For the Family, 1998…
This may seem a little disjointed, I just finished jotting it down for you upstairs. It isn’t a very well-crafted story, as I wish you could expect from me.
Let me just start with this. Many times I have heard the adage, “Be careful what you pray for” from people who think it is funny that we try to control prayer. Today, I know better what they are speculating. But I’ll try not to be careful, nonetheless.
This is hard to explain, but a lot has happened to me in the last three days.
As far as I can tell, I was flopping around restlessly in my bed about 1 am Tuesday morning, alternately cursing AAA for not coming to change my tire and worrying about what I had left to do and buy for the holiday, when something extraordinary happened. As far as I can explain, my soul began to slowly lift from my body. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to your mom. Before I knew it, I was staring down at her in the bed, breathing her little sleepytime zephyr. Next to her was my body, still writhing like a fish on the deck.
But my soul was strangely mobile, and strangely drawn. I squeezed under the closed door to our bedroom, rose to the ceiling of the hall and floated along it until I reached the dark stairwell. I was drawn down and down until I reached the third floor. I wasn’t drawn down the stairs themselves, I descended through the middle. Like an elevator, I paused at the second floor and floated toward the light coming from the illegal late-night gathering in the TV room. You men were screaming at the screen and periodically beating on each other. I screamed, “It’s after one in the morning, go to bed.” But you couldn’t hear me. When a commercial came on for the softer side of Sears everyone ran out of the room for Cheezits and passed right through me. Without my permission, the pull began again and I continued my descent.
The Christmas tree lights were still on in the living room, empty candy bowls were on all the tables, pine needles were all over the floor. But I began to float toward the mantle, toward the crèche – the one with Joseph half-melted from an errant tree light and the place on the stable roof where the star had fallen off. I’m not sure how this happened, but I began to compress. It was like a little tractor beam was pulling me into a very tiny spot where only a spirit can fit. I conformed until I was back in a body. I was looking up at a gold ceiling. Bits of straw were sticking out over the sides of it. Although my body couldn’t move, my sight could, and I saw a huge plastic faces staring down at me in my peripheral vision.
Just then the lights went out on the tree and I heard footsteps clomping up the stairs. I was terrified. I had no idea what my body was doing upstairs. I had no idea how my soul got where it was. That’s when I remembered my prayer: “Lord I don’t have time for Advent.” I’d prayed it twice, but it seemed like a long time ago, now. I prayed it once when I was trying to find a hotel room for our anniversary trip and I realized I hadn’t thought about Christmas yet. And I prayed it once when we were writing Christmas cards and watching TV feeling like half these people needed to fall off the list. There must have been an angel backup on the heavenly Schuylkill, because the response to my prayer had come with just three days to go until Christmas. Now that I look back on it, maybe it was all I could take, and God knew that all too well.
I was stuck in Jesus. Little plastic swaddling clothes covered my naked little plastic body. Outlines of plastic animals and Mary and Joseph made shadows on the roof of my little stable as headlights passed the house. I couldn’t move my head or my arms or even wiggle my tiny toes. Only my eyes could see and my ears could hear and my little plastic nose could smell. But I had no voice to tell you, “Whatever-is-Dad-about-Dad has moved to the mantle.”
Maybe it all came to a head on Monday and the Lord just got fed up. “That’s it!” he must have said, “You are wasting your protoplasm.” I was getting sort of dazed, as I do sometimes. I had these huge projects sitting on the agenda at the office. I was toying with the idea of them eating up the whole vacation. Then Mama and I went to Wal-Mart and we got stuck behind innumerable large-bottomed ladies wrestling for gifts like the Eagles trying to recover one of their fumbles, all for the privilege of standing in line for a half-hour to buy things that would likely go underappreciated. That was an out-of-the-soul experience. Then, to top off a disgusting day, the AAA didn’t come to rescue the car. I suppose I could say I was effectively driven out of Jesus. But more likely, I just wasn’t trapping time. Time has a life of its own. One should capture it, not just chase it around. It takes some strategy. Had time been wild game on Monday and I was the hunter, I’d be starving. I was starving.
When I woke up on Tuesday after my first night over the fireplace, I was ready to get out of Jesus. I had slept on my new revelation about myself and now I was a reformed ignoramus. But when Ben clomped down the stairs and woke me up I still could not move. All I could do was listen to what was happening in my house. Ben bellowed up the stairs for Joel to hurry up. The telephone rang five times. My body came shuffling down the stairs and read the paper. Mama clicked down and kissed my body and was quickly out the door. Later on, my body left without even a word and I was alone with all this time. The only distraction all day was Bu, the cat, sticking her nose way into the crèche. I didn’t know she could get on the mantle and I assume she wanted it that way. She seemed to be the only one who knew someone was there. All I could see was her little nose sniffing the air over me.
I got lonely. I wished I had a friend who noticed that my soul was distracted somewhere else. But no one had the time or energy or interest to notice, apparently. At least no one called the posse to search for me. It reminded me of the time I hid in the closet as a child and waited for someone to find me — for three hours. I finally had to come out and tell my mother I had been missing. She frowned sympathetically and then told me she’d talk to me when she got off the phone. But she forgot all about it. So did I, until I was stuck in Jesus.
My first full day drew to an end. The light in the room was changing to ghostly gray. Before long it was a dark Tuesday night and the college boys arrived. Luke unveiled his tattoo. At dinner my body joked and yelled with the rest. I began to get nervous.
Early Wednesday morning, two days before Christmas, it happened. It was the early light of dawn and I was still sleeping. Bu had managed to stick her head clear into the crèche until she was eye-to-eye with baby Jesus. Even in my senseless sleeping I could tell someone was staring at me. I flung open my eyes, our pupils met. Bu leapt back like a startled cat. Her head caught the roofline. Cat and crèche flew off the mantle, one landing with a crash and one with its usual graceless thud. Bu went skittering up the stairs and I went skidding across the floor. It seemed like I was rolling forever. It seemed like I was propelled. I rolled and rolled like a smart bomb until I seemed to find a small hole in the floor about which only mice knew and headed right through it. I landed in the dark, between floors, right under the living room. I heard Mama clicking across the floor and discovering the crèche, “Joel David!” she yelled. The stomping and clattering and sweeping was soon over, the crèche replaced with a finish-scarring screech. Doors finally slammed. Big men still slept. I was alone in the dark.
I wanted to yell. “Hey everyone, I’m under the floor!” But no one was there. I wasn’t even there. And I had no voice. I began to wonder if anyone else was really there, either. Maybe they’re soul was stuck in the St. Francis statue or somewhere less descriptive, like one of college boys’ old shoes. I decided I shouldn’t worry about whether you all were going help me get reconnected. You might be having your own problems. I thought I might be getting a lesson about what it meant to actually live. Living doesn’t happen when people notice me. I happen whether anyone notices me or not. I wondered how I could happen in plastic. It tested my faith.
Here I was stuck in Jesus in the dark. It was embarrassing to be there and embarrassing that no one seemed to notice that either of us was gone. Then I was lonely. No one was tromping around looking for each of us, either. “So OK,” I thought, “I always go those places whether I am a figurine or not.” I began to talk to myself, although it was a little confusing. “OK, uh, Jesus, what would you like to tell me?” In other words, I finally had enough time to have at least one day of Advent.
Talk about being “in Christ!” I used to say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me!” Now it was, “Christ is under my living room and I live in him.” So we talked. What else was there to do? “Are you showing me what it is like to be ignored? Are you showing me what it is like to live in someone who pays you no mind? Have I really been this plastic all season? Are you just trying to immobilize me and get me in the dark long enough to change me? Am I thinking deeply enough to please you; can I go back now? Are we done yet? Can I get back to normal? How long are you planning on this going on? How long have you been planning this? Was this a spontaneous thing? Do you lay awake at night devising these things? Do you have a night?”
With that question the questions began to change. “How do you experience ‘day?’ How do you experience your relationship with me? What did it feel like to be born?” In the back of my mind I realized — “Oh yeah, this is what it is like to think of someone but yourself. This is not being self-referencing. This is exploring the life of the Spirit.”
I finally stopped thinking about that, too, and just thought about Jesus. I finally stopped thinking and just sank into the new warmth of the darkness and the pleasant sensation of my confinement. I finally went into a deep peaceful sleep. I slept and slept.
I awoke with a start. A mouse was nibbling on baby Jesus’ nose. But I was not there long to find out what happened. My soul began to squeeze through that little hole like Casper appearing in Wendy’s house. It was like I was being taken on a retrieval mission. In the basement I got a little art from my notebook and some strength from the tools. In the kitchen I filled up a little on the warmth of food lovingly served. Back in the dining room I soaked up the tears of laughter. In the living room I incorporated the din of many friends and important conversations. Up the stairs I got back the lessons of hard knocks. On the boys floors the men gave back some beautiful examples of development. On the fourth floor I remembered the years of love and growing and happiness with my good wife. And I took a long stop at the prayer room. I rested for a moment above my journal and luxuriated in the confidence that God has been with me. I drank in the joy of having an adventurous life of failing and following along the right way.
I hovered over my body sitting in front of the computer trying to write a Christmas story at the last minute today. I asked one more question. “Do you really need me to go back? — I am hard-pressed. I love it. But I struggle so with time. Am I up to the challenge?” But I didn’t hear a direct answer. I just settled back into that time-worn body, still struggling to find enough minutes to actually live.
I’m telling you the truth. My body came to its senses right in front of the screen. I just wrote it all down. Make of it what you will, if you have the time.
As for me, I’m still trying to figure it all out. But one thing I’ll remember for next year when the crèche comes out is this: the scene is suspended in time, and there is something eternal for me in it as well, especially when I’m in it myself.