As Christmas moves back into storage bins and my grown children move back into their respective time zones, as people begin to consider New Year’s resolutions and December hubbub becomes January quiet, I find myself remembering a moment of clarity on Christmas Eve.
Gathered with my family in a small darkened church lit only by the candles in our hands, our voices raised in the stark beauty of “Silent Night,” I found myself yet longing for Christmas past, when my children were young and Santa-crazed, their little fingers wrapped around wobbly candles, their sugarplum bodies close to mine.
I thought of preschool concerts and rows of excited children singing in their high soprano voices “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” and always the last song, “Silent Night,” which made the mommies – and sometimes the daddies – cry.
I even wandered into nostalgia for the year just past, when my youngest child was yet in high school, singing beside me at church with his arm around my waist, and I was decidedly still a mother with babes at home.
I found myself aching for these profoundly beautiful moments.
But then I realized: If these moments are so painfully beautiful in retrospect, won’t this moment be one day, too? Won’t I one day, when the children are off with their own families, long for this moment, too? Which means, isn’t this moment beautiful now? Which means – is it possible what the sages say – that every moment is, and can be, beautiful, not only in the memory, but in the living of it?
This enlightened concept of “living in the moment” has become almost overdone in our time – compressed into words on pillows and calendars, emblazoned on our chaotic brains like branding on cattle. But to discover this concept for oneself is different, I told myself that night. To experience it in the magic and mystery of Christmas Eve is to grasp what the great wisdom traditions try so desperately to have us hear.
For the rest of Christmas, and beyond, I determined to stay firmly planted in “this moment.”
Instead of longing for Christmas past when my children played with their toys while I made sticky buns in the kitchen for breakfast – I told myself “This is good, too, right here, right now” as the five of us adults in Santa aprons danced to my husband’s favorite Jimmy Buffett Christmas album while cooking breakfast together.
Instead of recalling years gone by, when I was the self-satisfied queen of Christmas, looking on while my young children opened the dozens of presents I’d chosen and wrapped, I determined to see beauty in our new grown-up traditions, as we five adults opened thoughtful gifts each gave the other this year.
Gathered for our annual Christmas dinner with friends, I looked around the table at our six collective children, all grown now, and, instead of longing for the reindeer sweaters they used to wear, I marveled at the stunning adults they had become.
But of course, there is always a second lesson behind the first.
Despite my willingness to find ultimate joy in the moments of a more adult Christmas, my mind continued to wander again at times, into wishes of Christmas past when my children were always going to be here, and fears of Christmas future when they might not be here at all.
I was disappointed to realize I had not fully adapted – until, on the Sunday after Christmas, I came across the forgiving words of author Jeffrey Lockwood in his book of meditations, “A Guest of the World.”
Lockwood, writing about personal peace and the “hard work of life,” says it is both the blessing and the curse of humanity that such work is never done.
“It’s a curse in that there is no utopian culmination of our labors, a blessing in that we will always have meaningful work,” Lockwood writes. “We forget that virtue lies in the doing of good works, not in the completing of our task.”
And so it is, that I learned this Christmas what it means to do the good work of not endlessly reaching for the past, but seeking joy as best I can in every new moment.
I also learned, just as importantly, that I may not always get there.
I imagine, for example, I will always tear up at the sight of red velvet Christmas dresses, girls’ size 3T.
Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column’s Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.