advent journal: nothing new


    Four days on, my Advent mornings are beginning to find a pattern, a sort of sameness I hope will focus my mind and heart for the day to give me something to say when I come home. After all, as John Prine so beautifully put it, how the hell can a person go to work every morning and have nothing to say? Wednesday nights, as a rule, put that lyric to the test for me because I have lived through four of five ten hour shifts and have little energy beyond what it takes to watch Glee and think about how much my feet hurt. Yet, it seems, taking time to plant small seeds in the morning bear fruit beyond exhaustion in the evening.

    I’m still reading Raymo, and I also returned to one of my favorite L’Engle books, A Circle of Quiet. Raymo introduced me to John Burroughs, a writer and naturalist at turn of the century preceding the one we’ve lived through. Chet quoted him in a couple places and both jumped out of their contexts and spoke to me in ways Raymo had not imagined.

    One secret of success in observing nature is a capacity to take a hint. (28)

    Then I turned the page.

    To know is not all, it is only half. To love is the other half. (29)

    Needless to say, I spent the day wondering about John Burroughs, the hints he had taken, and what and whom he knew and loved. After Ginger, Cherry, and I watched Glee, I let Google help me find him and found yet another sentence to ponder:

    To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday.

    I looked back at the notes I scrawled this morning in my notebook to find a resonant word from Madeleine:

    Creativity is an act of discovery. (12)

    The other part of my burgeoning routine in the evening is picking music. Our house is a bit of a bus station this holiday season, with people coming and going, and what we call our studio/office is actually the guest room, so I’m writing from the dining room table, which means I’m writing in traffic. My answer is to put on my headphones and choose my own soundtrack, and I find myself going to back to songs full of stories and history for me, songs that feel as though they are sung by friends: songs that I know by heart. Tonight, I turned to Shawn Colvin’s Cover Girl, to hear her sing David Byrne’s wonderful song, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”,

    hi yo I’ve got plenty of time
    hi yo you’ve got the light in your eyes
    and you’re standing here beside me
    I love the passing of time
    never for money always for love
    cover up and say goodnight’
    say goodnight

    The well-worn paths I find in the music open my heart and mind to discovery, to hints of hope in the middle of exhaustion, to the willingness to walk the Advent road once again to see what I can see. In a world obsessed with new, we are called to tell the old, old story that we might discover we are hungering and thirsting to hear it. It’s the Communion scene at the end of Places in the Heart, Joni Mitchell’s achingly beautiful background vocals on “Long Ago and Far Away,” the black folks standing up in the upstairs gallery when Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom, and Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaiming, “I have a dream,” all rolled into one and, well, more. Life, at it’s best, is about walking the same roads over and over, with eyes and ears wide open as windows to the heart.

    Familiarity has its dangers, however. I drive the same way to work every morning and find it far to easy to let my mind run ahead to what has to be done and not see a thing between the house and the parking lot. Familiar hymns show up in worship and we sing them out of muscle memory without taking time to let the poetry pull us toward discovery on the well-beaten path of melody. Last Saturday night, my friend Terry (aka The Best Harmonica Player I Know) and I played and sang our way through an old hymnal with Ginger, Cherry, Eloise, and Jay. All of us, except Terry, grew up Southern Baptist, which means we grew up singing. The familiarity of the hymns, particularly those used for the altar call, had left some scars, and yet, we also found those songs had found new life when they showed up in new places. I remember sitting in the pew in Winchester when we sang “Just As I Am” as the hymn following the time of Confession, not at the end of the service.

    just as I am though tossed about
    with many a conflict many a doubt
    fightings within and fears without
    o lamb of God I come

    These are the days when we tell the same story again, and again. We talk of Mary and Joseph as though we know them. For many, these will be weeks marked by the return of bath-robed shepherds bringing their herds down the center aisle, of long-standing traditions, of pageants and bazaars and dinners. We know the story. Burroughs reminds us that’s only the half of it. Love is the other half. Love is what pulls us into the details and leads us into discovery. Love is what turns familiarity into ritual, into meaningful and creative repetition.

    Tell the good news: this Advent is nothing new; who knows what we’ll discover.



    1. Milt, I just want you to know that you’re having a profound effect on a bunch of friends in Minnesota. Last night, we met at my home for our “small church” (the big one really rankles us lately). I opened our evening with the usual question: How do you come? Two were happy. One was perplexed. One was anxious. One was harried. One was questioning. We were not “of a mind” when we gathered, and that’s never the point. Next, we took turns reading your post yesterday (“Walkin’ After Midnight), aloud, to one another. Some got stuck on the star names in the passages about Orion, but it was worth the struggle. All were awed — by your writing, certainly, but even more by the concept of the light year. Not something that comes to mind daily, but one of the most amazing facts of the universe. We linked to Patsy and Nancy, and by the time we got around to listening to our segment of Fr. Richard Rohr’s “The Path of Descent,” we were ready to see the big picture, and we were ready to see the minutiae.

      So I’m writing to thank you for the extreme effort it must be to prepare the way by writing Big Things and Small Things every day during this dear season. There is no more special time of year — Lent is lovely, but Advent is so — germinal. It’s just a lovely time to be quiet. Snowfalls help. Stars help. Unmanageable, unconscionable chaos creates a feeling of helplessness, or dependence on Someone Else — that helps. And you help. So thank you.

      Maureen from Minnesota

      ps. And you mentioned Glee. Best thing to happen to tv in a long time.

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