It is 8 o’clock on the morning after Christmas. One shelf of the refrigerator holds nothing but blue-lidded plastic tubs crammed with leftovers. The trash can by the back door is stuffed with paper and ribbon, cardboard and plastic, tin cans and Styrofoam. The closet where I keep the wrapping paper is gorged with empty boxes that I will eventually make the time to break down and store until the next broad round of gift-giving.
Everything is full. Even the clouds. So full that they are saturated and dripping in heavy wind-swept drops over Sandhill. The road is slippery, but not very. Rutted, but not too. Muddy, but not markedly. The rain is hard, but the warnings of possible hail seem a bit dramatic. The weather is annoying and not much more.
It is now about 9:30. I look up from my computer and realize that the sun is out. The sky is a translucent baby blue, the clouds are high and white, and the puddles in the street look like mirrors. It occurs to me — not for the first time, of course — that it doesn’t take long for the landscape to change completely.
The fraction of a second it takes to make a choice in anger that would never have been made in calm. To speak simple words that complicate everything — “It’s cancer.” “I’m going to have a baby.” To pull a trigger.
I was driving home from Kate’s graduation when I heard the news about the Newtown shootings. Just the night before I’d been sitting high up in the stands at Kennesaw State watching her confidently stride across the stage to receive her master’s degree. There was a little plus sign by her name in the program — honor graduate, 4.0 GPA. My heart swelled and my eyes watered and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of those moments when the future was the largest thing in the universe.
In a few hours, though, that future — for 20 first-graders and six women who tried to protect them — would not exist. It doesn’t take long for the landscape to change.
The light outside my window grows brighter and I think that, in a matter of days, a single stroke of the clock will turn one year to the next. Advertisements and fluff news pieces and conversations are littered with the phrases “new leaf” and “clean page” and “fresh start.” We live as though change is voluntary, that it waits to be initiated by our desire, that we are never its victim, its passive object. In doing so, we live in deep denial of the fact that we are, far too often, powerless against the winds that drive the clouds that empty the rain of adversity and pain and heartbreak onto our flimsy umbrellas.
Are those the only alternatives then? To convince myself that I can exercise and organize and meditate myself into perfect stasis or give in to the reality that at any moment the foundations of my existence could crumble?
On Christmas Eve, I watched intently as the presents were distributed. As each recipient accepted a package, Adam’s Jackson, two-and-a-half and an uncanny recreation of his father, hurried over to assist with the unwrapping. He reached up to touch the bright, curly ribbon first. “Ooooh!” he whispered.
His tiny fist curled to grab at the taped seam on the box and pulled to hear the satisfying rip. “Ooooh!” he whispered again. And as the paper began to fall away and the contents came into view, there was always one final, elongated, “Oooooooh!” before moving on to assist with the next treasure.
That, I’ve decided, is the third alternative. I don’t have to pretend I am in control or despair in the knowledge that I never will be. I can approach each moment, this present moment as the gift it is. I can resolve to be amazed over and over again, acknowledging every change in the landscape with an appreciative, “Ooooh!”
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” -- Antoine de Saint Exupery