Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Christmas City

The Christmas City

Route 17 is a highway that winds its way past Newark and goes through Lyndhurst and then up through Bergen County. I am familiar only with that particular stretch. I am sure that it is longer than that little piece, but I've never had reason to go that way. It is one of northern New Jersey's more colorful highways, but the scenery isn't what lends the color to this long slab of concrete and macadam. The color hits you from all sides, from all the stores and malls that are situated all along the highway. Route 17 passes through many municipalities, many of which have banned the use of neon lighting. Nevertheless, there are lots of lights along the way. Gas stations, shopping malls, computer stores, dog kennels, rug stores, automobile dealerships, diners, fast food places, fancy restaurants and nearly whatever else you can imagine existing along that particular ten or so miles of 17.

Advent is quite the season for travelers who frequent Route 17 in late November and through December. The smaller stores along the highway are all decorated for Christmas. These stores bask in the wonderfully decorated shops that constitute the Malls that exist on both sides of 17.

There is even a place called Christmas City. During the pre-Christmas season, it sells all sorts of Christmas decorations. Therein, in that City, is a forest of artificial trees, ornaments, wrapping papers of all colors, Season's Greeting cards, fake reindeer and Santas, aerosol snow, plastic wreaths, concrete elves, twinkling electric lights, polyester or red plastic Christmas stockings, indeed, everything that one might need for Christmas. Almost magically, the City appears out of nowhere right after Thanksgiving. But, as any faithful traveler on Route 17 knows, the transformation is not the stuff of enchantment or dreams. During the “off season,” a.k.a. “Ordinary Time,” the place is a humble dealership that barters swimming pools and lawn furniture. After Christmas is over, a first time pilgrim, heading his or her way up 17 toward the New York Thruway, would never dream that the collection of pool pumps, chlorine tablets, linings, portable cabanas, metal chairs, in-ground pools and other swimming pool necessities give way every Advent Season to tons and tons of manufactured Christmas stuff. The transformation happens so fast, one would swear that out of the dark skies of a late November evening, it all just plops right out of the heavens and hits the earth, right smack on 17 North, nestled lovingly among the huge, sprawling Malls that draw hundreds of thousands of people each Holiday Season.

I am writing this in Ordinary Time, according to the liturgical calendar. To be specific, it is July 29th. It is a hot, humid afternoon. I just finished having lunch, which consisted of a peanut butter sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, a Coca-Cola and an olive. I am in Covington, Louisiana, visiting my parents. There really isn't much to do here, except read and write and go for a few walks. My father is watching a baseball game with the sound turned all the way off. I never realized that is a not all that unusual practice with some people. Funny, I wonder if people get tired of all the words that hit them from all sides, including homilies or religious words. After sixty some-odd years of hearing and speaking words, I guess people can easily grow weary of them. Perhaps, in varying degrees, we all grow weary of interpretation and just want to look and see. My mother is either reading a book or writing a letter. I'm not too sure which. I can't see her from where I am sitting, but I know that she is at the desk just off the living room. No one is thinking about Christmas, or Advent, or shopping or phony elves. No one is thinking about swimming pools, either. But I have been thinking about the Incarnation and about what all this means here. Maybe one shouldn't be so direct about such things. I just don't know. My mother's eyesight is failing and my father is recovering from recent surgery. He does not have the strength that he used to, but looks well. I leave for home on Tuesday evening, and will tell them that I love them and will call when I get home that night. And I will write letters, and make phone calls. I am pretty good at keeping in touch. But it never seems enough. We cannot seem to love enough, to say enough. I cannot keep back the inevitable passage of time, and cannot deny within myself the pain that I feel seeing my mother and father experience the indifferent blows that come with simply growing older. It all seems to have happened so fast, so fast.

In a matter of months, I will be one of the multitude that drive past Christmas City and will probably feel an ache. The lights, the accompanying music on the radio, the surrounding square mile after square mile all beckoning to be as bright, as joyous, as expectant, will all bring to the surface of my mind the lingering thought that I am not fulfilled, not all that bright, not as joyous. My heart will not be able to match in depth and intensity the cultural creation that is Christmas City and the surrounding power of the magnificently lit Malls. The lights will make me squint. I will feel small, not up to the occasion, but will continue on and buy presents and try to look my best and fit into the whole rush of it all, and look forward to the near return of Ordinary Time.

On one of my recent visits down here, I was on my way to bed and passed my parents' bedroom. I looked in and saw my father in prayer, kneeling by his bed, saying his night prayers. I am sure that my mother was right across from him, quietly saying hers. From the earliest I can remember, I recall their doing that every night before going to bed. There have been three ongoing channels of communication in their married life: with God, with each other, and with seven children. It is a microcosm of all that is truly life. Our conversations during the day touch on so many, well, ordinary things. Relatives, the church, my getting a haircut, what's for dinner. Nothing all that profound. But I will say a prayer this night, for all things ordinary. I will give thanks for peanut butter sandwiches and hot July afternoons and the deep feelings in my heart, spoken and unspoken. I will thank God for the night prayers of my mother and father. I will pray for the wisdom to trust the Incarnate Word in such things as ordinary as this hot afternoon in late July, when Christmas is so far away on the calendar and yet as intimate as my breathing, as near as my mother straining to see, to understand. And, if I feel estranged this Advent season as I drive past Christmas City, I pray that I will remember this July afternoon, an off season, an unmemorable day, a day unadorned and yet a day that is the very stuff of human living, a day of lunch, talk, idle chatter and night prayers. A day imbued with the sacredness of ordinary things, each in their proper place, awaiting the same glorious disclosure that awaits all seemingly small things. I may feel no less estranged, but may feel a bit heartened in knowing that is precisely why he came: not to remove human estrangement, but to sanctify it and give it hope, to move it all along toward himself, in Covington, on Route 17, in Christmas City, and on this otherwise uneventful day in July.

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