Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

How My Cat Taught Me about Death and Christmas

One possible Advent practice is to take your cat to the vet to get six teeth extracted and then wait two and a half days for said cat to eat and drink again. After trying this myself, I recommend shopping instead.

During the cat not eating period, I decided to worry despite some pretty wise people—like, for example, the Son of God—advising against it. Occasionally I paused and told myself to relax; Tux, my cat, was not dying, and if he were, that would be OK.

I realize this whole “death is OK” thing is a bit of a jump, but I’d just come back from a retreat at which Jim Finley told this story:

Say you’re on a cruise ship and you fall overboard. You yell for help, but no one hears you and the ship sails away. There you are all alone in the water, and you realize that if you try to swim, you won’t last long. But if you float, you can last a lot longer (for those of you realists, it’s tropical water and you’re not wearing cotton), but you can only float if you relax. So you lie there relaxing really hard. After a while, you come to an internal place where, though you will continue to do your best to float, you know you’re probably going to die and you don’t have a problem with that anymore. Then the ship comes back and rescues you and you’re incredibly grateful, but you know you’ll never be the same again.

In his poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Dylan Thomas writes, “Though lovers be lost love shall not.” Perhaps that’s what we would realize if we were floating in the ocean, that we have a “deathless nature” within us, as Finley would put it, that the essence of us, the lovers, is a love without beginning or end.

In reality, we’re all already in that ocean. At the retreat, there was a woman in her seventies who radiated joy all weekend. When I thanked her for it, she said she was so grateful to have someone talk about dying because her friends and acquaintances never did.

It seems a bit out of season, perhaps, to write about death when we are preparing to celebrate a birth. But this particular birth happened to show us our “invincible preciousness,” as Finley says, the eternal at the center of and woven through this passing creation. We are all part of the love that will never be lost. May an awareness of that love be born in our hearts this Christmas.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Wishing everyone peace and joy during whichever holidays you celebrate.

Ready or Not

I’m not ready for Christmas this year. The gifts are purchased—OK, all but one—I gave up on cards long ago, and I have plenty of time to pack. But I spent more time the last few weeks focused on getting things done than on pondering the reality of God with us.

Here’s the thing, though—Christmas will happen anyway. The birth of love in our hearts is ongoing whether we’re paying attention or not.

Maybe we make it more complicated than it needs to be, maybe we needlessly separate—I certainly do—things that are and aren’t preparation for Christ, the presence of God, of the holy, in our midst. Every time we smile at someone in line at the store or let someone who’s exuding stress go ahead of us, we welcome love. Every time we wonder which gift would bring the most joy to a friend or bake cookies for our neighbors, we bring love to life.

Perhaps if we simply pay more attention to the things we are already doing, we will unfold into our own true love nature, as a flower unfurls from a bud. A rose doesn’t bloom from an oak tree—a flower can only come from the plant it already is. And so with love—we are already doing it; we already are it. In it we live and move and have our being.

That’s not to say that we don’t need times of quiet prayer or meditation—they help us open our eyes to what is already within and among us. It’s there in the grocery store and on the beach every bit as much as it is in church. It’s there when we forget or are distracted. It is love, divinity, or whatever you call that connection, that oneness for which you most long, and it is now and continually born in our souls. Now that is indeed reason to be merry.

Wishing everyone a joyful celebration of whichever holidays are closest to your hearts this time of year.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next two weeks as, most likely, will this blog.

Heart Cleaning

My dad and sister are coming to visit for Christmas, and there is this small matter of getting the house ready. There’s also a larger matter of getting my heart ready.

Readying the house requires making room for their physical presence—clearing the papers off the table so they have a place to eat, putting hangers in the closet for their clothes. We welcome guests by making space for them, by setting a place at the table.

One day I caught myself wishing that my dad and sister were arriving a few days later to give me more time to prepare. In other words, the whole reason for these preparations was to welcome them, and here I was wishing they’d stay away. That’s when the whole heart thing came up.

I think heart preparation is similar to home preparation. We need to clear some space in our hearts to welcome others into it. We have to let go of the preoccupations of how we want our lives to be—sometimes even when we think those preoccupations are in the service of others, like cleaning the house for their arrival.

We also have to let go of who we want them to be. I don’t mean that we should tolerate cruelty, but to truly love someone or something means loving her as she is—both the perfect and the imperfect bits. I think this is hard, especially with family members because so much of who we think we are is wrapped up in our relationships with them.

But what better time to practice than Christmas when we celebrate, to paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the birth of Christ in the essence and ground of our souls? When we make room for others in our hearts—relatives, friends, those who are struggling—we make room for this birth, and vice versa.

According to Eckhart, it’s worth the effort: “If you just wait for this birth to take place in you, you will find all that is good, all consolation, all bliss, all being and all truth.”

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. May whatever holy days you celebrate at this time of year bring you light, life, and love.

Birthing Love

This year I actually wanted to send Christmas cards (not to be confused with the actual sending of them). Every year, as people go their various ways for Christmas vacation, I find myself wanting to connect with all my friends before they leave, whether they’re close and I saw them last week or far and I haven’t seen or talked with them in months.

I’ve been wondering why the need to be together is so strong right now and why waiting until January feels like missing a critical moment. After all it’s only a couple of weeks. No other two-week period has that sense of urgency for me.

I think it’s because the Christmas spirit, which people of any or no religion can enjoy, comes alive when we notice love being born into the world. Love is always being born into the world, but we are impatient and easily distracted beings and often miss it. Luckily, we are also ritualistic beings, and so we build into our lives times to stop and pay attention. When an entire culture pauses and takes the time to celebrate that love, you can feel it.

And when you do, you might want to send Christmas cards or drop five bucks in the Salvation Army bucket or let someone go in front of you in line. Because we are the ones who birth love into the world. As with children or art or any other act of creation, it comes both from us and through us—we participate in its coming into being but are not its only source.

We tend and grow this love in our many relationships, and so of course, when love is in the air, there is an urge to reconnect. To all of you who will probably not, despite my best intentions, receive cards from me: I love you.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Wishing you all a merry Christmas and joyful new beginnings at the solstice and the turn of the year.

Falling into Place

I bribed my family to forego skiing in Colorado and come to California for Christmas. The winning offer: Dungeness crab at $6.99/lb.

We’ve never before gathered in California, and the four of us haven’t been together in quite a few years. When reflecting on what made the week so much fun, it appeared to me that we’re all at a point where we want to be with each other or are at least capable of enjoying the company. With the possible exception of the cat, who made it clear he objected to the disruption of his usual routine.

It’s not always easy to remember that things happen in stages. My sister is six years younger than I, and for years I didn’t want her around. In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want any of my family members around. By the time I returned to the fold, my sister had had about enough of all of us. The two of us have been close for years now, but it took some time.

The cycle turned again this year, and it felt as if things I didn’t even know were missing fell into place a little.

That’s not to say we’re perfect. My sister and I had to stop speaking about a photograph because we disagreed so strongly about its contents. My parents are divorced, and though they did us the gigantic favor of not hating each other, they are not those people you see in the movies who remain close friends.

Yet we all seem to have come to a place where, most of the time, we don’t need each other to be any more or less than who we are. The other side of the coin, I think, is that we all have some acceptance of our own failings. We can, mostly, listen to stories about ourselves and say, wow, did I really do that? A gentler reaction than, I did not do that!

The future undoubtedly holds anger and frustration along with the joy and love, but this Christmas felt like a healing, as if something was sewn together that will make our relationships stronger in the future. And that is a remarkable gift.

Why Wait?

My life would be a lot easier if impatience were a virtue. Or if I could learn patience faster.

Recently, I’ve been telling myself to buckle down and do more of approximately everything. Myself and I have had this conversation often with no discernible results. So for Advent I decided to stop trying to figure things out and wait and listen instead. This may be what some people refer to as praying.

Our culture doesn’t particularly value waiting, and after two weeks of practicing it, I understand why. The first couple of days you can feel all la-dee-da and enlightened about it, but beginning day three it’s just not fun. The subtitle on the Advent reader they handed out at church says, “Waiting in joyful hope.” I’m not sure where the joyful hope people are, but I’m hanging out in the annoyed get-it-over-with-already camp.

Today I decided that two weeks is quite enough time for God/the universe/whatever to have straightened out my life and revealed at least the next few steps in a clear, concise road map. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, God/the universe/whatever doesn’t appear to be on my timeline, despite my having told her/him/it very sternly in the car on the way home that I’d had about enough of waiting.

But here’s the thing, the point of these four weeks is for people to make a straight path for God, not the other way around. We’re getting ready to celebrate a birth, and though I don’t have any kids, I’ve attended enough baby showers to know that requires a lot of preparation.

Once it happens, your life, as I understand it, does not get easier. Suddenly your time is no longer you own, and this tiny being has the power to disrupt your sleeping and eating and showering in ways previously unimagined. It also has the power to open up a richness and a depth of love that little else can provide.

So that’s what we’re preparing to celebrate, that opening of love in our lives. I suppose it might be worth waiting for.

I just asked my cat if he would like to curl up in my lap and act inspirational while I write. He replied by knocking my pen off the table.

cat in Santa costume looking sour

That’s the great thing about being a cat: you somehow manage to be charming by failing to fulfill any social obligations. Humans do not have this luxury, especially during the current extreme sports season of gathering and gifting. Everyone is competing in at least a heptathlon—sending cards, buying presents, attending parties, caroling, baking.

I’ve found that the key to an enjoyable holiday season is focusing on the aspects that you’re really good at. For me, one shining skill stands out above all the others: eating.

In these health conscious days, where would all the cookie bakers be without people like me to consume their wares? Who would support the red and green sprinkle industry and ensure the Red No. 5 factories stayed open?

And imagine a holiday party at which no one touched the spinach dip. Don’t linger on that thought lest you lose your good cheer.

In fact, an expert eater may be the person most likely to go the distance. Consider: the season starts with the biggest feast day of the year, Thanksgiving, the one day of the American calendar devoted solely to cooking and eating. Then as soon as you’ve finished the leftovers, the first party arrives. Hanukkah gelt fills in any momentary gaps, and even the decorations are edible—gingerbread houses, candy canes.

So though my Christmas cards remain scanty and my shopping last minute, I think I’m sitting right at the heart of the season.

Starting the Season Right

I almost subjected you to deep thoughts this week. Nothing cures unnecessary deep thoughts like a good party, and no one throws a better party than Central Coast Soccer. I highly recommend parties over deep thoughts. First of all, there’s more food. Second of all, people are enjoying themselves.

soccer ball with Santa hatHere is what I love about CCSoccer: it is coed; we don’t keep score; the league asks anyone who is too aggressive to leave; newcomers to the game are welcomed, encouraged, and passed to; everyone on the team having fun trumps playing the best possible game. This truly recreational atmosphere is as rare as a cheerful Woody Allen movie, one out of every few thousand.

Here is what I love about the CCSoccer party: it takes a moment to recognize people because they’ve blow-dried their hair and no one is sweaty. Greetings resemble those between long-lost friends whether people haven’t seen each other for a year or they just played together Wednesday night. Everyone brings their kids, who get to run around and play and be kids. Stealing during the white elephant gift exchange is merciless. The food is really good.

The attitude of the league creates the ambience of the party. The members of this community have practiced not taking one another too seriously, and all the time they’ve spent together, they’ve spent doing something they love—a rare combination.

I don’t know the details of these people’s lives the way I know those of my closest friends or family members, but whether I only exchange hellos with someone or the conversation continues through year-in-review updates, seeing each person cheers me. The smiles and hugs throughout the room make it clear others feel the same way.

If the spirit of the holiday season includes welcoming, supporting, and enjoying those around us, this group is ready to celebrate.