Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas among the Disorganized

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29)

Last year I managed a reasonably thoughtful Christmas blog, and I had the intention to write another today. The legendary birthday of the savior of the world is a not unworthy subject, even if the Christmas festival is not, as various irate and harried defenders in the “War on Christmas” keep insisting, “the most important event of the Christian year”. Think about it for a minute. Everyone who has ever lived was born. The number who have risen from the dead is considerably smaller. So just wait until Easter. However, I am simply not prepared to write a thoughtful post about Christmas. It turns out, sadly, that an important requirement of thoughtfulness may be thought. I have been far too busy “getting ready” for Christmas to think about it.

The problem is a level of chronic disorganization guaranteed to achieve futility. Not far away there is an old Baptist church stranded by demographic change among the gas stations along Route One. It is one of those churches with a large announcement board on which the preacher advertises the titles of upcoming sermons. He had a great one a few years ago: Despite Inflation, Wages of Sin Still Death. That’s sort of the way it is with Disorganization and Futility.

It took me many years to realize what it was about Saint Paul I found so annoying. (I’m talking theology here, not geography). What was so annoying about him was that he was so much like my mother, and doubtless many other mothers. He was full of unsolicited and offensive observations, the offensiveness of which resided chiefly in their justice. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it, for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." [Romans, vii]

I know quite well how I want to live my scholarly life. Unfortunately I also know how I actually live it. I can even show you pictures. In the Philadelphia Museum of Art there is, among the Asian collections, a particularly spectacular exhibit. It is a reassembling of the actual study of a Chinese scholar, scribe, or clerk of the mid-Qing dynasty. It is a beautiful, uncluttered, light-filled room, a symphony of chaste, bare wood in various earth tones. Like my own study, it features a prominent long desk; but unlike my prominent long desk, that of the Qing scholar has upon it a single pristine scroll, together with the minimalist tools of the calligrapher’s art. This man was organized. You just know that the scroll he is about to write will be of Nobel Prize quality.

The good that I would

The Scholar's Study

The bad that I've had

Joan and I together achieved new levels of disorganization this past week. We were very interested (academically) in the lunar eclipse. On Sunday we talked, vaguely, of a plan to set the alarm for the middle of the night to get up and view it. But we didn’t quite get it together, and even as early as I arose the moon was again huge and full—beautiful, but uneclipsed. So on Monday we bemoaned each to the other the dread grip of a shared futility that so frequently frustrates our best intentions. Yesterday, Tuesday, our son Richard made a brief appearance to drop off his pickup. He is going for an extended trip to Viet Nam just after Christmas, and for some reason considers our backyard a safer parking lot than the streets of Red Hook. “Did you see the eclipse last night?” he asks. Not merely had we failed to see the eclipse. We even had failed not to see it on the right night!

It used to be that we sat around our blazing hearth to greet our far-flung children as they returned from various continents. But “the old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” Tomorrow morning we fly to Florida to be with our newly married son Luke and his wife Melanie. Even as I write, Richard, his Toyota truck tucked away, is somewhere in mid-flight toward that same destination. Katy, Zvi, Sophia, Lulu, and Cora are cavorting afar amid the Alpine snows.

For one of my hyperborean habits it’s a little hard to imagine a Christmas celebrated among the palm trees. Perhaps I might be able to do so by imagining the flight into Saint Petersburg, in the manner of a Fra Bartolomeo, as a Flight into Egypt. That was at least a vaguely cognate event.

Fra Bartolommeo, "Holy Family on Spring Break" (Getty Museum)

“God bless us all,” said Tiny Tim. And what I say to all my readers is “Merry (if you will pardon the expression) Christmas!” Should you fail to grasp the import of the parenthesis, you may be as retrograde as your bloguiste.