“[He] has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things. . . . ”
Luke 1: 50-52 (ESV)
There has come an arctic cold that sweeps across the screen, the confident weather lady conducting blue into orange and red, no green this time of year in Abilene, where the surprised Displaced have journeyed far toward this city prophesied by wise ones imparting final words from a shelter in Chicago, a pallet in a corner where the old welcome warmth, laying a palm on a young person’s cheek to pass on the vision of benevolence, a town of works to pave the passage to sunny heaven. There will be salvation, a hot meal three noontimes each week, sack lunches handed out Tuesday and Thursday, on your own Saturday, a breakfast and required bible story for Sunday. Take what is offered–mostly sun and temperatures above freezing.
And mercy will be shown, a laundromat open twenty-four hours, someone always with quarters for the dryers, hot to the touch, laying numb hands against the glass, someone’s shirts and jeans tumbling as if angels falling to earth, proud no more, blessed now with arms and hands, palms extended, open to receive all gathered in this all-night place of compassion, a warmth purchased, someone always grateful with folded laundry–a Goodwill shirt, a pair of khakis, sometimes matched socks.
And I am included, having brought cotton comforters too bulky for our home washer, bed clothes to match the decor of four bedrooms, readying each for family arriving assured of a house of multi-colored lights, a tree still green with that scent recalled from childhood, a poem about good Saint Nick just fitting down the chimney, a bag of presents for children watching out, being good, deserving Christmas morning swaddled in toys beneath the glittering ornaments, mother and father in pajamas and robe, coffee mugs in hand, steaming, frost in stars on the windows, the sun not up for now in this family memory I perpetuate, preparing for their coming by appearing at this laundromat with offerings for the triple-load washers, seven dollars in quarters, a kind of savior, especially when I fill a dryer with each water-heavy comforter, calling forth the multitude of grateful nations,
immigrants escaped to this all-night place of promise fulfilled, I with my bag of quarters, extra bills for the change machine, and all are polite–thank you for coming; excuse our gathering before your dryers; this is my child, her new red coat, and this a photo of my husband who could not get away but will send us what he can; we love America.
And who is to say these nations are not easing near in welcome, a hand touching my forearm, a child hugging my leg, a tall warrior laying his palm on my shoulder, smiling, speaking what may be grace in a language I realize I understand, a blessing undeserved.
At the City Light church mission pre-Christmas brunch, a new man appears, his hoodie worn thin by someone who handed it down, a ball cap tattooed in salt reminders of sweat when there was day work under the sun, dirt-crusted flannel trousers, canvas shoes, just another Homeless, but clean shaven, easing his tray past the ladies serving scrambled eggs and bacon, a biscuit, a cup of coffee, the man not looking up, saying thank you, thank you, finding an empty folding chair, his head already bowed, and pressing his hands together, his lips moving, his hands pressing harder, Amen–“let it be.” And when the volunteer church member offers to refill his coffee cup, he nods and says, loud enough for the lady to hear, “I am blessed.”
The Christmas Concert program proclaims Joel special, at twenty-seven a solo performance on the “majestic, powerful pipe organ.”
His parents discovered his gift as a child drawn to the voices of their upright piano in the parlor. Now he has studied with what church organists, select religious college professors, would volunteer to train his ear, his sight, his touch–fingers and feet, such joy opening all the stops, shaking the congregation of well-wishers in their pews–“What Child is This?” “Be Thou My Vision.” “Joy to the World.” They have come because they love Joel, his Windsor-knotted ties, his suit for all occasions, his arms spread wide like Jesus in the stained-glass baptistery window welcoming all the little children.
My friend Don is alone this night in his “mechanical” chair or maybe transplanted to his famous sky-blue “overstuffed” chair arranged before the parlor window of his grandparents’ farmhouse, New Hampshire snow piling up against the clapboards, filling the uphill road keeping his children at home with their children this Christmas Eve. “I’ll be alone but don’t feel bad for me” Don writes in an email. In The New Yorker, he describes a child of perfected solitude, a schedule to fill his days, even now at eighty-eight, having outlived two wives, a host of tillers of the soil, their horses and dogs, poets all, their words furniture stacked in the attic.
Alone is different than solitude. Loneliness arrives at night, reflected back in the window, no Red Sox baseball on the radio, only the packet of letters and emails to answer, acceptable to speak out loud into the hand-held recorder words Kendel, Don’s friend and neighbor, will transcribe once the snow plow clears the road. Out loud is okay for a poet, a young teacher starting out, Don says in The New Yorker, in love with “walking up and down in the lecture hall, talking about Yeats and Joyce or reading aloud the poems of Thomas Hardy and Andrew Marvell.” That voice Don heard as an only child, the poet of Ecclesiastes warning the years approach when “sun and light and moon and stars grow dark, . . . day darkening at the windows.” Don’s voice against the dying light.
And I recall Dr. Huff, one year from retirement when I was starting out certain of meanings explicated, anthologized literature, dismissing this teacher who offered only the grace of poems memorized, singing to students’ dull ears, most not caring for the experience shared in the music, the meter taking them by the hand and leading where they would not choose to go, now having no choice but to follow this piper weaving the aisles, this professor having grown old enough not to profess but cast his spell against the arctic wind, its cruel seeming, its lie that the earth is hard, no thaw coming.