"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers"
Never do I feel the truth of the words above as crushingly as I do at this time of year. As I sat praying last night, the first words of that sonnet came to me: the world was far too much with me. Advent, Christmas, the seasons I wish most to consecrate to simplicity, peace and all things spiritual, instead are in constant danger of being consumed by the superfluous, by overstimulation, by all things material. I had hoped this would be different in New Zealand - but it's not.
In all things, I'm trying to recall that the prevailing culture does not have to dictate how I live in the privacy of my home. I can choose to do things differently (no matter how odd that may make my life appear to others - and I am fully aware that odd it does indeed appear to some!) But this endeavor of trying to live simply in a culture governed by the code of materialism is the most challenging area, I find, for trying to keep the pervasive mentality of the world out of my home. Partly because I've been formed by the culture and forget to even question bits of it. Also partly because trying to break with it is a ton of work, requires constant vigilance and often creates awkward situations. And I'm not even touching upon the criticism and harsh judgments this attempt invites from others.... nor the niggling fear: What if all those people are right? What if my children DO grow up to be culturally awkward technophobes who can't cope with modern existence and resent my brainwashing parenting until the day they die?
Truthfully, with sufficient reflection, creativity, courage and humility, I'm sure it can be done beautifully, but it's a work in progress still for this little family. The hardest bit is the part about humility. I'm awesome at reflection, creativity and courage. I completely stink at humility. Not "humility" meaning "poor self esteem" but authentic humility - self-forgetfulness, detachment from both praise and criticism, ease with the full truth about the self, gentleness. I strive to do this simplicity business - and all business - with a gentle spirit. If I can't, I might as well not do it at all. And I do mean that.
Also ongoing is the fight for freedom from the paralyzing grip of caring so much about what others think about me. Not so much the people who already think I'm odd - I'm talking about the people who up till now have more or less accepted and perhaps even admired me. I still have a foot in each world - determined to shape a life that runs against the norms of the culture in which I live, yet also fearing friction and the disapproval of others, Christian or no. In particular I feel far too psychologically vulnerable to the censure of others regarding my parenting choices. Disapproval may not stop me but it certainly haunts me. I guess that's partly because even I have no idea how it will turn out. I'm trying to give my children the most pure, free, joyful childhood I know how. Every mother tries to give her child the best she can and I am no different. But sometimes I look like a real Scrooge. Take for example this week. I was walking down the street with my daughters when a gas station employee (a stranger) dashed out of her store with little wrapped presents for the girls. She looked at me for permission first (oh, how I truly appreciate that courtesy that so few think of!) and I gently shook my head no. She melted away. The girls were oblivious to the whole thing.
Why not let a total stranger give my children a crappy little plastic toy or a bit of cheap candy? After all, 'Tis the Season! (Actually, 'Tis not the Season - for 5 more days - but that didn't factor into my decision.) One of my top priorities is to preserve my children's appreciation for simplicity - to guard against "spoiling" - so that their lifelong capacity for happiness is preserved. This requires often saying "no" even when I want to say "yes" - starting with my own desire to lavish little treats upon them for that momentary flash of excitement and love. I'm only egged on by all the Laura Ingalls Wilder I've been reading with Maria. I love how Laura gets only a plain tin cup and a penny for Christmas one year and she exclaims retrospectively, "Was there ever such a Christmas!" She was so unspoilt that the ability to appreciate and rejoice in simple good things was completely alive in her. I was lost in the image of her joy in that gift - because there were few gifts, simple gifts, quality gifts - she had such intense pleasure in each. She hadn't been desensitized all year by the constant bombardment of little bits of plastic junk. In all her childhood, she owned one doll. One. Her Christmas was not defined by an overwrought frenzy of unwrapping followed by a day-after slump. As I was reading this chapter to Maria the doorbell rang and an acquaintance stood bearing a wrapped present. I had no idea what was inside but I was so relieved when she announced that it was not for us - she simply wanted us to act as courier and get it to it's true recipient. In stark contrast to little Laura, I realized then how world-weary and jaded I have become with all this excess. Do others sometimes feel this way with gifts? Oh no. What is this going to be? I didn't get her anything. Should I now? Will it be too obvious? And what am I going to do with this? Of course, it's the thought that counts and it was a nice gesture. But still..... Well, Laura didn't. Ever.
In myself I find that fevered impulse to buy and give - it's not just coming at me from the external world. And actually, I think it's a good impulse - but undisciplined, it easily runs amok with the excessive availability and relative affordability of things in our given culture. Rich and I bought the girls only a very few small, special gifts this year and agreed not to get each other anything (or poor Joseph). Richie's South Island trip was a birthday/Christmas gift anyway and I'm not at all greedy for gifts (in case that hasn't come across). But I truly love to give gifts. To offer this desire an outlet, I'm trying to redirect the impulse away from the mall & Amazon, and towards the homemade & nonmaterial. [I know "homemade" sounds like the worst adjective to apply to the noun "gift", but two of the most wondrous gifts that have come through the door this week were homemade: our most old-fashioned teen gave us some strawberry jam she made from scratch and Rich's aunt sewed the girls breathtaking child-sized, pink & white striped, eyelet-ruffle-trimmed aprons - with pockets....(perfect for playing Little House).... So "homemade" can be done - and beautifully.] Despite my Handmade-Or-Nothing Pact with Richie, this week I thought of an awesome gift for him. A store-bought present. I thought how surprised he'd be on Christmas morning and how excited he'd be and the radiant pleasure it would give him and how much he'd love me for it. Those emotions would definitely last for at least an hour! Impulsively, even frantically, I decided to buy it. But then Christine - a true kindred spirit to me - sagely advised me otherwise. When I asked her opinion, she gently said that she admired the original decision we had made and she thought it would be good to stick to it. The feverish feeling subsided and clarity dawned anew. Discipline. Prudence. Simplicity. The integrity of Christian life - even on Christmas. Especially on Christmas.
Remember how the Grinch hears the Whos singing on Christmas morning "without any presents at all"? Only then does he finally realize "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more". I don't know that I could ever be a true Who, sounding merry, if I woke on Christmas to no presents, no tree, no wreath, no stockings, no food and even no heat. Clearly for those little Whos, "the tags and the tinsel, the trimmings, the trappings" were neither the cause of their joy nor a distraction from it. Maybe they were just really empty-headed little ditzes, but I prefer to imagine that their celebrations bubbled out from the excess richness within, based on profound delight in the true meaning of Christmas and the implications of God becoming man. I like to think that their presents and roast beast were external manifestations of an authentic Christ Child joy that came forth from deep inside and sought outward expression. Their joy expressed itself in tags and tinsel, but was at the same time utterly independent of them. Man, do I want that!
Why do so many atheists and agnostics join in the tags and the tinsel at this time of year? Faith is "idiotic" to them, but the trees and the gifts and the feast seem able to actually stand alone. Why would unbelievers insist upon the right to join in the celebration of a feast they despise (in theory) unless it's become completely unmoored from its foundation? Something has gone terribly wrong when most nonbelievers can celebrate a Christ-less Christmas with ease. It's like trying to pass a plop of frosting off as a cake. A gift exchange around a tree is just frosting. The huge family dinner is sprinkles. Baby Jesus is the cake. A Christ-less Christmas ought to be as ludicrous and unappealing as a big blob of icing called "cake". Christians must review this Day and what - or rather, Who - alone makes it worth celebrating. That may involve tweaking - or totally reworking - how it is celebrated - beginning with Advent. The cake perhaps has been obscured or lost under excessive frosting. So much so that a growing demographic believes that the cake need not be there at all. The birthday party must go on - but the Guest of Honor may be refused admittance. I don't want to say that behavior is idiotic, but it's certainly neither intelligent nor classy.
How can the trimmings and trappings be incorporated in the Christian home so that they elicit and express rightly ordered joy - helping us to achieve the proper spirit - rather than distracting us and obscuring it? How can we appropriately celebrate with great joy the birth of a One who taught only loving poverty and humble discipline? As I am supposedly concentrating on humility these days, I wish to stress that I'm neither preaching nor pressuring any one particular answer. I had a very good friend laughingly tell me this week that she wants to raise her kids almost the same way I raise mine "except for the way you do Christmas!" I appreciate that each Christian family can reclaim Christmas in their own beautiful manner. But in order to do so, it must be thought through - every detail of it - nothing accepted automatically from the hands of a materialist culture that can celebrate "Christmas" utterly without Christ - or "Mas(s)" - or any other expression of worship. When our Christmas joy is finally so obviously independent of its worldly trappings, perhaps then in the secular world hearts will "grow three sizes that day". Big enough to fit in baby Jesus. Perhaps then it won't look so odd and repressive and fanatical to keep Christmas focused squarely on Christ. Perhaps. Stranger things have happened. Just ask Scrooge.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!