For me, it was a moment of confirmation.
We were huddled, one last time, around a table. The conference was almost over, but before we left New Mexico, we had a few decisions to make. First order of business: choose the monthly themes.
We were friends, and we were about to become colleagues. Our joint blog, You Are Here (ever heard of it?), was about our diverse places, but it was also about what we had in common. We brainstormed a list.
Food and Place. Family and Place. Work and Place. Nature and Place. Out of Place. Home and Place. Justice and Place. And many, many others… let’s just say that writers like words.
We chose six, and began assigning months to the themes. November was easy. Food and Place was a good fit for Thanksgiving stories. We moved to December, and I waited for the inevitable suggestions: Home and Place, Family and Place, Warm and Fuzzy in Place (okay, that wasn’t on the list).
There was a long pause.
“How about ‘Out of Place’?” someone asked, and there were murmurs of agreement around the table. Yes, December was the perfect month for Out of Place. It was obvious, unanimous. Mary typed it into her laptop. Without further discussion, we moved on to January.
But for a moment I stopped, surprised. I looked around the group, these writers with whom I was about to throw in my lot. No one had even suggested the more traditional themes. Out of Place for the holiday season. Perfect. I grinned and nodded, re-joining the conversation.
These were my kind of people.
It’s a good thing there wasn’t much discussion about December’s theme because I couldn’t have explained why Out of Place seemed so natural, so right. It was more intuitive, a sense in my gut that this theme would give us an authentic way to share during a month that is, oftentimes, full of heightened contradictions and unresolved longings.
And it has.
Scrolling through the stories I see Lisa sitting primly on her new mother-in-law’s couch, pining for the joyous festivities of her own family. I walk through the halls of the nursing home with Kristin “where nothing smells right, sounds right, or feels at peace.” I sit in an unfamiliar pew with Abby, yearning for a sense of belonging that is now past, and keep vigil with Jonathan as he cares for his sick child and tries “to navigate the terrain of single parenthood” without familiar landmarks.
And away from my computer I encounter the same tensions amid the twinkling lights and inflatable snowmen. Our housemates barely sleep, trying to finish up renovations on their almost-home down the street. Another friend, brilliant and talented, endures a seemingly-endless job search. Two of the wisest parents I know struggle to care for a six year old with an auto-immune disease. And many, many others, like Julia in her mourning house, ache for departed loved ones, “trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.”
What is it about the month of December that makes this tension between what is here and what is not so poignant?
I am not one for figurines, but today I bought one that I have been thinking about for a month. Just after Thanksgiving I discovered Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, perched on the roof of a bus, in our local Ten Thousand Villages store.
When I saw it I remembered the longest bus ride of my life. It was 1997 and I was in Haiti, traveling from Port-au-Prince to a town seven hours to the north. We were packed into seats that belonged in a school bus for kindergartners, six grown-ups across each row, the two middle passengers barely on the seats but so tightly squeezed together that they stayed upright.
These were the good seats. On the roof were those who couldn’t afford to sit inside the bus, clinging to the roof racks amid suitcases and baskets of live poultry. They were, quite literally, hanging on for dear life.
Just like Mary and Joseph with a baby.
Whatever the month of December has become in our culture, the Christian version of the season begins with poor peasants on a journey. Christmas is, at its root, an Out of Place holiday. When I look at the holy family perched on the roof I remember: it is not strange to live amid unresolved tension in the month of December.
And I remember this as well: if they keep hanging on, if they just keep going, they will find joy-and even miracles-along the way.