I was in Walmart yesterday, a place I visit infrequently. I was on the way home from my CFIDS doctor in Atlanta, and thought I’d pop in and get a new pair of jeans. The advertisement in the Oprah magazine had worked its magic and I was sure that with this pair of jeans I would look slimmer for the holidays. I walked in through the garden section, hoping to pick up some pansies while I was there. Alas, there was nothing alive in the garden section but Christmas trees. Inside, instead of fertilizers and garden tools, were shelf after shelf of artificial trees and decorations– everything red, green and blue tinsel, or gold sparkles. Next to the seasonal decorations was the toy section, the shelves stacked high to the ceiling with bright boxes. Christmas music blared, relentlessly upbeat.
I am very fortunate that because of my illness, I don’t have to do much big-box shopping, and so I forget what it is like. Even before my illness, I felt overwhelmed by large stores. Now, they seem like a peculiar form of torture. What struck me perhaps more than anything this time were the stressed faces of the shoppers and workers. If I had landed here from another planet I might think the inhabitants of this one were all suffering from a peculiar disease that destroyed peace of mind, that gnawed at them constantly from the inside. Exhaustion seemed to permeate the place– the pressure of the holidays,and the economic uncertainty people are living with. Is it worth it, though, all these choices, all this stuff, is it worth it? I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Sometimes I think we’ve all gone mad, the pace of life becoming more and more frenetic. Especially this time of year. I find that I am out of step with my world –while everyone else is partying, going to concerts, or shopping, I am holding on for dear life to an attempt to observe Advent. My understanding of Advent–of expectant waiting– has deepened over the years, from the time of gathering straws for the Baby Jesus in my childhood, to an inner prompting to engage with my doubts, losses and fear, but also with my longings, my hopes. But to do that I need time, I need solitude. I need to clear the muck out of my head so I can hear that still, small voice. So, as much as I love partying and concerts and shopping, I find myself saying no a lot.
Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in her wonderful book about family ritual, “To Dance with God,” describes where our tradition of the Advent wreath comes from. “Pre-Christian peoples who lived far north and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun had a way of wooing back life and hope….As the days grew shorter and colder and the sun threatened to abandon the earth, these ancient people suffered the sort of guilt and separation anxiety which we also know. Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt. They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools. They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights and brought them indoors to hang in their halls.They brought the wheels indoors as a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward.”
None of us would like to return to ancient times, but Ms. Nelson challenges us to imagine how our lives might be changed if were were to literally remove just one wheel from our cars: “Indeed, things would stop. Our daily routines would come to a halt and we would have the leisure to incubate….Having to stay put, we would lose the opportunity to escape or deny our feelings or becomings because our cars could not bring us away to the circus in town.”
Even with an illness that offers time out from many of the demands of life, I wrestle with honoring both the inner life and the outer life. There are a 1001 distractions available; the circus in town is now available on your iPod. Everything is instant–instant photos, instant emails, constant access. But the problem with all of this instant connection is that we don’t have the slow pacing, the space between, to actually contemplate a photo, or to carefully select our words in a message. There is a frenetic urgency to our lives that is hard to resist.