Our youngest calls through the dark in the morning from her crib. Street lights and house lights blink on before the chicken sizzles in the pan for dinner, before we are all home. We are approaching the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest and darkest day of the year. Maybe that's why I continue to think about this line I heard during Mass a few weeks ago: "For all of you are children of light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness" (1Thes 5:5).
Maybe that's why I've been making so many fires lately that our pile of seasoned wood in the yard is almost gone. It's getting colder of course, but at least in the area of New England where we live, it hasn't been that cold. I've been unusually preoccupied with splintering logs into kindling sticks, making sure what's left of the wood is covered before the rain and snow have a chance to moisten the bark.
The flames licking the walls of the fireplace are simply ornamental. Yes, they warm your face and hands when you crouch before them, but a working fireplace -- without the functionality of a wood-burning stove -- exists exclusively as ambiance.
In these momentary instances, and they are only that, when each of the three children have what they need, and no one is bickering over whose turn it is to climb in the cardboard box that UPS delivered earlier, the flames wave and flash across their faces as they sit on the floor beside the glowing Frasier fir, watching the screen where Mickey Mouse plays "O Little Town of Bethlehem" with his harmonica.
This Advent season, at least as I type these words, we are all okay. In fact, we are extraordinarily blessed. We have good jobs. Everyone we love is healthy. The kids like their schools. And yet you have to appreciate that like the children getting along, this too is a fragile state of being. Like a good fire whose logs need prodding and rearranging, our inner selves need attention too. We are spiritual beings whether we are attending to the burning embers inside or not.
I don't want to get all Charlie Brown on you, but stuff really isn't salvation, as Anna Quindlin wrote not long after a Walmart employee was trampled to death by stampeding shoppers on Black Friday in 2008.
Turn on any smartphone, laptop, tablet, or television right now, and eventually you will read or hear two great lies. One: You need more stuff. And two: You should be happy (and if you're not, just buy more stuff).
I've been thinking about getting more trains for my second grader, but for now he seems content playing with the ones my father gave me. My dad hasn't been alive for 14 Christmases. I miss him. But with a loving bride and three kids, Christmas now occasions more celebration than grief.
Earlier in class today, at the all-boys high school where I teach, my students let me in on the ways their interior lives are influenced by the screens they touch and tap. We were discussing the essay "How Boys Become Men" by Jon Katz, which appeared in Glamour 21 years ago. One anecdote from Katz's essay in particular prompted the 17- and 18 year-old students to talk. The narrator came home with a black eye one day while in fifth grade. His parents called the parents of the boy who gave young Katz the black-eye, which only instigated further abuse from the kids at school who called him "the rat" for telling his parents what happened.
The students said that though there is probably less fighting in schools compared to when their fathers were young, the violence now persists online, often anonymously, mostly through fake Twitter and Facebook accounts. I asked them how often this happens. "It happens a lot," one student said, while the others nodded. "It happens a lot, but it's nowhere near as bad as it was in middle school."
"Yeah. I feel like you'd rather have the blackeye because even though it hurts, it goes away," another student said. "That other stuff online, never goes away. And plus, if our dads came home with a black eye, everyone would know something happened in school, but if someone is getting bullied online, the kid comes home and the parents won't know."
That night my second grader crouched next to me as I turned a log over in the fire. "How was school today, bud?" I asked.
"It was good," he said with a shrug. "Dad, why is part of the flame blue?" I thought about how much of fathering depends on interpreting a shrug, grateful that the light drew him next to me, that his face warmed with curiosity rather than concern, that only the coals below the logs needed prodding.
We all need light during this time of year when the sun seems farthest away. I do not think anyone should feel ashamed for not feeling the way all the screens tell us we should feel. If you are sad during the darkest days of the year, while everyone else seems to be having a holly jolly Christmas, you are not flawed. Instead it might help to think of yourself as an explorer, on your way to remembering that you are more than a consumer, that you are someone in pursuit of light.