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Christmas Eve 2010

Thanksgiving is behind us, but Ernesto and I are still recovering from some of the effects of our travel to North Carolina. I came home with a nasty case of poison ivy from digging fishing worms. He evidently caught a nasty cold from one of the many sniffly children on our return flight. Ernesto thinks that our ailments are actually physical manifestations of  North Carolina withdrawal, plain and simple, and he may be right. We had such a great time with family, and we ate so much wonderful food like Hursey’s barbecue, Nixon’s fried perch, Zooland Special pizza from Liberty, and oh my goodness banana cake with caramel frosting and pumpkin pie and pork roast and turkey and ham and sweet potato casserole and the food at the Carolina Inn and breakfast at Foster’s and link sausages from Layden’s Country Store in Belvidere. Oh, and Mama’s German chocolate pie—I snagged the last piece.

Then there are the happy memories of sloshing pumpkin pie filling into the floor while trying to get the pans into the oven and Holli ‘s “My name’s Chubby” routine, where she mashes her face between her hands to make herself look very much like a Sharpei while making up things for Chubby to say that always end with the most hilarious little Chubby smile. 

So of course getting poison ivy (on my face) was a small price to pay for so much joy.

Now we are keeping cheerful by reliving our visit and taking medications and watching the Christmas lights go up on all the houses around ours. I am partial to the gazebo lights on the house two doors down, which I have a clear view of from the kitchen window. It makes me very happy when those particular lights come on. For one thing, it signals that I will soon have a whole week off while the university is closed for the holidays, and that means time to slow down, read a lot, and try to write. For another thing, it reminds me that writing itself is a way of turning on a light—not for any practical purpose, but simply for the charm of the light itself.

Two years ago I read several memorable books over the Christmas break. One was Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin. The title character is a nun in late 19th-century Russia with a gift for solving mysteries. Her bishop asks that she visit his aunt, whose prized bulldogs are being poisoned.

(As he tells Sr. Pelagia about the aunt and her dogs, the bishop peppers his story with random bulldog details as he thinks of them: The bulldogs are being bred to be all white with one brown ear, which is supposed to resemble the helmets worn by a noble order of gentlemen; they are bred to have pink noses with black spots; they are also bred to have particularly loose, slobbery mouths. Later, as she walks to the aunt’s house to investigate the dogs’ deaths, Sr. Pelagia passes an area near the river where a crowd is gathered to watch the police recover three beheaded bodies. She pauses there, thinking, “Some people had fearful mysteries to untangle, and others had to investigate how an old woman’s slack-lipped darling had died.”) 

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Sr. Pelagia sits down to dinner with the family and a few guests that first evening. They talk about art, and the difference between talent and genius. One guest says talent and genius mean nothing—you must simply do the task before you diligently. Then the guests ask Pelagia what the church has to say on the subject of talent and genius. She replies:

I think that there is genius hidden in everyone, a little hole through which God is visible. But it is rare for anyone to discover this opening in themselves. Everybody gropes for it like blind kittens, but they keep missing. If a miracle occurs, then someone realizes straightaway that this is what he came into the world for, and after that he lives with a calm confidence and cannot be distracted by anybody else, and that is genius. But talents are encountered far more frequently. They are people who have not found that little magic window, but are close to it and are nourished by the reflected glow of its miraculous light.

During that same Christmas break I read Jill Jepson’s Writing as a Sacred Path, and she echoed Akunin’s idea that writing draws the writer closer to God. She quoted Thomas Merton, who said that writing helped him pray because it made the “mirror inside” very clear: “God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if he had come close to me while I was writing, and I had not observed his coming.”

Of course Thomas Merton is a genius, and I am not. But it is the trying that matters. If I look for the light in the little magic window I know I will at least sense a reflected glow, and sometimes that  is miracle enough.

 

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