Space for Grace

This is another post that has been brewing over the last month, but is only just now getting written.

November was crazy busy with a lot of stuff going on: the election, church meetings and retreats and a pie sale, state holidays resulting in short work weeks with extra work packed into them, one thing and the other and now it’s December Already Again. We had my extended in-laws over for Thanksgiving and will be getting together with them a couple more times before the calendar year is done.

It is no secret that I find the holidays stressful and taxing; this year I am trying to figure out how to make time for the silence and solitude I need to be sane in the middle of all the chaos. Part of this includes figuring out what it is about the way we do holidays that stresses me out so badly. I have been lately coming to something of an answer and that is grace. Part of what got me thinking about it in this way was something PeaceBang wrote recently on the subject of hospitality and Thanksgiving.

Spouse and I spend nearly all our holidays with his family. For my in-laws, and especially for one person who is a controlling force in the family, every celebration is all about abundance – food and presents. I can understand in a way why this might be so: these are people of modest means who have had better and worse circumstances, and when scarcity is a regular part of life, abundance becomes celebratory. But for this particular person, if abundance is good then excess is best of all – there is no sense of limit, of sufficiency, no understanding of the threshold beyond which more is not only not better, but actually becomes unpleasant. There is an insatiable hunger that goes beyond the physical, that will not be filled with more food and more stuff, at least for me, and after seven years I am still unable to communicate that to this person (and a couple of others who follow their lead.)

Still it pains me that when we gather for a meal, there is no grace – literally, in the sense that the first people to fill their plates dig in and are halfway through their meals by the time the hosts, serving last, are seated at the table. There is no ceremony, no ritual, no formality at all – Thanksgiving dinner this year was blessed with a relative absence of bickering over who did what wrong and what we didn’t have. (There was, objectively, no lack. Nine people and seven pies do not make for scarcity.) But there is no moment of silence, no pause to acknowledge the blessing of abundance or the work that went into making it possible, no grace. It’s not the prayer I’m concerned about, people can pray or not pray as it please them. But I wish I could communicate, somehow, that there is depth and beauty in making empty time and making empty space and waiting for it to be filled with the sacred. When space and time are packed so tightly with things and activity, there is no void for the sacred to enter and fill.

Christmas ends up being more stressful for me than Thanksgiving, because not only are there several big, abundant, chaotic meals to get through, there’s also a frenzy of gift-giving in the grand American consumerist tradition: spending money we really don’t have to give things to people who don’t need or want them, and we’re all supposed to be happy about this. Spouse and I have been pulling for years now to scale back the gift expectations, because we are up to our eyebrows in stuff we don’t need, and it remains to be seen whether this year is maybe the going to be the one where we don’t end up after the holiday with boxes of stuff we have to figure out what to do with.

I resist obligatory gift exchanges to begin with. If it’s an obligation, it’s not really a gift – and the intersecting expectations of gratitude and reciprocity are sometimes really uncomfortable. Exchanging gifts should be a mutual expression of existing affection or desired relationship, not a one-sided attempt at social blackmail. But every year I feel the pressure to participate in round after round of gift exchanges, which means spending scarce time on making or buying more stuff. I am trying to be better this year about blocking out the time I need for solitude, but it is hard; Spouse hasn’t yet learned the distinction between “Time C. spends alone working on things other people want done” and “Time C. spends alone recharging in order to be civilized and not bite people.”

At this dark, cold time of year I desperately need to make open spaces and wait for grace to come in.

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