The worst thing about being robbed by crystal meth addicts is having to walk them through the robbery. They’re jumpy and scatterbrained, tweakers are. You’ve got to talk to them as you’d talk to five-year-olds. Unless you explain, “Here’s my WALLET. Here’s my CELL PHONE. Here’s this OTHER CELL PHONE that hasn’t worked since I knocked it into the toilet, but which I’m carrying around like a lock of hair from a dead lover’s head because the cheapskates at T-Mobile won’t exchange it,” they may go off script and mistake a routine mugging for a random, senseless murder.
The next worst thing is finding yourself without any of that stuff — indeed, knowing that unless you get in touch with your bank right away, the crooks are going to hit the nearest convenience store with your ATM card and max out the overdraft. I experienced all this firsthand in the last week of November, 2006. At the moment, it seemed like the logical end to the story arc of my previous few years. Over that time, I’d left the mortgage business in disgust, and been driven from the University of Phoenix Online for telling my manager that our product wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t printed on. The airline baggage handler job I’d taken in a quest for blue-collar authenticity had crapped out the second time I drove a belt-loader into the fuselage of an 319 Airbus. My car’s head gaskets had melted; burglars had taken my computer and my fancy road bike. If you have to pick a time to be $500 in the hole and cut off from satellite communications, it might as well be when you’re trying to repair a badly broken life. Otherwise you could miss the whole thing.
But, in the aftermath of all these losses, I was to gain something I’d never had a name for, nor been able to imagine a use for. I was to gain Advent.
This sounds corny, I know. But that’s more or less how it happened. I’d been involved with a woman who was Catholic, and I mean really Catholic — father a canon law whiz and Opus Dei cooperator, mother a collector of holy water from the sites of various Marian apparitions, eight siblings with saints’ names. Early that fall, under her influence, I went to the local Newman Center and inquired about converting. Compared to the fundies I’d met, who’d practically crawl like pugs into the lap of anyone showing interest, the visiting seminarian I met responded with so little enthusiasm that I put the project on hold. But being stripped of all my worldly possessions made major life changes no longer seem so major. Early one morning about two weeks after the mugging, I put on my one suit, filled my pocket with the rosary, and set out on foot toward the Newman Center. I arrived just in time for the old folks’ Mass.
It was, I later learned, the second Sunday of Advent. As I recall, the Gospel reading included the verses from Luke where Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a slow-flowering mustard seed. In his homily, the presiding priest drew a parallel between them and the line in Galatians about Jesus having entered history in the fullness of time. Be patient, seemed to be the takeaway, and my abjection made me receptive. Since I’ve always preferred the term “late bloomer” to “complete failure,” it was a source of great comfort to note I shared the status with the Son of Man.
The idea of a fresh start and the promise of an eventual bloom put me in an exalted state that lasted for several weeks, through the New Year. In that time, a number of strange and wonderful events occurred. I convinced the hiring manager of a security firm that my feet constituted “reliable transportation.” Barely had I broken into that job when JP Morgan Chase offered me a much comfier one in their home finance division. At some point in between, I won $50 from a scratch-off Lottery ticket, something that never happened before, and hasn’t happened since. Of course, I took them as signs of God’s favor, evidence I had chosen the right path.
But the signs reversed themselves with the seasons. Within a couple of years, my Chase job came to seem as stifling and mindless as any other. My joy at finding God turned to nostalgia for my once-invincible ignorance. A new car meant new car troubles. New cell phones found new watery graves. A friend talked me into buying stock at eight bucks a share just before it fell to $1.25 per. It was the kind of deal that made me miss rampaging tweakers.
Looking back, I can see that I fell into something I’ll call the Advent Trap — a false sense of having turned a corner, of having taken an irrevocable step upward. Seen without the proper perspective, Advent can look like a big, fat bait-and-switch. Think about it: it’s the beginning of winter. It’s cold. Night falls earlier every day. Then a few candles and a splash of violet appear around the altar, signaling that it’ll all be over soon. Except it isn’t. After four weeks of anticipation, Christmas comes and goes, leaving you to face the January chills and the Februrary blahs. And then, if things weren’t grim enough, Lent starts.
The Jews of the first century, those who, if they’d looked, would have seen the star above the manger, would have been able to relate. To date, they’d waited six centuries for their Messiah. When He finally arrived, it was in a state unfit to do much of anything except drive the local strongman into an infanticidal panic. And then, 30 years later, when His hour finally came, did the Messiah knock down any walls or lead anyone to a new Promised Land? Hell He did. He died a painful, degraded death and — resurrection notwithstanding — left His followers to the swords of the goyim.
In Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling tells us: “Not always was the Kangaroo as now we do behold him, but a Different Animal with four short legs.” He pesters the various gods to make him different from all animals. The Big God Nqong agrees, and whistles up a hungry dingo to chase Kangaroo through the Outback. By the end of the day, the strain of outrunning and out-hopping his pursuer has contorted Kangaroo’s legs into their current shape. He’s gotten his wish, all right — he’s different from all other animals — but the transformation didn’t come in any way he expected or welcomed.
Thinking on Kangaroo’s confusion as he ran pell-mell from the dingo and his horror at his new look, it seems to me he learned the real lesson of Advent. God drives us through the desert as much as He leads us. The trip can be a nasty one. The trick is a willingness to be driven, and even to be teased and disappointed. In an exit interview with Nqong, Kangaroo says, “Legs are legs, and you needn’t alter ’em so far as I am concerned.” An afternoon with the dingo has made him a model of resignation.
The liturgical calendar is a big cycle. So, it seems, is my life. Periods of growth and abundance alternate with periods of decay and want. Good job follows bad job. I avoid the false security of the Advent trap by bearing this in mind always. Whenever I see an Advent candle, I make a point of reminding myself I’m seeing a pillar of fire.