Image Credit: Mariotto Albertinelli, Visitation, Oil on Panel, 1503, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, Creative Commons image from Wikimedia.
The following piece was created for an Advent Poetry and Prose roundtable discussion, December 17, 2017, at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino, California as part of their community forum.
I have forgotten everything I once knew about advent. I know there are candles and a wreath and pink and purple are the important colors in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but I’ve forgotten what those symbols mean—the greater significance of the season. These externalities are more ritual, stair steps to cue me. I must get to my candy making, and tree cutting, and Christmas-Eve crab wrangling. The house will get scoured so that it can be filled with people. Presents will get bought, and my wallet will grow thin and the days will grow short.
The darkness will set in.
These advent days seem more like pressure. As a writer, they say you should approach your subject matter, like a newborn—as if it is the first time you’ve encountered it. What does an apple really taste like? Describe it like your first bite.
My mother and I are sitting in the living room. It has changed little over the years. The carpet is the color of a golden, fall chrysanthemum, the velvet couch is rust and there is an entire wall of my mother’s art books behind her. Nearby is an upright piano I played as a child for thirteen years straight. The fireplace still burns wood.
She sits next to me in her large chair, leaning in and asking me questions about my life. It’s a dance. I keep the impression of engagement while my mind whirls with distractions, all those things I should be doing instead of sitting here, the ways I am failing, an urgency born of a litany of modern tasks. My mother is hungering for connection, and I want to run away, dive into my phone, escape in sound bites, anything else is complicated.
“It’s advent,” I say finally, thinking of the upcoming roundtable talk I will participate in at my church. “I don’t know what it means.”
“It’s about expectation and preparation,” she says. She leans back in her chair.
“What about those?” I point at the wall of books behind her, looking for inspiration.
She braces herself against the arm of her chair as she stands. She walks toward the books, balancing against furniture as she moves, forgetting to take her cane in her excitement to talk about art. She reaches the wall of books and slides out a tome. I get up to help her and together we pull several volumes off the shelf. She points at the books and tells me which ones to pull.
We sit together, pouring through images, our hands often together on the page, pointing at whatever compels us—The annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth. The visitation, when pregnant Mary visited Elizabeth who was carrying John the Baptist. The adoration of the magi, the baby in the manger. I look through the northern Europeans, mom gravitates to Italians. The interpretations are varied. I smirk and try not to roll my eyes when I see one interpretation with church elders flanking Elizabeth and Mary in the visitation—two old white men in expensive robes and funny hats with official looking books in-scene.
“I don’t think they were there,” I say.
Our art discussion echoes younger times, going to the museum. My mother and I would sit for long stretches in front of paintings. We would describe to each other what we saw, how it must have felt to be the people in the story, and sometimes how it felt to be the story teller who painted it. We talked about the colors that we liked. Often, we made funny and silly associations to life in the present day. We would stand up close and walk way far back, and we would talk about how the paintings changed for us with distance and the feelings they engendered. Always at the end, we would finish with asking each other, “Which one was your favorite?”
No matter how these artists in my mother’s art books have interpreted the stories, the historical Elizabeth was very old for child bearing while Mary was likely only twelve, thirteen, or fourteen years old.
“They must have been really scared,” I say.
My mother’s pace is slower than mine these days. I’m running hard, afraid of a misstep. Life’s treadmill is just starting to edge me out, outstripping the mechanics of my legs.
Once in a while, I allow myself to be pulled into “mom time.” When I do this, we become a little like the women in my favorite visitation painting, with a scary joyous gift. The gift is always inside us, connecting us and animating us, it is a wholly intimate affaire. There are no church elders to interpret the truth here, we just know it. Turns out, I crave connection, too.
When I allow myself to get out of the whir and tumble of life’s distractions and step into the “is-ness” of the moment as I am on this night with my mother—time loses its linear quality. It opens up and expands. This evening sitting with my mother and her art books, I allow myself to forget about my candy making, and tree cutting, and Christmas eve crab wrangling, the house scouring, the present buying, the wallet thinning, the day shortening, the darkness without. I let go of it all and in that letting go, I remember.