I took my late grandmother’s nativity scene out early today. It’s white ceramic that looks like china: three kings, a shepherd, Holy Family, and two sheep. This could have been a graceful afternoon project I imagine my grandmother doing with her medical auxiliary or book club lady friends, her elegant fingers smoothing the glaze, placing the figures carefully for firing, scratching her initials into the bottom of each piece. Surely they’d be laughing, sipping coffee, maybe tapping out a cigarette or two, wearing, just for once, the informal pants my grandmother still, into my childhood, called dungarees.
The centerpiece of her Nativity is an infant Jesus that actually lifts out of his manger, which is a sturdy wooden trough filled with hay, draped with a blanket flowing thronelike all the way to the floor. The infant’s body is slightly curved to fit in the depression on top of that blanket, with both his hands and his legs stretched up. When I was a little girl, this was wondrous. I stole up to the nativity set on top of the piano and held the baby in my hand, put him back, lifted him up again. I wondered what God looked like and how I would recognize him. I wondered if Jesus looked like the ordinary fat babies I saw in the grocery store or like some other kind of baby, maybe even this china one with his tiny features, his little upstretched hands.
I struggled to figure out God then, and to listen for voices of what is true and right in a world steadily more confusing. I struggle still today.
But now, I am an adult. And here is what I know: adulthood is one experience after another of learning that the hard thing, the counterintuitive thing, the one that clutches you with fear, is very often also the right thing. This knowledge has been working in me, prying me steadily open in a season of stress and loss and great confusion. Maybe prying isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s cracking. I think of a story recounted by Parker Palmer in which a rabbi says God places his words upon our hearts, then cracks our hearts so that his words can fall in. I don’t understand why suffering happens. But I know it does. And I know that if you try to pay attention in our suffering world, you can be cracked open by what you see, and moved toward a state of mercy that’s hard to get to when you’re all locked up in ordinary heedless life. This church sign in Brooklyn cracked me this week, completely.
photo via Joanna Solfrian
Cracked open. Angels unawares. A Middle Eastern family fleeing a ruler who unleashed chaos on his people. Into the night on a donkey or a raft or the back of a smuggler’s truck.
Last year I landed with 15 students in London on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. We walked past the British Museum as the last of the security that had just whisked Cameron and Merkel away from their press conference at a German-design exhibit – interrupted by news of the attacks – was clearing up. In Trafalgar Square, we spotted the remnants of the solidarity rally: shreds of Je Suis Charlie fliers, bins and bins of pens. Our proximity to the dark breath of terror, and the corresponding wave of friendship and hope, was dizzying. I watched the news, I stayed in touch with those back home, I worked very hard to be aware and keep my students safe. And I held tight to the words: I have not given you a spirit of fear.
Unfortunately, our current political climate is set up to breed fear, and to fatten on it, Moloch-style. We’re mired in a swamp of proud know-nothingness that feels worse than it’s ever been, when smug demogoguery’s been given a platform of national prominence and a veneer of respectability that would have baffled and embarrassed Republicans like, say, my grandmother: That’s no way to talk. That’s no way to behave. Why, this man’s just a fool. Even conservative columnist David Brooks is embarrassed: “Everything is connected. Which is why the presidency is for grown-ups, not rank outsiders.”
In the face of fear and challenge — and we have reasons to be afraid, reasons to fear the news from Paris and Mali and Beirut — we’ve got to remember how to be grown-ups. That means taking a breath, looking at reality, and getting on with it in the face of one hard thing after another. It means refusing to let fear alone take hold, fear alone be the thing that drives us. It means considering, and doing the right thing anyway, choosing not to let the wrong emotions run us like a rogue dog running sheep. Think about how this looks in your own life. Think about the last time you faced a pissed-off colleague or family member and tried to state your position without yelling, straining against the seductive downward tug of fuck this asshole, what does he know?, I’m gonna take him OUT, unscrolling in your mind a list of all the things legally or otherwise you couldn’t unfold to him right then, and saying only Sorry you feel that way. Think about the way life bumps you against reality like a boat tethered to a dock. You do the checkbook math, trying to make it work. You hear, or say, I just don’t love you anymore. You lose a father who was supposed to live to be a very old man and now never will, who was cut short of Dante’s threescore and ten. Supporting struts are kicked right out from under your days. And you keep on going. You grade papers and counsel students and counsel more students and go on into the next meeting and the next. You buy your groceries and change your baby’s diaper and tell your eleven-year-old that no, she may not have a pair of sweatpants with Pink on the ass, no matter how many of her friends are wearing them. You shovel your sidewalk and fill up the bird feeder now that the snow is here. It’s a hard, cold world for little things.
This is adulthood. This is life. This is choosing not to avoid what comes. Not numbing out or defaulting to shouting or impatience or anger. Looking the hard thing in the eye and trying, trying, to choose to do right.
This is adulthood. This is life. This is also where every good thing happens, out of the grip of fear. Beyond the clenched fist, the self-protective hunch, the plan that will not admit for anything else to be welcomed in. This is adulthood: getting yourself under control, opening your eyes to see clearly, opening your hand, accepting that the world and our stories about it are not always the same. The world, and other people, will surprise us if we let them.
In his book CROSSING THE UNKNOWN SEA: WORK AS A PILGRIMAGE OF IDENTITY (2001), David Whyte writes: “Our work is to make ourselves visible in the world. This is the soul’s individual journey, and the soul would much rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s…. In work as in life, we must contemplate the loss of everything in order to know what we have to give; it is the essence of writing, the essence of working, the essence of living; an essence that we look for by hazarding our best gifts in the world, and in that perspective, all of us are young and have the possibilities of the young until our last breath goes out.”
We cannot risk anything of ourselves, thereby opening ourselves to the great good that may be waiting — or open ourselves to the needs of other human beings, or share our gifts, or fall in love — until we make ourselves visible in the world. Until we open ourselves to the world, no matter how terrifying that prospect is. The sixteenth-century French surgeon Ambroise Pare wrote, “For my part I have dispensed liberally to everybody the gifts that God has conferred upon me, and I am none the worse for it; just as the light of a candle will not diminish, no matter how many come to light their torches by it.”
We have so much. Too much not to share.
Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
I lift the baby Jesus up, put him back. Lift him up. Bear the uncertain weight of grace in the palm of my hand. And pray for the strength to keep on choosing to open it.