Two long years ago, I wrote beneath my name inside the front cover of a newly acquired book the date when I started reading it, “Winter 2009.” Sometime later I scribbled below the date a more revealing message: “The whole year was winter.” In January, I had watched and heard and smelled my husband die. In December, the mentor—’Enry ‘Iggins or Svengali?—who taught me how to think and how to write had died, and I didn’t even know for weeks that he was gone and would never again parse my sentences and pronounce them good. Between those calculable losses had occurred others, more real because their finality was of the soul rather than of the mere body. Emily, who called me her touchstone and then threw me over for a man she met at eHarmony.com. Victoria, who finally became her mother and chose manipulation and madness, with rants and threats and pills.
It has taken more than one turning of the calendar to lessen the sting of that long chill. Compounding those losses, the inability to find a welcoming faith community made me yearn all the more for the comfort I had left when I abandoned my seat at the piano and my place behind the lectern at St. Christopher’s. Too, the inability to find a job made me feel old and a failure, a disappointment made all the more humiliating because of those early years of being chaired through the marketplace.
However, just as we fail to notice improvement from pain or illness until one day we recognize with a start that we are well again, so I seldom took note of the longer days and warmer breezes that have blessed me in recent months. Then suddenly, two weeks ago, in a moment of unaccustomed clarity I wrote in the back of another book the following hymn to new life: “Just now, I was reading in the too-dim kitchen as I waited for dinner, occasionally stirring the pot of chili. I walked into the dark office to look up something on the computer. The front porch light was on, providing an unaccustomed illumination. I thought to myself in a rare moment of clarity—and contentment: I am comfortable here in this cluttered and dirty house with no furniture and appliances that don’t work, comfortable in this skin that never seems to fit, as comfortable as I could ever imagine being in my relationship with Pavel.”
It’s late autumn now, not spring as my sense of rebirth might suggest. I have been riding my bicycle these glorious fall days because at last it seems time to be outside and feel the sun on my face, to pass through alleys of and reds and yellows and hear the crunch of browns beneath my tires, to exercise muscles and to express gratitude, both of which have atrophied from long disuse. I have dusted off the mandolin and trimmed my nails to begin the arduous process of making calluses and music once again. And I have begin reading and writing again, those long neglected pleasures.
Soon it will be Advent, my favorite season of the church year and the setting of my favorite service in the Anglican liturgy: the Festival of Lessons and Carols. I first heard this moving service fifteen years ago, when God answered my cry from another wilderness and led me to the family that nurtured and sustained me for more than ten years. True to the Anglican understanding of Advent, this powerful service begins with the reprimand through which “God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise.” The lessons continue with the promise to Abraham, the prophecies of comfort and light delivered by Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the preparation for Jesus’ birth by John the Baptist. Interspersed with these readings are the Advent hymns with their solemn reminders to trim our lamps and their stern warnings of judgment, with their comfortable words of hope and salvation and their glad tidings of the King who will come when morning dawns. And as backdrop for the entire ceremony, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” traces the plan of salvation through its plangent strains.
I still have much to learn from the lessons and carols of Advent. First, I must understand that without lessons, we stagnate and die. No, I do not subscribe to the Calvinism-for-dummies theology of those who say “everything happens for a reason.” But I do know that sometimes we have to go through the damp drizzlies before we can appreciate the warm cuddlies. Somehow I forgot that Sunday school lesson I taught so many times, that God will use our suffering to heal our own lives and the lives of others—but only if we let him. Through all those perceived losses of the long winter from which I am slowly emerging, I never once listened for the lessons, nor did I share the wisdom borne of loss and renewal.
I—the quintessential teacher except of myself—must also remember, though, that lessons aren’t always administered with hickory sticks. We can learn from pain, but we can also learn from joy. That is, we can—and we must—both suffer and celebrate. We must work, and we must sing. We need both lessons and carols. For me, that reminder is the message of this blessed season of Advent 2011.