The key sits loosely in its lock, unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next with the freedom of wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.
In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure – no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes tidied into original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Now and then, two closets nestle side by side. Hers is obvious, all ajumble with boxes of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs and report cards. His, more intentional, arranged with more precision, is a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.
Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in these weeks before Christmas a child might be tempted to cross the bounds of caution by the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…”
It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children seeking out what parents have hidden - under the bed, in the basement, on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. And always, the list of potential gift caches is crowned by the best hiding-place of all - a parent’s bedroom closet.
If you decided to invade the closet, you’d find its lock a lesser impediment than the bottom hinge, the one that’s needed oiling for months. It protests with a rising, audible scritch when the door’s eased open, but only if you hesitate. Pull it firmly, resolutely, and it remains silent. More dangerous is the oak floorboard lying halfway between the bedroom threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly you step, it creaks beneath your weight with a sound sharper than branches scraping down the second-story windows. Counting from the threshold it’s the twenty-eighth board that complains, and any careless or inattentive child who doesn’t watch, count and count again before stepping across the offending board may hear a voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”
I know this, of course, because I lived for years obsessed with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the broad expanse of bedroom like a veritable Lewis or Clark of childhood. Even today, faint beneath the roar of holiday football and the pandemonium of half-crazed shoppers, I can hear the murmuring hinge and the floorboard’s muffled creak. But there is more to remember about that board and those closets than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret, the bitter taste of deception and the chagrin of learning what life can demand of a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.
The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was in the house and strung with lights, ready for my cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.
Looking around, I found no bits of wrapping paper in the trash, saw no ribbon or out-of-place scissors. Listening, I heard no tell-tale shutting of car doors after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but a recent exposure to some hard truths about Santa had left me cautious, nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get any gifts at all. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.
A week later, when our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, my parents allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay at home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window I watched them leave, cross the yard and disappear into our neighbor’s home.
Once they were safely out of sight, I sprinted out of my bedroom and toward my parents’ room. Heedless of the squeaking floor and hinges, I pulled open the door to my dad’s closet. In the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon, its contents were difficult to see. I pulled the chain hanging from the single overhead bulb and the sudden explosion of light revealed what I had feared: nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, unstacked a box or two. There were no packages, no paper or ribbon – not a hint of Christmas lay hidden in his closet.
Irrationally convinced that any hidden gifts had to have been piled into my father’s closet, I barely glanced into my mother’s. Even when I stepped inside the already opened door and turned on the light, I almost missed the bit of red-and-white striped paper that caught my eye. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped. A pile of boxes was waiting, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. No doubt each had a tag. Of the few that I could see, most carried my name.
It would be years before the phrase “crime of opportunity” entered my vocabulary, but that day I had opportunity, and I plunged into crime. Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the fabric nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a package bearing my name. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.
Today, I have no memory of the box’s contents. I remember only my sudden sense of guilt, my dread of being discovered and the disappointment I experienced while unwrapping the package under the tree. Guilt, disappointment and dread would have been punishment enough for such a slight “crime”, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of the consequences of dishonesty – having to pretend everything was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.
My unwillingness to wait - born of a child’s overwhelming desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that there would, indeed, be gifts -had left me unable to celebrate, wishing only for Christmas to end. It was a terrible day, and a mistake I never repeated.
Today, the Christian season of Advent begins anew. While media and merchandisers focus on the shopping season, the party season, the season of excess and the silly, generic-happy-holidays season, Advent arrives with a gracious invitation to delay gratification and learn a deeper patience.
A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting. We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored, for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season we await the budding of the spring and the gathering of the harvest, the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time itself to pass and for the coming of the dawn. In the exhaustion of the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter, for love, and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.
We have a choice, of course. Perfectly free to force the bud and destroy the flower, we are equally free to demand obedience while we lose respect. We are free to leave the hills but miss the sunset, to grow impatient and lose the stars. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we are free to rush the season and demand our satisfactions now, though our willingness to slip off a ribbon, lift a bit of tape and unfold some sheets of love-creased paper may destroy our joy in the process.
To put it simply, knowing how to wait nurtures and deepens our humanity. From a certain perspective, waiting itself is the gift of Advent, the mysterious and compelling experience that comes accompanied by the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…”
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So shall the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker