Monday, January 11, 2010

Kissmiss Wights

Yesterday we took down our Christmas decorations. For the first time both children eagerly participated in the process. And as I watched my three-year-old daughter pull down ornaments from the “kids’ tree” and help to put them away, I couldn’t help but remember how she had been last year at this time—a toddler then, still on the edge of infancy, more babbles than words. Now she was a little girl—a stubborn, articulate little girl who knew the difference between handmade ornaments and store-bought collectibles, and could put them (if she chose) in separate bags.

Last year, in the weeks following Christmas, I’d drive her around every night at bedtime to look at Christmas lights. The holiday had thrown off her schedule, and she’d become impossible to put to bed at a decent hour. And so I suggested driving her around at bedtime to look at Christmas lights—an activity she was eager to do. Of course, the drone of the engine and the movement of the car, the darkness and the stillness—these things would do what Mommy and Daddy could not. Within twenty minutes she’d be fast asleep.

It would always happen rather suddenly. One minute she’d be shouting from the backseat about the Santa or the reindeer or the “binking wights” she saw out the window. Then, silence. I’d crane my neck to see her in the rearview mirror, and her little head would be slumped forward in sleep. And so I’d turn the car around, head on home, and carry her to her crib (still a crib, then). She’d feel tiny in my arms, her little face pressed against my neck, just as when she was a baby.

It was an effective way to reset her internal clock, but I continued the ritual longer than necessary for that purpose. And every night, the number of houses with Christmas lights diminished. In the days following New Years they were still blazing in every neighborhood. But within a week, many of houses that had blazed with lights went dark. Elaborate displays came down. Santas vanished. Grazing reindeer constellations returned to their sheds. A week after New Years the rate of disappearance accelerated, until only a few hold-outs remained.

My daughter and I continued to drive around, looking for the displays that remained. And her excitement when we found one seemed almost greater than before. Until, finally, all of them were gone. But even then, she insisted that the lights shining from the miniature golf course were Christmas lights—Christmas lights which were never taken down, which blazed on in memory and anticipation.

Few a few days more I continued driving with her, driving in memory and anticipation. I resisted giving up our nightly ritual, because I knew that it would never be like this again, that my little girl was growing so quickly, that a year would change her in astonishing ways. A year from now, she wouldn’t look at the golf course and see Christmas lights. A year from now, if I drove her around the neighborhood at night, it would be a little girl in the back, not a toddler with the contours of infancy still shaping her speech and face.

And so I drove with her, past the golf course, waiting for that little voice to shout out “Kissmiss wights!” And I held onto the sound of it, and the emotional space, holding it as if it were a prayer. And then, finally, I let it go.

For me, in a way, that is the essence of religion--to savor the good, embrace it and experience it, and then to follow that with an act of release. Relinquishing the dream of control. If there is an enduring meaning to ritual sacrifice, some meaning that transcends the ugly and bloody propitiation of the gods, it is this: to hold out all that is limited, and to acknowledge that we cannot keep it by our own efforts. We release it in an act of trust, giving ourselves and every finite thing we have, trusting that all that is good, all that is true, will somehow endure in the bosom of the infinite.

Now a year has passed, and my daughter dresses herself—in fact, she insists on it, and her clothing choices are always interesting (usually featuring either her pink cowboy boots or the ruby slippers from the Dorothy costume she wore for Halloween). A year has passed, and as before the holidays did a number on her sleep patterns.

But this year I didn’t propose driving her around to look at Christmas lights. After all, we’ve put in place an effective bedtime ritual now, one that not only does the job but which it would be better not to disrupt. But that’s not the only reason I didn’t propose it. The deeper reason is that it would feel too much like attempting to reclaim something that can’t be reclaimed.

There’s a sequence from the film, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character has his first authentic romantic evening with Andie McDowell’s character. They play in the snow at night, and it’s spontaneous, alive with real emotions. But the pretense of the film is that Murray’s character keeps reliving the same day—and so he attempts to recreate, moment for moment, word for word, the romantic evening he had with this beautiful, sincere young woman. And it all rings hollow.

That’s what it would have been like. I would have tried too hard to recreate those after-Christmas drives with my two-year-old baby girl. And my daughter’s sincerity would have collided with my pretense, and the result would have been little more than an ache. And so, instead, at bedtime I lean my head against her mattress and she wraps her arms around my head and tugs my ears, and I sing “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and she sings along in her little three-year-old voice. And I whisper, “May you dream of all the people you love, and all the people who love you.”

And I know that this moment will pass. And so I hold onto it, closing my eyes and embracing the emotional space, holding it like a prayer. And then I let it go.


  1. Beautiful post. I know all about driving the kid around, looking at Christmas lights and waiting for sleep.............his, not mine!

    I like to come up with definitions for "faith" since so many simply conflate it with belief. "Letting go" is a very good one.

  2. Doesn't faith entail that nothing good can ever be lost? I think it does, and that it is for this reason that "letting go" becomes easy and natural.

  3. Dianelos--This seems on the right track to me, but I'd put the point a bit differently. I'm not sure it's quite right to say that faith ENTAILS that nothing good can ever be lost. My preference is to say that faith is the decision to live in the hope that nothing good can ever be lost.

    More precisely, the hope is that the fundamental reality which transcends us will not allow anything truly good to perish.

    "Letting go" is a central expression of living in this hope. It is an act of trust--releasing from our own control that which is precious, because we know we cannot preserve it but trust that there is that greater than us which can.

    While such letting go can be easy and natural, I'm not sure it always is, especially not at first. If faith is a DECISION to hope, it may well be a decision that is made in the face of real and terrifying uncertainty. I believe the act of trust can occur in the presence of and in defiance of doubt, as the outcome of an heroic struggle.

    A person may see the futility of clinging to goods that human finitude cannot preserve, and yet fear that the promise of some reality that CAN preserve them is an empty one. And this fear may tempt one to Herculean efforts to preseve these goods for as long as one can. The temptation, when acted on, leads to an obsession with security, with anxiously safe-guarding finite goods at the expense of experiencing them. Someone may see this outcome and yet STILL be tempted.

    But once one practices living in hope, this temptation born of fear begins to wane. And letting go becomes progressively more natural.

    What would be interesting would be to compare Buddhist practices of letting go with Christian ones. As I understand it, Buddhist gestures of release are made in the absence of any hope that the good will be preserved, but solely on the basis of a recognition of the futility of attachment. How does this difference ripple out through the two religions? What are the broader implications?

  4. I think there is a spectrum in Buddhism, as in Christianity.

    Despite the lack of a theistic God, Buddhism teaches trust in the way (Tao), and compassion for (connection with) all things. Buddhism also teaches that we all share a Buddha nature that we can cultivate, and that it is quite natural for us to be good and to recognize this same quality in each other. As Alan Watts said (paraphrase)- "When someone knocks on my door, I think, 'I wonder how God is coming on today?'" and "Each of us IS the primordial energy of the Big Bang."

    One confusion I used to have about Buddhism was conflating non-attachment with detachment. This is incorrect. Buddhism is about experiencing feelings fully, but letting them go when they should be let go. And that does not mean never feeling them again, it just means not letting them take you away from the reality of the present.

    As far as preserving all things good - I like that belief - thought I am not really sure what it means.... that in some future people will be the same as they are now? That events will happen again? I am not sure aside from a vague sense of hope - which is enough I think.

    It is also interesting to consider "eternalism" or a B theory of time -the idea that reality is actually stamped into place, but that our consciousness can only experience it one moment at a time. Everything that has happened will always have happened. Once again, I am not sure where that takes us - what can we experience again? -but it is a great thought. Another Buddhist saying - "Time is what keeps everything from happening at once."

    I am not sure if my comments have offered too much. I was a little worried about the idea of "futility" and its potentially negative connotation for some readers. I think that in the West we can misunderstand Buddhism - ideas like "no self" and "emptiness" do not translate well into our individualistic culture. But when we phrase the same ideas as "complete self" or "coming home" or "transcendence" I think the ideas are often better understood. My favorite description of spiritual growth, from a Buddhist, is "an expanding circle".

    All that said, I agree with Eric's points whole-heartedly.

  5. Steven--Thanks for this. I especially like how you make the distinction between non-attachment and detachment. This is very helpful.

  6. I should add that I have seen a strand of Buddhism or two that promote a total lack of emotion - but I am always suspicious of what gets lost in cultural translation. Does emotion equal passion to them? Or all feeling of any kind? Is there an underlying serenity involved, which could still be a kind of emotion, albeit on a deeper level?

    The Dalai Lama has said that there is good attachment, like a mother for her child.

    But the Buddhist angle is that we should develop compassion for all beings - seeing them as a mother sees her child.

    So to some, there is not a restriction of attachment in Buddhism, but a broadening of attachment to include all things.

    This is a worthy goal, but I also think it is good to embrace our specific circumstance - the more limited nature of our roles in life. It is my job to care for my son especially in this world - it's a role I accept gladly! - but having that "ultimate" point of view on hand is also a good thing - it helps us cultivate compassion, see reality more as it is, and it helps us let go, within our specific circumstances, when it is right and beneficial to do so.

    Letting go can also be equated with acceptance. It doesn't necessarily mean banishment. Another nice quotation - "Life is an indivisible whole"

  7. Eric, Thanks for posting that. As the father of a now 8-year-old daughter, I completely relate to what you're saying and your story got me all choked up. My relationship with my daughter is terrific, in large part, I think, because I hold those kinds of moments close to my heart.

    Though I'm an atheist, I find your approach to religion and belief to be wonderful and I enjoy your outlook, your philosophy, and your writing. :-)