As I sat down tonight to begin writing this Advent Journal, I decided to go back and read what I had written as my first Advent entry over the previous five years. In my 2006 post, I found this poem by Barbara Crooker:
In the Middle
of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s
has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don’t ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee
and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We’ll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
The poem is worth repeating because she describes how life feels for me right now. Her opening line reminds me I am not alone. As Advent begins, I am a day over two weeks away from my fifty-fifth birthday. At one time, the age matched the speed limit, but no more. Both driving machines and metaphors have picked up speed. It is also one of those birthdays I can remember my father marking. Of the generations of Cunningham men prior to my father and including Milton the First, none lived past fifty-seven. When my dad turned fifty-five, I also remember him turning more somber, more pensive. I was twenty-six, in the middle of the open heart surgery that is Clinical Pastoral Education, and full of my own angst. We were trying to reach each other from a distance and that particular birthday made us both afraid that we would run out of time before we made things right, though neither of us knew how to say it. One story relayed to me by a friend who heard my dad preach (and which I now tell with a much bigger smile than I could muster then) was that he began his sermon by saying, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can do something about; a predicament is something you must learn to live with. I used to think my eldest son was a problem. I have come to understand he is a predicament.”
As I turn fifty-five, my father is now eighty-three and we have found each other and he has given me hope that fifty-seven is not quite as daunting a birthday as it hangs on my horizon, and yet . . . I had hopes it would feel more settled.
Here, in the middle of my life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s, I am working two jobs. I am teaching, as I have been for the last couple of years, and my school is struggling to stay afloat. I am also working evening and weekends at the Apple Store as a safety net of sorts, but also because I need the health insurance they offer (even to their part time people). Neither job is a lifetime placement, even as I will say wholeheartedly I am grateful for both. We buried my father-in-law, Reuben, just six weeks ago and have now lived through the first holiday without him. My dear friend, David, would have been sixty tomorrow. I am learning that grief is only going to become a larger ingredient in the days ahead. I have said more than once that I embrace the idea that the journey is the destination, and yet . . . I top one hill only to see one more hill. These are not Big Picture Days for me. I am making lists, marking times, cutting my calendar into bite sized pieces, and hoping five or six hours of sleep will be enough rest because that is what the days demand.
It will not always be this way, but it is this way now.
What is also true about these days is they are filled with a sense of gratitude that is as strong as I have ever known. My fifty-five years stack up into a treasure trove of friends and memories from those made around our table over the last few days to connections that go back to my childhood. The days are hard, but they are not hopeless.
Still, there is one more hill.
In the past six months, I have written twenty-three posts. My discipline in Advent is to promise to write for the next twenty-nine days (if I’m counting right). In past years, I have come to these days with books to read and ideas to hold up like gems to the light. This year, I come like the pilgrims in The Way, which we saw last night, who stumbled into town and into each other without much sense of the larger journey other than how far it was to the next meal and bed. What the movie reminded me was that meaning stumbles in as much in the minutiae of daily life as it does in the Big Picture discussions that we sometimes find space to share.
In his wonderful poem “Journey of the Magi” T. S. Eliot writes:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Yes, and those are not the only voices. Let us speak to one another, learning again how to love, and committed to walk together over one more hill.