christmas was an educational reminder to us, the parents, of what ought not to happen. It was Not Ethereal. It was nearly mean. I will write more about it another time, but just know that we will learn, we will learn.

Note: in this Advent, the tree was already hauled up the street by two slight-but-enthusiastic elves singing "Oh Tannenbaum" at the top of their lungs. They decorated Mr. Tannenbaum with great love and only a touch of chaos. The five advent calendars and one spinning advent lantern are getting their daily dose of use. I'll find my other notes on How Not To Celebrate the birth of Jesus, sometime. However we celebrate, I am hoping for calmness and wonder, like the other Christmases we usually have.

Wishing you Ethereal, as much as can fit.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

applying myself

I am writing scholarship applications and working on some stories that are tougher to write about, these days—and preparing for holidays.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d post my grad school application, which I really enjoyed writing. The application question asked “describe your development as a writer and a person of faith.” I used the same framing story as a previous essay, so the first and last paragraphs may seem familiar (sorry—the art of publication is re-publication, I hear), but the bulk of this piece has not been posted previously. If you didn’t already know too much about me…

Oh, and I got into the program at SPU—now “all I have to do” is locate scholarships to pay for it. I hope to begin in August.

Three years ago, I reached into a beach bag only to find I’d forgotten my journal—in truth, writing was the reason I’d packed all the gear and taken my two small children to the beach in the first place. Frustrated, I picked up a stick and wrote I AM A WRITER across the sand. This news surprised me. While I love to read and I admire writers, at that moment I’d not made any effort to “finish” the stories in my journal pages and letters. I applied sunscreen to arms and legs of wiggly children for a few reflective moments before pulling out the Tonka trucks for a beach day without a pen.

When a few hours opened between my parenting schedule and my work as a college writing tutor, I leafed through my journals to find narratives worth exploring. An article for a former employer’s online magazine grew into a monthly column, and a sheaf of finished stories developed into a blog. Initially, I wrote for the same reasons I’ve always written, to clarify my thoughts, to capture a moment, and to inspire connections between people. But something in the telling transformed my personal stories and transformed me. Writing calls me to be present, awake, listening to my entire life with one ear, and listening to what is happening this very moment with the other ear. When I stumbled into writing, it seems I stumbled into myself.

Years before that day at the beach, I proposed a memoir to two writerly friends when we were three nursing mothers with no hope of holding a pen. I begged them to consider The Great American Novel of my ragged little dating life, and I talked them through the stories, one after another. I even had a title: The Absence of Reliable Transportation, about boyfriends, broken cars and road trips. Neither friend accepted my challenge. Two years ago, I began writing essays for this book, one chapter at a time. In darker moments I subtitle it “47,000 words looking for a structure,” as I become evermore aware of my limitations and lack of training in the craft of writing. My craving for deeper skills often reaches a fevery desperation to tell this story better than I know how. I’m eager to join a committed circle of writers and readers to wrestle with plotlines and character development, to learn to do this thing that I am already doing.

While I chip away at this long project, a second online magazine recently chose an essay of mine for their annual print journal. An editor at Paraclete Press noted several pieces on my blog and requested a book proposal. I’m submitting short pieces to magazines and periodicals. I’m learning the profession via self-directed study.

I hear the phrase “spiritual path” or “career path,” or any kind of path at all, and I picture a favorite quilt pattern called The Drunkard’s Path, worked in yellow and white, held with wooden pins to a breezy line. At first glance, the quilt’s pattern is barely visible through the curves and turns, then the crazy genius of the seamstress becomes clear in the arrangement of quarter-rounds and squares. My history houses many labyrinthine strands that fall in a not-exactly-linear pattern. The “career path” strand includes stints in college ministry, student development, adventure education, motherhood, and now writing. Another strand is a progression of descriptors about faith: Methodist, evangelical, Mennonite, Presbyterian, reformational, sacramental, Episcopal. I could include “animist” for my childhood habit of talking to trees. On a good day, the strands fit together into one beautiful piece. Pray like an evangelical, cultivate like a Mennonite, strive for reformation, live sacramentally. The love of God infuses everything, and I still talk to trees. But these are vexing times to be a believer. On a less than good day, I need to speak to that drunkard quilt designer with some strong questions, as I read the puzzle of this life and ask where in God’s name this pattern is going.

As a spiritually sensitive child, I was something of an anomaly in my hometown of Farmland, Indiana. My parents’ disdain for religion heightened my curiosity further. I marveled that they felt no longing for God, and my longing seemed just as foreign to them. I joined a church youth group and sucked up Bible stories, hymn lyrics, Sword Drills and all the counter-cultural trappings of middle-American Christianity in the late 1970’s. Those trappings made sense to me in a way my home did not. Good families “took me in” when my own family life grew too broken. Their generosity defined The Church for me, and under their influence I grew less fearful and defensive, and more at ease in the world, like that quilt unfurling in the breeze.

Eager to escape my small town, I landed a summer-long apprenticeship in a Christian drama troupe. I began my earnest study of faith viewing Christians as joyous and “thinking people,” in contrast to my anti-intellectual family. What luck to be a curious seventeen-year-old, living among bright seminary students at a lakeside summer camp! It’s charming in retrospect, given the modern-day caricature of Christian “thinking” and given the hostile anti-intellectualism in some Christian circles.

I lived in a number of faith-based communities for the next decade, including Christian colleges and student leadership houses. After four years in the world’s best college ministry organization, I worked as a Residence Director at Whitworth College. I served smart, sassy Christians whose faith did not and would not conform to mine, as well as smart, sassy non-Christians who thought just as profoundly about issues of faith. Scathingly frank conversation caught me off-guard, daily, but once I adapted, I thrived. I found strange joy in teasing away the cultural trappings from the core of my belief. While campus ministry years helped me shed notions of “good behavior” as salvific, at Whitworth I gained confidence that God loved my favorite student heretics just as deeply as I did, and would not wipe us out in a fit of wrath. I want to honor the gifts given from all these communities, while continuing to seek what is real and true.

Other strands in this quilt include a Drunkard’s Path of friendships won and lost, places and jobs loved and not loved, and a fifteen-year path of culture shock in New England. My relationships, my faith, my joy and fury intertwine in this strand where I live. I knew myself to be an unusual character, but my oddness is highlighted in this corner of the world. My neighborhood is annoying and vibrant; my children’s school, quirky; my church, unlike any other. My marriage provides its own story line. Writing drives me beneath the swirl at the surface. I listen to savor words my children say, and to hear the bitter truth one neighbor offers another. I watch for nuances, juxtapositions. I’m not sure why these everyday epiphanies are important, but I sit down and write. Some of my writing is specifically spiritual in nature; much of it is not. I like the possibility the Seattle Pacific program presents to explore all of it, for the spiritual nature imbedded in every kind of story, and for the quality of story within spiritual writing, as well.

I am rarely without a pen and paper, these days, but even when my life requires pushing a Tonka truck, I am a writer. I don’t need a stick and sand to tell me so. Writing is the way I stitch together all the strands of my life into one varied and colorful fabric. Alongside my pen this interesting creation unfurls, in a pattern just barely visible, at first glance. I hold a deep affection for the twisty paths that draw all these pieces together, a deep respect for the questions imbedded, here. The pattern draws me forward, anticipating the joy of the next turn, and the next turn after that, too.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

cleaning adventure

five chunks of sea glass, large ones brightly colored which suggests this is “manufactured” sea glass, not the find-at-the-beach kind

orange yarn

a red knotted yarn for string games

lip balm in a green case with cross-and-skullbone designs—obviously marketed for Halloween and boys

a map of the Paris subway system?

Yesterday was the annual pre-Christmas purge of my children’s tiny bedroom, netting two bags of trash and two bags of stuff for the consignment shop. I find not only the items my kids use, but the packaging of several things, torn boxes, pieces of cardboard. I find numerous children’s menus from Friendly’s, Bertucci’s, Jalapenos. I move the seldom-used stuffed animals and dolls back to their home in the Guatemalan hammock, high above.

I find the special stashes of glitter glue and stickers that were given protective custody for so long that no one remembers where they are—tubes of glitter glue in the back of the old jewelry box, tucked into the play mailbox, rolls of scotch tape tucked among the handmade dolls. Jammed under the dresser is my dusty old computer keyboard, where it’s been hiding since July, encased in cardboard—I put it in the trash pile.

It’s been a month of stitchery projects, so the collection of used paper is not overwhelming, this time—M and B and I sorted an entire office-storage box a month ago, crammed with drawings and paintings. Usually I do this in the dark of night, but now kids are old enough to recognize that not every drawing is remarkable enough to even remember what the drawing is about.

Scott firmly believes in keeping everything, always, as if he (or anyone he knows) lived through the Great Depression, or a time of shortages. “I hope you didn’t throw out anything good,” he says when I clean.

“Explain to me the qualitative difference between a collection of six cheap Hawaiian leis and a collection of thirty-six identical leis. Or the reason why to keep ten boxes of cheap giveaway crayons from Friendly’s, the kind that break on impact with the paper, when we have a good collection of German crayons and Crayolas. Do we need the box that every item came in? Do we need five wooden train whistles, just because we’ve been given five train whistles? We need space.” He consents to let me be me, the hausfrau goddess. Some items do get tucked away in case someone asks for them—but not many.

So today I come to Brendan’s backpack, to see what he’s forgotten there. A pencil, good. A booklet from the New England Aquarium—we went in early summer, six months ago. A tiny stuffed pig, perhaps four inches tall.

And a map of the Paris subway system.

I’ve never been in the Paris subway system, nor in Paris, nor even in France. I’ve been to Ireland, which is technically in Europe. I can’t think of anyone I know—or anyone the kids know—who has recently been to France. The map is in French. It’s not something he could simply pick up in a local store.

Brendan and Madeleine have been asking me about passports. His friends Salome and Sophia travel to Hawaii often, and Madeleine’s friend Helen has a Canadian/American dual citizenship. We need to buy passports soon, so we are free to cross the Canadian border easily.

But he’s seven, and perhaps the youngest age seven that’s ever been. He just lost his first tooth. How did he get a map of the Paris subway system? Does he have a plan to go?

Good thing he loves his mama. He won’t travel anywhere without me, anytime soon. He’s just learned to bravely walk two doors down to visit the little girls on our block, and I can see it takes all the determination he possesses to walk out that door by himself.

I leave all the treasures where I found them, in his pack. I’ll check with him after school to ask if he remembers who gave him the map or why. I bet he won’t remember and we’ll be left with the mystery. He’s wrapped up in today, in the golden “angel coin” left by the tooth fairy. (The tooth fairy did not have her glasses on. She thought the coin was a shiny Sacagawea dollar coin for spending—but this is so much better! It’s a gold coin imprinted with the image of an angel on each side. He ran out singing, an angel coin, an angel coin, the tooth fairy left me an angel coin…)

The room is clean enough for now. Madeleine and I constructed a case for her “mandala maker,” from a green wool sweater, with a pocket for the colored pencils. I left Brendan’s one special pizza box (which means I got rid of three stashed non-special pizza boxes) marked with numbers for a marble game, and the long cardboard tube with “marble shooter” written backwards down the length. For Christmas, I need to work with Madeleine to make a suitable case for her American Girl doll clothes and accessories. I’ve made a half-dozen small treasure bags from solo hand-knit socks I can’t bear to part with, for marbles, for jacks, for angel coins and sea glass. I’ll keep looking for other junk to eliminate and other ways to organize stuff.

Today I need to sort the basket of papers on my desk, so there is room for the Advent Lantern and a small wooden tree. It’s unlikely I’ll run into anything as remotely interesting as a map of the Paris subway system.

But then, you never know.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

early twilight

He calls between evening appointments to say, “Don’t miss it.”

I meant to bring down the advent box and the beautiful advent lantern, this fifth day of December and the third day of the advent season. I stepped in the school store to buy a set of advent candles, but half a dozen parents were shopping, and there wasn’t really room for one more.

Carl asked if the kids could play after school’s end, in the little wooded area they call a playground. “You need a winter coat on,” he said merrily. “You’re from the Midwest! You should know better.”

“Oh, I do, I do,” I pull my wrap around my thick wool sweater. “I just haven’t faced the cold, yet. It was sixty degrees last week.” I found my warm hat, and my warm curls add a bit of insulation to my ears and neck. I found my fleece gloves, too. It’s my feet, I want to say. My feet are unprepared, and it makes me crazy that I can’t find my warm sock-liners, my feet’s salvation.

Laura and Jesse asked us to have cocoa with them at the local coffee shop, a rare decadence. It’s all the light we have today, I think, just this little sliver of an hour, and I hate to be away from the sunlight. But it’s also “beggar’s feast” night, creative use of leftovers night, so we go for mugs of hot brew. The children’s cups are topped with mountains of whipped cream, swirls of chocolate sauce, and colored sprinkles. I wish I were so carefully tended as these mugs of cocoa.

We emerge from the coffee shop in the half light, and stumble into the beautiful gem shop, the jewels and stones and fossils arranged by color family, and the proprietor charmed by three curious learners, holding each of the kinds of tumbled stones in the display of pocket treasures. Brendan examines huge amethyst caves, fish fossils, picture jasper.

And the cell phone rings just as we are leaving.

“Don’t miss it. Have you looked out the window?”

“We are downtown. What should I see?”

“Oh, you are out and about? Drive the Boulevard. Now is the time. Don’t forget to watch for the moon. Even the highway is gorgeous. Go now.” I say okay and hang up, and hustle the kids into the van. They begin to argue over music or no music, and somehow they agree on quiet, as I round the corner, just at the right moment. The sun is already down at four p.m,, but the deepening color lingers over the pretty end of the harbor. We drive just to drive, in the pink winter light.

I once lived near enough to Stacy Boulevard that I could run down the street and watch the seals on cold afternoons, until the sky was too dark to see them anymore and the air grew cold. Now we live on the other side of town, scarcely two miles away. Most days I sit in the bay window for the last half hour of light, if I haven’t gotten sucked into a project or writing on the other side of the room. I often get distracted, with Madeleine and her homework—such a new phenomenon that she relishes the work—and Brendan and his toodling projects.

Stars emerge with a sliver of orange moon, and the Big Dipper is visible when I climb the second flight of steps to our treehouse condo.

After all the sorting directives, coats away, shoes away, lunch boxes empty, I start the kettle of water for chicken stock. Vegetable scraps from the freezer, chicken bones from last night’s roast, thyme, rosemary, two cloves and a bay leaf. I start a smaller pot for tonight’s soup: a small onion and celery stalks, carrots and red lentils for body. Leftover roasted potatoes, corn, broccoli. I almost always enjoy the resulting soup, but tonight, just as I am thinking I can barely choke it down, Madeleine declares it the best soup ever.

Then the baths begin, while I cut thin slices of the stale bagels. Madeleine butters the slices and we place them on a cookie sheet to toast in the oven, mixing cinnamon and sugar while we wait. The stars are clear, the one lonely string of Christmas lights shimmers, and each child opens a door on the Advent calendars. Madeleine the Reader locates her verse in the book of Isaiah. The smell of toasted bagels fills the room and we run to sprinkle cinnamon and sugar over the “toasties,” then gobble them up. Toothbrushing, and a quiet evening is ending.

Then my brother phones, and the quiet exits while children shout hellos and I talk with him on the speakerphone. They are hearing too much, but I forget how to turn off the speakerphone without hanging up on the caller. I’ve made the same cutoff mistake a dozen times. And he’s entertaining, as I stir the pot of chicken stock bubbling on the back burner, the condo filling with the aroma. The children practice home-run sliding into bed a few times before I figure out just what is going on. It will take awhile to settle them down, now. Scott arrives with a bag of groceries.

“Did you see it? The color?” he asks.

“Yep. Someone called to give me a ‘heads-up,’ so I saw it, thanks. Beautiful night.” I answer. He tucks kids into bed, or subdues them somehow. I strain the soup broth for another beggar’s feast, sometime in the future. Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll bring down the advent lantern I’m so eager to see, and the candles, and the box of advent stuff. Today, well, I’m waiting already, paying attention to the quiet darkness, saving up rich moments of light against the long winter nights.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

weather report: the spiral of light

The kids are finally drifting off to sleep, early because we were out ridiculously late last night. I just wrote “it’s the first time this weekend without an urgent need,” and of course one should simply never write that. I hear a groan from across the room.

“We forgot.” Scott said. “We forgot that Madeleine’s birthday buddy is Jaita, and Jaita’s birthday is tomorrow. We need to bring treats for the third grade.”

“Is this on the calendar? Because I sure don’t remember it.”

Scott walks over to the calendar and picks up a pen. “Yeah, it’s on the calendar now. I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to bake.”

“I bet you were just thinking how much you’d like to go to the store and buy chocolate chips.”

Three hours go by, baking and cleaning up, getting ready for tomorrow. Brendan wakes twice, his foot hurting from a tumble at a gymnasics party. Medicine, love, and back he goes. Clothes are out for tomorrow, head almost empty enough to sleep. I started out the day teaching Sunday school. I haven’t stopped moving, since. These are tough days for needing a minute to catch up with myself.

On Saturday, we celebrated The Spiral of Light, or the Advent Spiral. A darkened hall, a circle of children surrounded by a circle of adults, and surprising quiet. A tall teenager dressed in angel white slowly carries a candle through the simple labyrinth of pine boughs, to the center. She lights a candle, there, and emerges just as slowly, then follows the first child through the labyrinth. The child carries her own candle, set in an apple for a holder, and chooses a spot for her apple to set in the pine boughs, and returns to her seat while the next child makes the journey. Into the darkness, out with a light of her own, so goes each child, as a harp plays.

Last year was the hardest spiral for Madeleine. She chose a fancy dress, red and black, and flitted and flirted with her dress, showing off her silliness for classmates as the quiet music played. Her teacher moved her once, twice, three times away from the other silly-makers, all silly-contagious. This year she is utterly composed, solid and present in the moment. She chose a no-nonsense turtleneck and skirt, and her walk is deliberate and careful. She does glance up to quickly smile at her classmates, and she places her candle in the spot just at Brendan’s feet, so he will have a candle to watch as he waits his turn. She is more than a year older—she is decades older than last December. And this is her last spiral. The ceremony is only for children in the third grade and under. She can carry her light now, on her own.

Brendan makes his round, meditatively. He is surrounded by very calm children, and they effect him well. He is not rapt, but he is not distracted. I get the feeling he could stay here in the near-darkness all day, just like us.

One of the other silly-makers from last year is Miles, and he too is settled and tall. He fidgets a bit, but he too sets his candle directly in front of his younger brother Jamie, who is four years old. One by one the third graders, second graders and first graders walk the spiral, then Mrs. Babcock walks quietly to Jamie, and he solemnly holds her hand and takes his candle to the center, taking his time to thoughtfully place his candle where it lights an amethyst cave, near the spiral’s center. When he walks back to sit with his dad, Miles sees Jamie coming and pulls an empty chair next to his own. Jamie’s face lights and he hops onto the tall chair, as Miles pulls him close in a hug.

“I got to be the last one,” he whispers, and everyone hears. “I got to be the last one.”

The musicians stop playing and we sit in silence, a spiral now lit by candles, faces of children visible in the glow. We file out quietly.

“Hey, Jamie,” I say when we are outside, kneeling to his eye level.

“I got to be the last one, you know,” he says.

“I saw it. How was it?” I ask.

“The last one,” he says again. “This is my candle.”

“Yes it is. You have a light,” I say, and wish him goodbye. I wish I were young enough to walk the spiral, too, to see what I might learn. I know there are labyrinths all over the world, for some similar reasons, to go to a center and return again. None are the same as this one, with these children and their friends, and their brothers and sisters.

The children hold their apples for the ride home, in the dark. We turn on the heat for the first time, in the car. Winter is here.