advent journal: within and without


I woke up about three minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off–or at least I thought I did. After I had showered, shaved, and dressed, I realized I had woken an hour and three minutes before the alarm. Instead of going back to bed, I made coffee and kept reading David Whyte. Today’s word was gratitude.

Gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.

I have made a practice for most of my years in church to not be on committees. I understand they are needed in many cases; I just don’t want to go to meetings. My father found incisive poetry in the fact that a group of vultures is called a committee. I understand what he meant. Soon after we got to Guilford four years ago, I got a call from one of the men at the church asking me to join the Christmas Tree Committee. He had already heard from Ginger about my reticence, and was quick to say that the group met once a year for about an hour and there were donuts. So I went.

Our work involves going out and cutting down the tree, transporting it back to the church, and setting it up in the front of the sanctuary. Because the high school choirs and orchestra use our sanctuary for their Holiday Concert the second weekend in December, we cannot put up the tree until the following weekend. Because December started on a Sunday this year, the tree will be seen for the first time on the Third Sunday of Advent.

We have had rain for two days, but it stopped long enough for us to drive a couple of miles from the church to a field owned by someone in town who had a tree for us. It was huge. Though our sanctuary can easily take a fifteen or sixteen foot tree without blocking the view from the balcony, we had to cut about six feet off of the big pine to get it down to size. Then we wrapped it in a tarp and used ratchet belts to pull the branches in to get it into the truck and then the church. All the while we were telling stories about committee meetings from other years and laughing and working together. As we got the tree in the stand and secured it to the wall with wires, others were putting the poinsettias in the windows and the bell choir was rehearsing. Everybody was working to get the house ready for tomorrow.

After the tree was secured and the donuts were consumed, I came back home and opened my computer to be reminded that today is the seventh anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty-six people–twenty of them children–were killed by a gunman who entered the school. Tonight, I found out that the Newtown High School team came from behind to win the Class LL State High School Championship. Though none of the survivors of Sandy Hook are old enough to be on that team, it struck me that those who were killed would be teenagers now.

The rest of the day in Guilford was covered by a persistent and relentless mist. I was dogged by the grayness. I couldn’t find enough light. Ginger and I did some Christmas shopping, and then I did some on my own because my mood matched the day, so I tried to keep moving. I have been more aware of my depression of late, and today was one of those where I was tempted to not be awake–to sleep, in fact, and let the day disappear into the fog. I don’t think I can claim any great insight or motivation, other than I could tell I was tired and surly and needed to get out of the house so I didn’t take Ginger, Rachel, and the pups down with me.

Whyte talks about being awake “in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.” The last preposition could mean two things: the stuff that happens outside of ourselves, or the stuff that goes on that we are not a part of. I have my depression going on within today, and my committee outside of myself; life in Sandy Hook goes on without me. Because our town and our church have been marked by death from gun violence, I have met some of the parents from Sandy Hook, but life goes on in Newtown daily without anyone asking, “Hey, have you talked to Milton?” The same is true in any number of places around the world.

But Whyte is saying that gratitude rises from being awake in the middle of what is within me and what goes on without me, rather than needing to be thankful for something. On a gray, meandering day that was both hard and hopeful, I will say I think he’s on to something.



  1. I share your disdain for meetings Milton, after a lifetime of them as a social worker. Your tree committee with doughnuts is just my style.
    I appreciate the wisdom you shared here about gratitude being within and without us. It’s a fresh perspective on a practice I work daily to improve, and it goes beyond thankfulness. I am thankful for your gift of perspective and persistence to share it, whether or not you feel like it.

  2. I too found the thoughts on gratitude a different way of looking at it. Being awake within and without….hmmm.
    Milton, I think of you or talk of you (and Ginger) most every day. This is probably because I spend a good deal of time with other church members, and I see you here every day in my mail. As for many others, depression is not far from my consciousness about what is going on around me. Taking life in small increments is my strategy lately. I have shed some of the committees I was on as my energy to accomplish tasks has decreased. I find myself breathing a sigh of relief—fewer committee meetings! Thank you Milton, for your thoughts. I can just see that sanctuary in CT all decorated!

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