Tuesday, December 13, 2011

...to all our silent nights

Moon over Marina Bay

From my friend Mary after her trip to the Middle East in August:

I stood on the Jordan side of the Dead Sea as the sun rose. There was a hill behind me that it had to clear. I was told that, at the right moment, I could see Jerusalem, and the sun would reflect off the Dome of the rock. There was a haze. Through the lens of my camera, across the Sea, I saw two dim gold reflections. The light was catching the Dome of the Rock and the spires of the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives. I snapped a few shots, then put my camera down to look. Without it, I couldn't see them and I wondered at the fuss. The, for a few seconds, the angle of the sun, the Dome, and my eyes were just perfect. The Dome became an expanding starburst that grew and then shrank with the speed of the sun's movement.
I felt the earth turn.

I daresay that if Mary stood and waited, watched, even managed to see this display again, the effect wouldn’t be the same...watered down by expectation, stripped of surprise. But the unexpected can be a sucker punch as well. I'm reading Patricia Gilman's book, The Anti-Romantic Child. Here is her first page:

"A poem...begins," Robert Frost once wrote, "as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness...it finds the thought and the thought finds the words." 
This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child. It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and - worst of all - would never make an impact. It began with a pining for contact with the spirit or essence of my child, a wrenching fear tht perhaps everything I did and said was in vain because he was unreachable and unimpressionable, a fierce devotion to a child I would do anything to save.
This is the story of the relationship between literature and life, the ideal the the real, of poetry vs. science, magic vs. measurement, honoring mystery vs. unraveling it. And at its heart, this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.

John Boswell's arrangement of "Silent Night" is playing. A quiet, poignant version I love...the silence is heard as clearly as the notes. More than any song I know, this one transports me to places of the heart, where dreams and life intersected - or just plain collided - and where, at the end of a dream, in the middle of the muddle a new beginning was born.


This morning my mind rewound to a long-ago Christmas eve in a church basement that smelled of strong, dark coffee. People from all walks, in all shades, sat in a circle and told their stories...humble, vulnerable, honest. Looking for a little hope.

I was reminded of a family story. When my nephew, Darin, was little, he went to his mom's room in the middle of the night. Glenda loved on him, as we say in the south, then told him to get back to his own bed.

"No, mama. I don't want to go back. That room has nightmares in it."


The meeting room in the basement of the church had dreams in it, but these dreams were born of nightmares. I doubt that any were realized as envisioned that evening. But I'm glad I was present, glad that I heard hope stream from one dark story after another. Humbled that I was invited to its birth. At the end of the gathering, the Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary above drew to a close and "Silent Night" fell down upon us. No one moved. Or spoke.

Several years later, in the upper room of another large church on another Christmas eve, I sat alone and waited. I had worked until two-thirty. Cooked dinner for friends and family. Cleaned the kitchen. Wrapped a couple of gifts. By seven-fifteen. Later we would attend the 11 p.m. service at our church. As I sat alone in the room, the book I'd brought with me unopened in m lap, I closed my eyes and listened. In the room below me, more stories were told. In the sanctuary, a Christmas Eve service drew to a close. "Silent Night", again. As I walked toward the stairs, the Rev. John Claypool came through a side door, headed to his study. He must have been exhausted after multiple services and the pressures of the season. The next morning more would follow. But he turned toward me and took both of my hands in his. His brilliant blue eyes - kind, loving, tinged with sadness - looked directly into mine. "I hope you have a blessed Christmas, Celeste." We stood there for a moment in the dark hallway...a brief but sincere intersection, a deep blessing visited upon me by one well-acquainted with grief.

So many Christmas Eves have passed. Some rich and hopeful, others an exercise in exhaustion. The details are dim now. But a collective memory weaves them together: "Silent Night", the smell of evergreens on windowsills, the flicker of candles carried out into the cold, silent midnight...light going out into the world.

Light going out into the world: we are either carriers...or nothing at all. With every baby, the miracle is born. As we grow, we manage to make a muck of things. All of us, some to a greater degree than others. But we get a do-over: we can choose to start over at any moment. The price is acceptance of life exactly as it is. In the spirit of full disclosure: after I walk into wall after wall and fall down repeatedly, I eventually relent...even though experience has shown my that when I let go of "my way" something finer is born. Not necessarily softer or gentler. Unrecognizable for a while, perhaps. But finer by far than my selfish design.

This year I wish for all of us the vulnerability of those who told their stories in the church basement that night. I hope that our dreams will be worthy...our disappointments, blessings in disguise. And that we listen for a melody that carries us all the way to grace.

Wherever you are, whatever you believe, look up at the stars in the silent night. In that deep quiet, feel the earth turn. Then go forth to "make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways."

3 comments:

Jeannette said...

Wonderful awesome....

Celeste said...

Jeannette, I was just about to post a comment on "What Matters Is ...". I devoured your blog as soon as you published it but read it on my iPhone. Couldn't post on the mobile. Just catching up! Love, love, love the C.S. Lewis quote. What a Christmas gift you are. And with the good manners to arrive early! All the best this season!

Celeste Bracewell said...


“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
― Ray Bradbury