A misty rain spots the windshield of my car as I drive home from Notre Dame for the last time this year, traffic is light, and darkness encroaches even though it’s only four in the afternoon. My work is done for two weeks, home is moments away, Christmas music is blasting on the stereo, my granddaughter is coming over for dinner tonight, and my son Tony arrives from Australia in a few days. A peaceful presence rides shotgun warding off the bandits that might assault my sense of well being. It’s all good.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing, right within your heart.
I remember something funny one of my students said and I chuckle out loud. I have the best job. Just as this memory pulls into my conscious, I’m unexpectedly sideswiped by a precarious thought – I have not wrapped a single Christmas gift. A frown highjacks my lips, brows retract into a deep furl, and like Cinderella, I sigh under the weight of amaranthine holiday duties. It feels like I’ve been shoved by an aggressive Target shopper so powerful the onslaught of unwarranted guilt. Mentally induced stress is so efficacious, I feel my heart rate increase, sweaty palms grip the steering wheel, and I’m finding it hard to breath. What the hell? The only thing standing between me and glad tidings is a few rolls of wrapping paper, ribbons, and tape. I don’t think this is what the savior had in mind?
I realize nothing has changed but my thoughts, suddenly I’m totally stressed out, and my sense of peace has jumped ship. I engage in a little self talk, you’re not a damn elf, if you don’t wrap a single gift no one will die, in fact you’ll be saving a lot of trees.
By the time I pull into my neighborhood I’ve managed to banish these judgmental notions. I muster a smile, mentally place myself up at the lake, when the unflated snowman laying in a heap on the neighbor’s front lawn catches my eye. It mimics my general disposition but I’m faking it well. Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear my dad saying, “what you think about will come about.” Great…
I have this unhealthy tendency to think I am juggling all my issues really well, when the balls come tumbling down, and physical manifestations take over, like colds, flus, nagging headaches. Without mentioning the status of my toenails let me just say there are several formidable issues vying for my attention. Like Job, I quietly lament at the unjust trials God has placed before me.
For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.” Job 3: 24-26
I do the usual, box em up, and toss them in the cranial closet. Right? It is my go to stress reliever, but oddly enough it is not a practical way of dealing with anxiety, because the body never forgets what it has in storage (this includes our communal body). I know, it’s totally messed up, guilt is like the elephant in the room, and her memory is legendary.
I pull into the gargage, say hi to the dog, warm up some cold coffee, use the facilities, and head back out to tackle the food shopping. Safeway is packed, I have to park in front of Rite-Aid, and I feel a stab of guilt walking past the Salvation Army guy dressed in red. I grab a prepackaged salad, avocado, tomato, potatoes, meat, bread, cheese, sushi, vegetable, and sea salt caramel gelato (I’m well aware that Aleppo hasn’t had food supplies for months). I pick up my mom on the way home, my ribs itch, whatever, set the table, wipe down the guest bath, open some wine. The family arrives, dinner is delightful, we linger around the table discussing names for the twins due this spring. I believe in the reality I’ve created in my mind, but all is not well in the world, and sadly I’ve become part of the problem.
By the time my head hits the pillow I have a full blown rash developing on my right side. That’s right, just like Job, I’m unjustly afflicted. My evening prayer goes something like this, “God is the really necessary? Have I forgotten to scratch something? Who is in need of my attention?” As the rash spreads across my core, recent tragedies come to mind, and I add them to my prayers. Although I believe in the power of prayer it is woefully ignorant to think some sort of cumulative action will not be required to alleviate all the suffering in the world. I pray for the courage to act, to be broken by senseless violence, to be willing to enter into discomfort (this is the most difficult for me), and to realize the goal of prayer is action. As Dorthy Soelle reminds us, “God you are not here to solve my problems, I am to solve yours.”
“We move into a space of avoidance. We avoid direct contact with pain. We hope for a quick solution that doesn’t involve us and doesn’t require anything from us because getting involved either directly or indirectly could cost too much. And with religious traditions advocating for inner peace as the highest spiritual achievement, we are all too willing to stay comfortably in our own inner peace-zone rather than face the horror of what others are experiencing.” Adam Bucko
The next morning the right side of my torso, just under my breast, is completely enflamed. Little red patches are forming indiscriminately and they itch like hell. I do a quick google search, it rhymes with jingles, a throwback from the chickenpox virus, reignited by stress or fatigue. Lovely. My elf status is now clearly at stake. I’m hosting a virus that lasts three to five weeks, there is no medicine, just ointments to ease the pain. The virus will eventually go dormant, but not before it lights up my central nervous system, and scorches me with a yuletide flame.
It seems odd that in order to celebrate the advent of unconditional love breaking into our world we have to be encumbered by so many superfluous obligations. Christmas lights, decorations, shopping, gifts, wrapping, dinners, dishes, and let us not forget Elf on a Shelf. I’m beginning to realize all these distractions allow me to avoid what is really important, loving my neighbor, forgiveness, compassion, and most importantly the courage to act. I don’t know how to get off the frivolous Christmas train but maybe there is another way to celebrate the birth of our savior because this virus is beginning to feel a lot like Christmas…