Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

“[Mystery] can hold truth, compassion, and open possibility in relationship. This relationship could redeem our otherwise hopelessly literalistic, triumphalist civic and religious debates. We could disagree passionately with each other and also better remember the limits of our own knowledge. If mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our own five senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed. We have to live with that, and struggle with its implications together. Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing ... Introduce mystery into any conversation and the conversation gentles; reality doesn’t lose its sharp edges, but the sharp edges are not all, not the end.”
-Krista Tippett, Speaking of Faith

Our plans to spend a few days before Christmas with Brett’s family in North Carolina were quickly altered when we found ourselves spending eight hours stuck on an interstate tangled up in the mountains of West Virginia with hundreds of other motorists, all of us watching helplessly as the snow, 18 or more inches of it, accumulated on and around us. Though the “bright side” isn’t necessarily our initial point of view in such conditions, we eventually opted to seize the opportunity that had presented itself to finally start working on that yearly ritual of a thing called the Christmas letter.

Sitting together as a family in a cold, dark van in the middle of what feels like nowhere, the question of “what’s new” seems irrelevant. Perhaps it would have been easier to answer at the beginning of the traffic jam, when we were preparing ourselves for a 30 minute wait, but when that turns into three hours and then four, we begin to wonder about our dropping gas needle, the freezing temperatures outside, the well-being of our two little girls in the backseat, and how many blankets, jackets, sweaters we could pull out of the luggage. When six hours turns into seven, we accept our circumstances as indefinite in length, resolve to get the girls to sleep, and decide to keep our car turned off until there is movement up ahead. It’s eerie to experience the silence and witness the pitch-blackness of a major interstate packed with vehicles fast turning into igloos. The feeling of complete helplessness is very real; the harsh reality of the circumstances is clear enough, but there’s a strange relief in knowing that everyone is in it together. There is mystery here, and it is comforting. Different questions rise to the surface. Who exactly are all these people? What are their stories? Who are they becoming? What are they bringing to the moment?

We can only speak for our van. Olivia, now asleep on the floorboard and covered in a pile of coats, has become our family prophet, poet, and sage. She’s fascinated by everything from outer space, to idioms, to alarms, to human behavior. She is a student of the everyday, exploring, investigating, asking questions, and processing all that she takes in. Mae, strapped in her car seat and not quite ready to give up wakefulness if it means I’ll quit tickling her face, is now 14 months old. She reveals a bit more of herself to us everyday. I think she enjoys shocking us with glimpses of what she seems to have known all along. She takes every chance we give her to communicate that she gets our family-ness and is ready to join in. Brett, in the driver’s seat (wearing his daughter’s scarf, I must note), is bringing his calm wisdom and perfectly timed humor to the situation. When he’s not stranded on the top of a mountain, he enjoys the normalcy that comes with being in the 2nd year of a good job, and this past one has been particularly rewarding as the days of dissertation pressure are long over and a number of exciting, professional development opportunities have come his way. I’m the one climbing over the seats to retrieve dropped binkies, dig out more sweaters, or tickle arms and faces. I have taken great pleasure in creating a home in Mount Vernon this past year. I have also enjoyed working on a few writing projects both in our community and at our church, and this fall I had the opportunity to teach an English/Education methods class at the university. It’s been refreshing to be back in the classroom, particularly with such an ideal course load (one) and class size (nine).

Those are some of our stories. I don’t know the stories of the people in the vehicles around me. I know later we’ll select some favorites to share with one another in the warmth of our hotel lobby. But how exactly did we all get ourselves into this current mess? What possible solution could get us out of it? And how can we dare to hold out hope that this story could have a happy ending?

It’s somewhere between the 7th or 8th hour that Christ’s birth finally comes to mind. As sleep proves elusive, I determine to take captive my runaway thoughts—the ones that would have me frantically reaching in the back to unwrap and search for advice in my niece’s Christmas present, the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, and instead, ponder what is perhaps the most mysterious entry on our timeline universal. God became a baby. Or, as Annie Dillard describes it, he became “helpless, our baby to bear, self-abandoned on the doorstep of time, wondered at by cattle and oxen.” Why did He do that? I can give a “nice” answer with as much ease as I can answer “what’s new.” And I believe it, as much as I possibly can, but that doesn’t remove the mystery. It’s a mystery “more real than what we can touch with our own five senses.” It’s more real than the actual details of our past year, more real than our current predicament, thank God. And I pray we continue living in and hoping in the paradox it brings for the rest of this journey; the one in front of us tonight as well as the one we’ll be on tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Merry Christmas.
Elizabeth, Brett, Olivia, and Mae Wiley

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A manuscript

Here are a few of the pages from Charles Dickens' original manuscript for A Christmas Carol. Original manuscripts are fascinating. Seeing the penmanship, noting the revisions and stray markings offers us some insight into the mind of the writer. And today, thanks to the New York Times' little interactive exercise, Dickens' manuscript is helping me avoid the stack of papers on the table-- the stack containing my students' work, in all of it's Times New Roman, 12-point font, spell-checked glory. And if you're interested, here is another article about the manuscript and it's history at the Morgan Library and Museum. Meanwhile, I'm going to search and discover with what ease or difficulty Dickens' brain conversed with his hand to express this one:
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."