That old Christmas Eve rose before me, caught in my hurried jots, a day in which the taste of grace came to me despite the pain.
I was rifling through old papers a few days ago and found a note I had written on Christmas Eve almost ten years before. I recognized it at once and remembered how I had dashed upstairs in the middle of Christmas dinner prep to jot it down. At the time, my family lived in a rental home that often felt too small for the six of us, especially as we were all idealists with feathers badly ruffled by the last few years. I was in between jobs and decisions, my siblings were finishing high school and my parents were working through some tough ministry years. My family is a high stakes bunch, and by that I mean that we live to the zenith. Opinions, dreams, goals, loves, dislikes, we don’t really do things by halves. This makes for a vivid and highly entertaining life, but when confusion is a daily companion, and all the dreamers are uncertain, the high stakes feel perilous. Life was an adventure at that point, but not an easy one. Muscles of heart were formed in those days but they came with a great deal of ache.
How strange then that the words winking up at me from that old scrawled page held only joy. I sat on my floor, several years of old papers in disarray around me, but I was lost to the present. That old Christmas Eve rose before me, caught in my hurried jots, a day in which the taste of grace came to me despite the pain. When I looked up, it was with an ache in my throat, one quite different from the struggle of other years. This year is one of grace, thank goodness. For now, struggle stands at least a little aside. But I struggle just as hard as ever to have a heart that perceives the goodness all around me. I do not suffer from angst of heart these days, only too much activity of mind. In reading my own past words, I found an invitation. Somehow, amidst the troubles of that almost forgotten year, I glimpsed the sort of holiness that hides in the everyday. The words of my younger self came to me as a command to stop, here, and now. To listen, to love. To perceive, even for an instant, the sacred as it peeks at us from kitchen feasts or children’s eyes.
It is Christmas Eve and I stand in our woefully small kitchen, up to my elbows in salad dressing and green peas. Seven-layer salad with brown sugar ham; this has somehow become a family tradition since our sojourn in the South. This year the careful layering has fallen to me. I dot the green peas with bits of red pepper for Christmas color and smother it all in cheese. I am careful to cover each speck of green lest any one bite be bereft of its proper taste.
Absolute equality, in cooking and relationships, is something I have learned from my mother.
I sing as I work, for the old favorite album is trilling away and however trivial the saying may be, work does go faster with song.
Joy sings along on the nook couch, her swift, small hands in industrious flight through steel blue wool as she frantically knits a last minute gift for Matthew, one of the teenage “adopted boys” of our home. She is determined to finish his scarf before Christmas morning, but I see that her fingers are aching as she stands to measure the length of her work around her own neck.
“Do you think this is almost long enough?” she asks, with a slight dramatization of stooped shoulders, “it almost comes to my waist and you know Matthew’s a bit short, how much taller could he really be than me?”
She stretches her legs to their full ten-year-old little girl height. Mom merely raises an eyebrow and Joy sinks back in resignation to keep on at her Christmas mission. I watch her and work away myself, and wonder what the world would do without the many Christmas-hearted souls who make last minute surprises and knit not just physical, but spiritual gifts of well-kept traditions.
How easy it is to miss the beauty woven in the everyday. We three here in the kitchen are the makers of all that our family most loves at Christmas, the good food, the kisses, the gifts and well-set table. For an instant, I see that we are keepers of life’s richness. Year to year, the weavers of joy.
I glance at my mother behind me, her hands coated with flour and the dark specks of garlic and herbs she’s working into the soft dough of our Christmas Eve bread. My eyes are fixed on her hands; I love my mother’s hands. They are deft and sure, taut with a wordless capability that brings order and life to all they touch. Today it is the bread; last night it was my heart.
She gives the loaf its final twist and plops it onto the baking stone. She sighs in relief and I smile. That was the last of that batch; already a toppling pile of plump rolls and intricate knots of cinnamon bread sit on the stove for the morrow. Potato soup simmers in a pot and the ham bastes in the oven. My mother, I realize, is a marvel.
The goodwill of mothers is like the good will of God, I think. I am keenly aware of it’s lack in myself and can only conclude that it is a gift that comes with time or the giving of birth. My mother’s will towards us, her children, is so persistently, so relentlessly good; a will to bless, to delight, whether or not we deserve it.
There is no pressing reason that she should so expend herself today in fancy cooking and the wrapping of countless presents in colored paper. But for some reason, and by a special grace, she does. If she didn’t, I think the world might suddenly cease in kindness and lose its warmth. There are a million mothers behind the smiles and sanity of humankind.
I too have finished my work. The phone rings and Mom runs to answer it upstairs. I lean against the counter and rest my stiff knees. My stomach is groaning with hunger at the wondrous smells nearby, but I have promised myself not a bite until tonight. I close my eyes, I breathe. The scent of freshly cooked garlic and onion is heady stuff and I feel rather woozy in my rare, sweet quiet.
Or maybe I am dizzy with the life of it all.
Here, in this still moment, when my hands and head have stopped their spinning, I suddenly see the rest of the world in its joyous dance. There is music in our work, in the making of our feast and the decking of tables and trees and persons. There’s a rhythm in the click of Joy’s needles and clack of our tongues, in our constant turn from job to job.
I can’t always hear this song, or feel this cadence when I rush and fret, but when I can stop for even a split moment like this, I always catch it, however faint. I suddenly realize that the toes of my soul are tapping to the rhythm of some eternal, daily song.
Today, I think I’ve caught the tune of that song again. My soulish toes are tapping away.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.