advent calendar

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Advent: expectation of light returning to the world. The Christian tradition, cribbed from the winter solstice, requires lack; absence prompts reflection. Preparation defines celebration by giving it edges; before you feast, you are meant to fast — to spend time in dark and quietness, unstimulated, bare, shivering.

*

A few days before Christmas, my mom and my sister and I descend on a local lot to pick out a tree. This year it was a Thursday evening, with the temperature just above freezing and the rain coming down. Shoulders hunched against the chill, I walked between the rows, steadying the remaining options for the pageant of deliberation and decision. My fingers stuck to the sap as it wept from the branches and hardened on the bark. We went for the somewhat scraggly but obviously in need of a home Charlie Brown tree, as usual. Our budget is $15…my mum can usually persuade the salesmen to throw in some branches, which she hopes to lash to the railings of her front steps. There isn’t time, though, and instead of decorating the house, the branches sit in the trunk for a week or two; driving anywhere feels like driving through the Pacific Northwest. This year, we put a $30 limit on gifts, and it has brought me more peace in this season than I’ve felt in many years.

*

An update of a project I worked on was released last week. When our research gets media attention, I get messages from people I went to high school with who I don’t talk to anymore. They have opinions to share couched as questions about inflation, thinly veiled suggestions that I shepherded reports toward publication while leaving boulders unturned — won’t prices increase if we pay people more? I am working on being more patient with these questions, trying to tune my responses to a Socratic key. This approach is harder and takes more time, but it’s ultimately more effective than giving an answer that requires no work on the part of the questioner. For every rhetorical criticism of a living wage, I receive a text message from a friend navigating the back-channels of advocacy for low-income renters asking for help on behalf of someone living in a bedsit above the questioner’s local pizza joint. The landlord won’t deal with the bedbugs; an electric radiator has tipped over and the element is inches from the polypropylene carpet. Maybe the next long-form census should ask how many times a month you opened the oven door to heat your home.

*

Every year on December 23rd, a friend organizes a holiday dinner for sex workers through a local advocacy and service group. The lunch-time gathering is held at St. George’s in the church hall. There are homemade sweets, and coffee and tea, and table service. There is ham and turkey and scalloped potatoes, milk rolls and butter and stuffing. Attendees dress up, or they don’t. I buzz around the banquet tables with serving carafes, refilling cups, smiling, making timid jokes. The children get their faces painted; one tugs at my skirt and asks me to pour him some Root Beer, since he’s not allowed Coke or Pepsi. When my name tag falls the floor, he picks it up and returns it to me. Later, we load the industrial dishwasher, scalding the plates clean while other volunteers pack up leftovers for folks to take home. The last time I used a Hobart I was 17, and I made $6.50/hour. A handsome man dresses up as Santa Claus and his assistant “Elfie” helps to hand out presents. People wear aprons, ask questions, help each other, hug near-strangers goodbye. I like being a useful body. Later, I mention to a friend that it has been a while since I’ve given my time rather than my money. She nods, cost-benefit analysis, sighs.

*

In December 2008, I spent my first Christmas away from my family, but was surrounded by new friends in rural Cape Breton. The night before Christmas Eve, I walked up the icy lane to a barn where people were keeping vigil to make my own visit. The year had taken someone I loved out of the world violently, and I felt moved to embody my heart’s blind wandering, stepping out into the cold alone, seeking something I couldn’t name. When I arrived at the barn, I found it strung with white lights, the cats nestled in the hay. A small wooden ledge held a piece of paper with instructions, and a pack of matches: “light a candle, and sing Silent Night to yourself.” I did, and wept.

*

On Christmas Eve, I sing. This year, the mass setting (from Praetorius, of ‘Lo how a rose e’er blooming fame) is for double choir — vaulting lines volley back and forth across the stalls. Singing lets my body help my mind: anxious by nature, I have no choice but to let the deeper, shared thing (the beat) ground me, and to do my part with what I have (my breath). On Christmas Eve I must sing because it reminds me of how to live for the rest of the year: to feel for the pulse, to trust the silences, and to listen to each other and give generously so we can make something warm and bright. Tonight I will watch the light travel up through the pews as the candles are lit, illuminating chapped lips and rosy cheeks, waiting patiently to share in that human gift of the light carried, the light returning.

 

 

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