I got pregnant during Advent 15 years ago, after which I had almost no further contact with Sam's father, John, for years. No one could have imagined that over the last seven years the three of us would become a quirky, tender family: Last week, Sam and I spent our fourth Thanksgiving in Canada with John, and came back home on the first Sunday in Advent.
This year Sam was finally going to meet his father's first son, and Sam's half-brother. No one had been ready to take this next step until this year, and suddenly, we all were. Sam was more excited than I'd seen him in a long time. I was too but --- well, you know me with my bad nerves. John's son was going to stay on John's marvelous boat with his wife and baby. Sam would stay with John at his apartment, and I was staying at a hotel, as I have not completely lost my mind.
John and I and Sam talked all the way to the hotel, where they dropped me off before heading to John's apartment. My hotel was on the shore of the inlet that flows into Vancouver, with snowy mountain peaks across the water, trees seemingly aflame on every hillside, and a bustling harbor beneath my window. I would take a cab to John's later, where all of us would meet up for dinner.
I holed up in the hotel with CNN, Kit-Kats from the mini-bar, and grew increasingly tense. What if Sam's brother couldn't reach out, what if Sam went into adolescent glower, what if ... I went through everything that could go wrong that night, and then moved into the more spacious realms of worrying about gum surgery, and colon cancer. I got some communion Milanos out of the mini-bar, performed the sacrament, and then prayed that I could just keep the faith. The thing is, I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something my Jesuit friend Tom told me -- that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, and emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within for the sense one was born with, the sense to go for a walk.
So first I showered off that horrible butt smell you get from being on an airplane, then bundled up and went outside. I breathed deeply as I walked, and prayed that everything would go all right for Sam's sake. I wish faith wrapped you in a bubble, but it doesn't, not for long anyway. Real life always pops it, like when George punctures the Bubble Boy's bubble on "Seinfeld," during the famous dispute over the Trivial Pursuit answer, "Moops" or "Moors."
During Advent, Christians prepare for the birth of Jesus, which means the true light. All better religions have a holy season as the days grow shorter, when we ask ourselves, Where is the spring? Will it actually come again this year, break through the quagmire, the terror, the cluelessness? Probably not, is my response, left to my own devices. So all I can do is to stay close to God, in Her Big Mama guise, and my friends. I notice the darkness, light a few candles, scatter some seeds. When I am alone in my room, I see Bush lasting forever, getting reelected, or refusing to leave if he loses. But out in Nature, and in my spiritual communities, I can usually remember that we only have to dread things one day at a time. Insight doesn't help here. Hope is not logical. It always comes as a surprise, just when you think all hope is lost. Hope is the cousin to grief, and both take time: You can't short-circuit grief, or emptiness and you can't patch it up with your bicycle tire tube kit. You have to take the next right action. Jesus would pray on the mountain, or hang out with the poor or imprisoned, or -- as I'll get to in a moment -- start doodling in the sand.
I walked around town for a while, stopped at some bookstores, bought myself a lipstick, a cup of cocoa with extra whipped cream, and then dropped by an old stone church.
The church was small and beautiful, cold and dark. This gave me a kind of relief: We live in darkness. Everyone knows this by age 14 or they're seriously disturbed. I started to get really freaked out about dinner -- there are literally six people in the world with whom I can bear to eat. And besides, what if the added weight of Sam's brother, his old psychic trunks, and new family, caused our life with John to buckle? I would rather have my gums scraped than eat with people I don't know; I turn down semi-lucrative speaking engagements if it means I have to eat with sponsors.
What if Sam's heart got broken again? As with most kids who are 14 it has been spackled and duct taped and caulked back together so many times as it is. I prayed to be able to breathe, and feel less worried and controlling, and to focus on God's promise that the day will come when things are better.
The church smelled dank and musky, like Sam's dirty laundry, but I sat quietly. My mind perched on top of my head like a spider monkey and thought of more things that could go wrong at dinner, and whose fault those things would be. I tried to change channels in my heart, which is so kind and so amazed that John and I have made a little family for Sam. Still, my mind chattered on, like the spider monkey had taken a little acid. My mind is my main problem almost all the time. I wish I could leave it in the fridge when I go out, but it likes to come with me. I have tried to get it to take up a nice hobby, like macramé, but it prefers just to think about things, and jot down the things that annoy it.
The other problem continues to be what I think the light looks like. I have thought, over the years, that the light would look like success, a good man, a child, a Democratic president, but none of these were right. Moses led his people in circles for 40 years so they could get ready for the Promised Land, because they had too many ideas and preconceptions about what a nice Promised Land should look like. In Advent, we have to sit in our own stuff long enough to know what it means to be saved, which I think means to see everyone as family. Certainly if you follow Jesus, you have to believe that we are one family, we're all sisters and brothers.
I left the church and took a cab over to John's house. I cannot tell you the whole story, but Sam says that I can share the following brief report, on the dinner before Thanksgiving: His brother is tall and warm and kind. They looked enough alike so that you could see they were related, but not so much that I had to breathe into a brown paper bag. And they were both a little shy. His brother's wife is smart and lively, and their baby is lovely beyond words. We all connected, in the perfectly imperfect way of families. We ate and were kind to each other. We watched TV and raced around after the baby. Sam staked out turf close to both me and his father, and ventured out like small children do to try out new lines of conversation. I was secretly hoping that something dramatic would happen, and I'd have a great story to tell, but it took me several hours to realize that this is the best story there is: that a small group of related people came together, willing to be supremely uncomfortable, so that Sam could know his brother, and his brother's family, and therefore come to know a bit more about who he is. This is why we did it.
I am also allowed to report that Sam's niece, and my 11-month-old niece Clara, were born on the exact same day -- when God is not being cryptic and silent, She is such a show-off. Clara has taught Sam how to be with babies. Sam's like a cross between Big Bird, and Tony Soprano with them. "Hey you," he calls to Clara, and now his niece, when they're babbling over his TV show, "Put a sock in it." Then he tosses them around, and pushes his face against theirs, and makes farting sounds, and makes sure they don't get their fingers caught in drawers.
He also doodled the whole evening. The rest of us talked, overate, cleaned up messes as we went, held our tongues, overlooked the inevitable family tension. The oil of manners makes it possible. When you're kind to people, and you pay attention, you make a field of comfort around them, and you get it back -- the Golden Rule meets the law of Karma meets Murphy's law.
And all the while, Sam drew his little guys, from time to time asserting his adolescent grump. So what if I felt anxious much of time? What else is new? Something larger than us and our anxieties and ferocious need to control got us through, connected us, even if the connection was precarious at first. What shone through was the odd responsibility we took for each other, the kindness, marbled in through the past, our character defects, hidden and on the surface, and the glitches. Things got broken, they always do, and children yap and stamp and cry and glower, and demand all your attention. It's called real life, and it's cracked and murky and not my strong suit, but the glue for me is the beating of my heart, love and whatever attention I can pay to what matters -- making a good life for Sam.
"Hey, Sam," I said, when I hugged everyone goodbye and left for my hotel. "Doodle on, dude."
On Thanksgiving when I woke up after a troubled sleep, I lay in bed giving thanks for what has to be acknowledged as a small miracle: having come from where we were, before Sam knew his dad, to where we are now. I ordered room service, and then made the mistake of turning on the TV. Our grindingly clueless president was in Iraq, dishing out stuffing. What a turkey. I wondered, What if there really is no hope, this time? Outside my window, the nearest trees looked sick and in trouble. The leaves had all fallen off, and they looked dead. All I could do was lean on my shaky Advent faith that things would be OK, more or less, that we are connected, and everyone -- everyone -- eventually falls into the hands of God. I pray, and try to be kind, and go to church, and Sam doodles.
But these are the things that Jesus did, too. In John:8, when the woman is about to be stoned by the Pharisees for adultery, we see Jesus doodling in the sand. The Pharisees, the officially good people, were acting well within the law when they condemned the woman to death. A huge crowd of people willing to kill her had joined them. The Greatest Hits moment here is when Jesus says, challenging the crowd, "Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone." But the more interesting stuff happens before, when he leaves the gathering storm, goes off by himself, and starts doodling.
He refuses to interact with them on their level of hatred and madness. He just draws in the sand for a time. Maybe he was drawing his little guys -- the Gospel doesn't say. But when he finally faced the mob, and responded, all the people who were going to kill the woman had disappeared.
You have to wonder, where was the man with whom she committed adultery? Some people suggest he was in the crowd, waiting to kill her. We don't know. But I can guess how the condemned woman must have felt -- surprised. She was supposed to die, and her life was spared. Hope always catches us by surprise.
It poured all Thanksgiving morning and the only news was Bush in Iraq, clutching his little turkey. But even in the gloom and desperation, I played over the scenes from the night before, in all their magic and klutz and ordinariness: Sam and his brother getting to know each other; the baby racing around in a state of busy wonder. I have to say, I continue to be deeply surprised by life.
The rain poured down, dark and loud. This is the time to plant bulbs and scatter seeds, in the hope that some of them will grow: poppies, tulips, wildflowers. In the meantime, in Advent, we show up, with grit and kindness. We try to help. We prepare for an end to the despair, and we do this together.