A feeling of peace settled somewhere close to me as I crushed up Saltine crackers in a bowl, and Del sat across from me chopping up two green apples we had saved from the chow hall. We were making a Christmas pie for the room. Christmas was still five days away, but the general season is upon us. It’s still a time of mixed feelings for me.
I committed my crime in November and for about 15 years after that, there was nothing celebratory in my life, including Christmas. I simply ignored the whole season, telling myself it was all commercialized anyway.
But over the past decade or so I’ve been trying to find meaningful ways to reconnect with the season. I make cards to sell and give away, which gets me away from my usual writing and other work into something more meditative and manual. I don’t do artwork much anymore throughout the year so this brings me back to that. I also usually work out a set of Christmas songs and perform them with a band here for fellow inmates. This process of playing the old familiar songs and trying to find new ways to keep them interesting is a nice point of connection for me.
I tell Del to put the cubed apples in a big bowl. I pour sugar over them, then get a sideways look when I add about three tablespoons of instant lemon tea. I’ve never used it before, but act like I know exactly what I’m doing. By now, I’ve crushed the Saltines crust into the bowl. I slide it across to him and tell him, “Mix it up and dump it in here.”
Maryann and I talked recently about innocence and reconnection — of living in a place where we are not constantly falling into a mire of existential boredom and spiritual numbness. We know there are some ways of living that are more lifeful and spiritually nourishing than others, so we were talking about ways to practice them. Reverence — acknowledging the presence of the transcendent in people and things — came up, and so did the danger of thinking we already know all we need to know. This is where our spiritual boredom and “whateverness” comes from: this conclusion — before we even encounter things — that nothing’s going to surprise us because we already know and have already experienced everything.
Del gives me another crazy look when I tell him to cut up the little Lemonhead candies I got in my Christmas pack, and sprinkle them in with the apples and sugar. Despite the crazy look, however, he’s a believer and is always willing to be surprised. In go the Lemonheads.
This, it seems to me, is pretty close to the true meaning of Christmas — this crazy, against-all-odds belief that if we look real close, maybe even close our eyes and pop them open at exactly the right moment, life might hit us with some delightful little surprise. Something we weren’t expecting. We might wake up in just a moment to find something under the tree of our life that makes all the waiting worthwhile.
I found mine this morning when I brought the pie back from the dayroom after 12 minutes in the community microwave. Del cut it up into four pieces and we served it up. He popped a good-sized piece in his mouth then jumped up, his lips shaped like a cartoon Christmas caroler, saying “ooh, ooh, ooh,” trying to fan cool air in and over that hot bite of pie. I took my cue from him and made sure mine was cool before trying to eat it. Then, we both sat there for the next 10 minutes, slowly eating and praising the virtues of pie in general and this pie in particular. In my last bite, I got a big chunk of Lemonhead candy. Chewy sour sweetness. It was finer than frog’s hair as they say in… well, somewhere folksy.