I was dreading Christmas that year, 2011. It wasn’t the first holiday I’d spend alone – it had been seven years since I’d been in a romantic relationship during the holidays, and more than twenty since I would fly back to my hometown.
Not that family has to be romantic or genetic; when I lived in Indiana, I’d host the “orphan” Thanksgiving – usually a wonderful motley crew of queers, writers and recovering drunks. I loved these holidays – the mix of kids and older folks, dogs and football. One year, a visiting professor read our tarot while we played an increasingly obscene and surreal game of exquisite corpse. Another year, vast quantities of silly-string cities (the clean-up took days).
But I’d moved a lot in the past several years and lived in a small dorm apartment with a one-butt kitchen and nothing resembling a dining room table. I sold my turkey pans and threw away my holiday decorations years ago. I convinced myself – any given holiday is just another day.
2011 wasn’t like that.
Maybe it was the recent deaths of two old friends in Indiana, or maybe it was the accumulation of too many moves and too many romantic disappointments in those recent years.
It hit me at Thanksgiving – this sort of unrelenting ache. I was stunned to find myself buried in grief on Thanksgiving. I cried all morning and finally forced myself to the friend of a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner. I was more surprised when that feeling didn’t lift after Thanksgiving. I got frustrated with myself – the way I do when the feelings I am having are not acceptable to me. I told myself – stop it, stop being so full of self-pity. Tons of people are alone over the holidays – you have wonderful friends, you’re doing something you love, this doesn’t matter.
But as the frenzy of finals and deadlines passed, I was still feeling it. I hadn’t grieved this much since the year after my birth-mother’s death. I felt inconsolable – all I could see was loss, all my myriad mistakes and personal failings. I told myself to stop being so self-centered, to focus on my work. I wasn’t able to make myself meditate or pray. Being with people was excruciating.
One of the things I learned in 12-step programs is that when you feel truly shitty, you can get some relief by trying to help other people. So just after Thanksgiving, I asked my supervisor at the hospital if I could work on Christmas day. (As part of the seminary experience, I was working 15 hours a week as a chaplain intern at a local hospital, providing interfaith spiritual care to patients).
A lot of people in my life were really surprised (and horrified) when, at 40, I decided to commit to Christianity and follow a call to ministry. I’ve been trying to figure this out myself. When I first started going to church, I resisted everything. Why do this, I thought? I have a perfectly good spirituality. And I did – I had practices that helped me stay sober for nearly 20 years, that inspired me to help other people and to try to become a better person.
One of the things I do like about religious tradition is the complexity and intertextuality of the stories that have been passed down through the millennia. (It makes me insane when people flatten this complexity into bumper sticker morality, but that’s another post.)
Take the Christmas story, for example – if you’re from the US, you’d have to have spent your entire life in a zip-lock baggie to not know about the baby, manger, no-place-at-the inn thing. It’s a good story, complete with presents and donkeys.
But metaphorically speaking, the birth of Jesus is about the “Incarnation,” which essentially means that god puts on a human suit and comes to earth. “True” or not, what are we to make of the story of a god who wants to relate to its creation so much that it sends part of godself to be born in the body of a human? (There are similar stories of humans reflecting gods in other traditions. My favorite is from the Sufi, which says that we are all mirrors of god – each of us reflecting a piece of the divine.)
What does it mean to be incarnate? I started thinking about this as I got into my car to drive to the hospital. There was still this heaviness in me; I spent the morning pushing through a hundred forms of self-hatred, the desire to just give up, to curl into a ball until this terrible loneliness passed, to drink myself into a coma.
I drove past the abandoned campus into the outlying neighborhoods. Lights left on all night framed windows in the dawn dark. I started using my old trick for combating depression – basically you just start saying thank you for everything you see. Thank you for the street signs. Thank you for the cross walks and trees. Thank you for morning spider webs on my car mirrors. I stopped at an intersection. This particular intersection has a street sign that says Zachery’s Corner. When I first moved here, someone explained that a young boy had been hit by a car and died there. It was usually decorated with stuffed bears, ribbons and flowers. But today, there was nothing.
An old man emerged from his house, he was barefoot and wearing a brown bathrobe. He carried a bag to his recycling bin and threw it away. He turned to his house, his big bare feet on cold sidewalk. And then something happened.
At this intersection of loss – I felt this overwhelming sense of love for this man in his horrible bathrobe. He did not see me, and I turned and continued to drive.
When I was a little girl, I used to believe that time and space were contained in the air – that if you could breathe just right you could step into the past or future or somewhere else. And I wanted to be somewhere else. I loved movies and books about the apocalypse; to me everything seemed more real when all the detritus of everyday life was stripped away and the barest natures of people emerged. In Christian theology, you hear a lot about the apocalypse – there’s this whole field of study about it, called eschatology. In the flattened discourse of Christian fundamentalism this essentially means the end of the world, the time of judgment, and the return of Christ, among other things such as pestilence and multiple horsemen (the order of these events depends upon your denomination). Believe in Jesus, follow the rules, and you can go to heaven when you die.
An alternative theology suggests the idea of an eschatology that is not about the end of the world, but is instead the awareness of the presence of God in the now. In his essay “The Reality of God,” Paul Tillich says this happens precisely at the intersection of the secular and the divine:
“The holy embraces itself and the secular, precisely as the divine embraces itself and the demonic. Everything secular is implicitly related to the holy. It can become the bearer of the holy. The divine can become manifest in it. Nothing is essentially and inescapably secular. Everything has the dimension of depth, and in the moment in which the third dimension is actualize, holiness appears. Everything secular is potentially sacred, open to consecration.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Paul Tillich, p218, if you want to geek out on this, which I recommend.)
It is this “third dimension” that is the eschatological present – the existence of the divine incarnate in the secular. This eschatological now is about possibility and renewal.
In the car, I took a breath as I watched the man in the bathrobe, and I stepped right into another time – a now that was full of the numinous presence of the divine. A woman jogged past me at the next streetlight and I felt the same love. All the cars on the near-deserted highway glittered with this love; I imagined families and homecomings, divergent lives and quirky histories. The world was filled with story. The sun rose over the strange and stripped Northern California hills and I could imagine Steinbeck imagining East of Eden. Everything swept out in front of me like a vast horizon of worship, everything singing in the joy of creation, simply by being itself, incarnate in this moment.
Typically I would see between five and eight patients in a given day at the hospital. That Christmas I saw 17, a few at the end of life. I prayed with several, something that usually made me feel like an imposter. A man reached for my hand, pray with me, he said. And I did. I pulled on the paper gowns and gloves and sat with families, the detritus of Christmas wrapping at our feet. The long hallways of nurses with their mickey mouse scrubs and playful antlers. Everything seemed holy. The bruised bodies and taped tubes, the labored breathing and the hush of critical care.
I drove home and played my fiddle and had dinner with friends. And the intensity of the feeling passed, but so too did the aching loneliness I’ve had for so long.
Holy people in the early centuries praised asceticism as the way to the divine, to salvation, but I think maybe it’s really much more about incarnation – being fully in the body, fully in the heart, paying attention to and loving the movement of bodies and hearts through this moment, and the next, and the next.
*a version of this was published in an old blog of mine, in case my friends are getting a sense of deja vu.