“On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps Believing nimble.” –Emily Dickinson, from The Letters of Emily Dickinson
“Hey Mom! Gabriel and I are becoming friends! We’re getting along!”
Ah, the magic of Christmas. They are playing garbage dump in the basement. G would play garbage dump any day, any time—J, not so much. But he’s in the mood this morning (blizzards tend to put him in a more amiable mood), and I love to hear their back-and-forth. You know things are going well when J agrees to watch Garbage Monsters at lunchtime.
And it snows. And it snows. Jonah’s almost as excited about it as Christmas. He played outside alone for an hour while the wind blew thick snow in swirls around him. At least an inch in that hour. Maybe more. After our first snow a week or so ago, he ran inside to say, “Part of my snow is half of my breakfast!”
There’s a peace about the week between Christmas and New Year’s—a built in buffer zone that can serve as an amiable transition into the slowing cold and the sometimes stir-crazies a certain lot of kinetic boys (and their need-fresh-air-to-survive mother) are prone toward.
Know what I’m happy about? A stack of Christmas cards set for the mail tomorrow (last year I was still sending them out come March). The snow. Gaba’s new silver excavator necklace (you heard me right—John’s a master at finding treasures on the world wide web). Jonah’s rubber chicken that squeezes out a disgusting sack of milky white fluid and a yellow ball that’s meant to look like a yolk. A babysitter tomorrow morning. Parsley Gin Julep cocktails. Gluten free dark ale ice cream floats. Chili truffles. Pocket knives. The book, That’s Disgusting. Jonah’s penchant for morphing from Jacob Marley to The Ghost of Things Yet to Come (he calls him “The Pointing Spirit” or the Ghost of Christmas Future) to Sirius Black. My stack of nearly one hundred vintage Kansas postcards. The iPhone 5, in white. Jonah’s new dissect-a-brain kit, even if it is defective and came with two left temporal lobes (best quote of the day: “I love my brain! Even if it’s broke!”). This post by Maureen Dowd, which was actually written by a priest friend of hers. The PBS mystery series, Foyle’s War (catch it on Netflix). Randomly saying to Jonah, “Christ is Born!”, and watching him search his brain for the response, “Glorify Him!” Gumby. Pokey. The Blockheads. Watching G watch Gumby: The Movie (also on Netflix). Discovering that the Blockheads names are “G” and “J”. Really.
Did I say my Christmas cards are ready to go out?
Walking home in a grey foggy funk (literally and metaphorically) yesterday morning after trekking Jonah off to school, I came across this precarious balancing act:
Weighing down a power line and unsupported by any other means it both frightened and fascinated me. Only later did I think how these images do a decent job of representing my reaction and feelings in the wake of the Sandy Hook calamity (from the late Middle English amalgamation of “disaster and distress”).
I turn to images when I am unable find the words to say, when the words I use do nothing but trifle. I’ve started at least three posts in an attempt to get at it—what I want to say to my family and my friends, to the families of the children and teachers killed, to Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy, to Adam himself (Nancy was actually omitted from several lists of the victims, which I find indefensible. Slate published an article about it HERE). All I have are images. The words that do come to mind are references to other stories or snippets of text, all touching on our human community and the way that a single action spreads its effect—the way in which we all must accept responsibility, collectively and individually, for tragedy. For this tragedy. I am reminded of Rachel,weeping for her children:
Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15
In the Gospel of Matthew, this verse is interpreted as a prediction of the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod the Great as he ventured to find and kill the baby Jesus. On the far, far side of this heart-breaking irony—but also at its very center—is the essence of what Christians are celebrating when they keep the feast of Christmas after the 40 day fast of the Nativity: God with us. I came across this quote from Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, which seems particularly apt:
Whether or not we continue to enforce a universal conception of human rights at moments of outrage and incomprehension, precisely when we think that others have taken themselves out of the human community as we know it, is a test of our very humanity.
That’s what I mean when I refer to our collective and individual responsibility. Did Adam do the unforgivable? Should forgiveness even be up for discussion? This is easy talk for me. I lost no one. My immediate community has not been ravaged in such a violent manner. But my response matters, as your response matters. Not only for the people affected by the actions of Adam Lanza, but for anyone suffering. Which means us all. As Dorothea speaks it in the BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (taken not quite directly from the book):
Sometimes I wake very early, go out alone, and imagine I can hear the cries of all the scurrying creatures in the grass. There’s so much suffering in the world. I think of it as a kind of muffled cry on the other side of silence. If our senses were sharp enough to apprehend it all, I think the pain of it would destroy us. I think we should be glad we are not too sensitive. We work in any small way we can to help our fellow creatures.
I think Dorothea would agree completely with Jane Addams (the pacifist social worker and founder of Hull House in Chicago) when she said:
The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.
I’ve said too much already, much more than I meant. It comes of a chronic need to get to the sense of things. It’s why I’ve started and failed to finish three posts on the subject. It’s also why I keep trying.
Maybe it comes of having a brother of such rich vernacular means, but the things that come out of Gabriel’s mouth. John’s convinced that everything he says is a line from Richard Scarry’s Busytown Mysteries. I think he just picks up on everything, never mind my own indiscretions (honestly, sometimes I just don’t care—let my children see me as I am).
Just now I told him to go play in the basement while his biscuits toasted. He practically dove down the stairs on his belly while proclaiming, “O gracious Ward in heaven!”
And speaking of the toaster, he loves pressing down the lever. Loves watching it heat up. Loves waiting for the inevitable “POP.” Yesterday he said, “I put in the toaster. Get fire on it!”, showcasing the elemental way I imagine he sees things.
Of course there’s his favorite refrain to the incessantly repeated question, “Gabriel, what are you doing?”
“No anything!” Or this variation: I’m in the room watching his play (garbage dump and road building usually rank one and two on the list). I ask—because his play is so often a wonder to me—what it is he’s working at. His most recent (and unsettling) response? “Don’t wanna talk about it.” Umm, when did my almost-three-year-old hit tweendom?
But probably my favorite, and endearing, interaction revolves around music. I recently came across the Indigo Girls album, Rarities, at our public library. I’m obsessed with about four songs (including a cover of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and a demo of “Ghost” that includes a key change). G really listens to these songs and will chant back phrases of the lyrics:
“He said ‘sons of bankers, son of louyers!'” (that would be “lawyers”—from the Elton John song)
“Trashcan dream come true!” (“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” again)
“He said, ‘deep night coffee black!'” (from “Winthrop“)
The first track is “Clampdown,” which G will chant from the backseat or at random times throughout the day around the house. Hearing him say clampdown is just about as funny as hearing him say “Mitt Womney,” but not quite.
[Postscript: On our way home from church today— at the conclusion of “Ghost”—he quietly said from the back seat, “That’s my favewit song.” Weird.]
What I want to be doing this morning is making a family Christmas card and washing the boys’ sheets (I know, weird, but it means staying home and only being concerned with moving things around and paying attention to buzzers—not to mention my kids are heavy droolers).
And it’s raining. Grey, drizzling, dripping rain. Set in, dark sky rain, as though the sun still isn’t sure if it got around to rising this morning.
What I need to do is run an errand to Kent (Ohio) and do some grocery shopping. O, and the dogs are out of food. And who’s to say that’s not what I really do need, after all, to take care of these necessary tasks. Wants are sticky, tricky things.
Take yesterday. Sure, I might have thought I’d prefer to stay home all afternoon (Sundays are usually the only days such a thing is possible), but then I would have missed this:
More on that later…
Yesterday was the feast of St. Nicholas. Jonah and I attended Vespers Wednesday night, after which he was delighted to receive “the big holy bread and wine” (which he had earlier informed me would be his dessert). The bread was blessed in a service directly following Vespers called the Litiya—a fervent, prolonged prayer blessing bread, oil and wine on the eve of a major feast. In the prayer of blessing we ask our Lord that as He blessed the five loaves and fed the five thousand, to bless the loaves, wheat, wine and oil, and to multiply them in all the world; and to sanctify all the faithful who partake of them. Along with the bread, we were anointed with the blessed oil.
My boys love church bread, be it in the form of the Eucharist or the Antidoron (αντίδωρον, antídōron, i.e. a “gift returned” or “in place of the Gifts”), which is received both after the Eucharist and then at the end of Liturgy. Anyone can partake of this holy bread, and it’s fun to share—though difficult to keep the crumbs off pews and shirts and floors. I was very emphatically taught in my home Church that anything blessed should never touch the floor, including bread crumbs. I follow the boys around like a dog trying to catch their crumbs, instructing them to lick their hands, brushing the traces from the corners of their mouths and eating them myself. I know. Sounds a little weird, but we Orthodox take our sacraments seriously. If a thing is blessed, it’s holy dagnabit, and should be treated as such.
But as this holy bread tangent is taking over my post, let me return to St. Nicholas. He is beloved not only in our home (who wouldn’t love a saint who leaves gifts in your shoe in the night?) but across the world—for Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox alike. I like saints who bring the people together. A new friend of mine reminded me of a site (The St. Nicholas Center) pertaining to all things Nicholas, where I discovered these illustrations by Elisabeth Jvanovsky. They initially reminded me of the woodcuts done by Fritz Eichenberg for Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker (though significantly pared down). I profess no expertise in art whatsoever, but the simplicity of woodblock prints appeals to my sensibilities. Elisabeth Jvanovsky’s images show and tell as much as any story.
[If you want to read more about the specific events represented above, go Here.]
The Apolytikion or Troparion (Hymn) of St. Nicholas
the Wonderworker and Archbishop of Myra in Lycia
In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.
It’s the age, of course. Six and a half, as J reminds us on a daily basis. It’s also the result of being gifted with a younger brother prone to all manner of high jinks, a brother who “is so irritating he’s driving me crazy!” as J laments when he “just can’t take it anymore!” It comes of mama asking, “Would you go see what Gabriel’s doing?” I mean, I ask for it really. I practically hand him the tattle card. Reporting back is not only implied, it’s implored. A special job.
But my intent (and parental duty) to keep G safe and out of irreparable destruction (i.e. black Sharpie to the couch pillows and cushions—happened—or dismantling his father’s handcrafted steamer trunk from Europe one rusty hinge at a time—happened) get the better of me when I’m trying to get dinner on the table. Besides, J needs the exercise, right?
That said, it gets out of hand some days. Soon J is reporting back with every minor infraction, many of which are not infractions at all: “Gabriel dumped out the toy box! Gabriel is making a terrible mess! Gabriel is in the laundry room! Gabriel is touching Lucy! Gabriel is in his closet!” So when he asked for my phone to take a few pictures, I gladly assented, as long as there was No More Tattling Unless G Is in Danger of Hurting Himself.
Hence the Tattletale 2.0. J borrows my phone and snaps away, documenting every transgression. Whether or not it’s actually a transgression makes little difference. The awe, the satisfaction he finds in ratting out his little brother (J, the boy for whom rules are supreme) is palpable. You hear it in his voice when he reports back on what he deems to be a particularly astonishing “offense.”
The following series illustrates one such event. O horror! G got into the Spiderman puzzle! Not only did he dump the pieces, he took his garbage truck in his bed and proceeded to fill it with the pieces! Then he dumped them out! We Jantz-Estes’ may not be the most emotionally stable of families, but damn it, we’re dramatic!
[Note: these were taken in a very dimly lit room. I brightened and sharpened them to the point of graininess so the images would be discernible, producing a very pleasing not-so-private private investigator effect.]
© Jonah Caedmon Estes
Jonah Caedmon Estes