A Season to Celebrate Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as 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 still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is an obvious jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, has been arranged more precisely into 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 the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility: There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed, into the basement, or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Inevitably, any child will be tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly, resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly someone stepped, it creaked beneath their weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it turned out to be the twenty-eighth board that complained. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and the floor board’s muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for 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.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, and just a little nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. 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.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, a dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during this strange season of demands and disappointment, the beginning of the season called Advent extends 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 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 to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by 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.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But when patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

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 the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Pennies from Heaven

Searching for the world’s pennies at a Minnesota lake

Whether my parents saw the 1936 film, Pennies From Heaven, is impossible to say. During their courtship, the closest movie theater lay ten miles away, in another town. Though not far by today’s standards, it made catching a new release difficult: especially for a couple living without a car.

After marrying and moving to a larger city, they began taking in a movie from time to time, but those nights were rare. Sixty cents — the cost of two movie tickets and two ice cream cones after the show — could have purchased ten pounds of sugar or a pound-and-a-half of coffee, so even occasional splurges were given some thought.

Still, if they didn’t see the film, they knew and liked the Academy Award nominated song of the same name, written by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke. A positive, upbeat tune meant to cheer Depression-weary listeners, it seemed to do just that. Even after the end of WWII, its popularity endured. My mother sang along when it played on the radio; my father sang it to me when he pushed me in my swing, or sought to cheer me on a rainy day.
Continue reading

Godot Gives It Another Go

“What’s happening with Godot this year?” she asked. Startled, I said I didn’t know. I’d paid scant attention to my little patio friend since April, when inspections revealed no sign of activity in the cactus pot – no new growth, no buds, no blooms. By the beginning of May things still were quiet and, as happens in so many families, the quiet and well-behaved one was left to fend for himself.

Of course, turning your back on the quiet one can be dangerous. Left to their own devices, there’s no telling what they’ll get up to. Continue reading

The Fruitcake’s Revenge

Got Fruitcake?

Johnny Carson said it, and I believed it.  Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, he began the Christmas season by reminding us, “There’s only one fruitcake in the world. It’s been passed around from person to person since time immemorial, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. You’ll never escape The Fruitcake.” 

I knew his little joke wasn’t factual. Every year multitudes of fruitcakes marched like overzealous Nutcrackers into the heart of the holiday season, overflowing store shelves and filling up catalogs.  How essentially good ingredients – fruit and cake – could be combined into a “treat” that was both gummy and dry was beyond me. But the fruitcake people had managed to do it. Even though I preferred not to waste my holiday calories on something that appeared to have been circulating since the days of the Roman Empire, people kept pressing fruitcake on me.  I wished there were only one. It would have been easier to escape the ghastly conconction. Continue reading

The Time of Our Lives

Reminders about the end of daylight saving time have begun to crop up, opportunities for a little congenial and inconsequential grumping in the midst of Eurozone crises, premature snow and political theatre. Some wish “the longer day” would be made permanent. Others consider the fuss over “falling back”  nothing more than a relic of another time, like barn-raisings and butter churns.

The annual discussions are repetitive, and predictable as the seasons. Does our clock manipulation save energy? Should it be standardized across the country? Does it help or hurt school children?

I don’t think definitive answers are possible, and I personally don’t care. Like an old-fashioned farmer, I work by the sun, not the clock. Grandma liked to say she worked from “kin to cain’t” – from the moment when the first bird took flight into the dawn until the last light faded against the hills – and I love embodying that part of her tradition. Still, living as I do in a world of clock-and-calendar sorts, it’s important to take their realities into account – including the transition back to “standard” time. Continue reading