Magazine article The Christian Century

Clocks of the Heart

Magazine article The Christian Century

Clocks of the Heart

Article excerpt

THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE, with their intricate blessings and woes. There are presents to buy, visits to plan, cards to send and meals to prepare, at least for those who are so inclined. Those who are not may spend as much time resisting the blandishments of the season as others spend giving in to them, but either way few escape the Holiday Time Machine. Some of us board at Thanksgiving while others hold out till Hanukkah or Christmas Eve, but sooner or later most of us enter that quiet room where all the walls are windows. Looking through them at long-gone scenes so fresh we can still pick the smells out of the air, we may suspect that time is a trick we play on ourselves, to fool us into thinking the past is over.

The truth is that there are no clocks in the heart, where my father is still laying another log on the fire, my mother is still drinking her second cup of coffee, and my two sisters and I are still sitting in identical flannel nightgowns on the living room floor, waist deep in waves of wrapping paper that stretch from us to the Christmas tree. I know what luck this is, to have such places in my heart, but their sweetness does not stop them from hurting me. As real as these people are, I cannot touch them anymore. I can only feel them within me, where they go on teaching me more about what it means to be human than I often want to know.

If I feel more during the holidays, then that is not only because these days are such strong heart-magnets but also because the world pulls so hard in the opposite direction. During the very season when I want to burrow in, the culture becomes intent on luring me out. No sooner does the sun set early enough for me to indulge my melancholy than the Christmas lights come out, with reminders that there are only 30 more shopping days left. My wish to attend to things eternal goes to war with my wish to finish my holiday chores. There may be no clocks in the heart, but there are clocks everywhere else, all of them reminding me that I am late.

Never was this collision clearer to me than it was two years ago, when my father lay dying at the Hospice of Atlanta. I rode there in the ambulance with him, past yards full of frostbitten grass and plastic snowmen. It was 12 days before Christmas. It was final exam week at Piedmont. The driver got lost twice, and I said things to him that I regret. Inside the hospice, I walked by my father's stretcher past the nurses' station, where cartons of Christmas cookies lay open on the counter. No one was moving fast enough for me. There was not nearly enough noise, given the gravity of the situation. …

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