Blow on the Coal of the Heart

candlesI light the first candle of Advent. We have no wreath. This is our first Christmas in the evergreen forests of Northern Michigan, and bringing branches inside seems redundant. Besides, there hasn’t been time. I’ve been coughing and wheezing since I caught a late September cold I can’t shake.

We have to wake before the weak winter sun rises to get our daughter to school. The roads are slick and icy and the commute into town takes twice as long as usual. There are parties and performances to attend and presents to buy and three family birthdays to observe.

The candle is an ordinary white candle, not purple or pink. I don’t know where to buy Advent supplies in town and I ran out of time to order online. I managed to find a candelabra and a box of plain white candles in a drawer of our old buffet. There’s no dining room in our new house, so the furniture we inherited when Dave’s mom died is piled in a shadowy corner of the basement.

No wreath, no proper candles. I put on a brave face for the kids but that first struggling light seemed merely sad. Which is weird, because I live for this stuff: tradition and ritual, symbol and magic. For the first time I felt I was just going through the motions for their sakes, and that it was all just a show.

That first week we went to St. Patrick’s, the church of the green neon cross. While my daughter colored pictures of Advent candles in the fellowship hall, the adults gathered in the sanctuary, where a guest speaker offered tips on how to create Advent traditions in the home. I only went because I knew I didn’t have time to drive home and back in the snow.

Where is my home, anyway? Not Michigan. I no longer feel tied to Louisiana, the home of my childhood that I’ve grieved for too long. I’m only a tourist there now.

Now when I think of home, I see the Dairy Road in Virginia, and when I think of Advent traditions I see the tree illuminating the dark corner of our blue dining room. The paint color I chose was called “Jazz Club,” which struck Dave as so absurd and unlike our sloppy and frantic attempts at family meals with small children that the name stuck and we called our dining room The Jazz Club forever more.

I think of our stockings on the sooty mantle and the pennant of cards we hung from the stairs. They must be here, somewhere, in boxes, in the dark. But we have no mantle or stairs in Michigan.

It sounds awful to me when I write it, bratty and spoiled and superficial. My homesickness generally feels that way, and it brings on feelings of guilt for my ingratitude for all that this move has brought my husband and children: A better job, a better life. I’m alone in my homesickness; they all love it here.

“Michigan is my spot on the map,” Charlotte wrote in a card to cheer me up. I hung it on the fridge, and it does lift my heart to see it. They are my home, I tell myself. These children, this husband.

But when I lit the first candle I was cold as a stone, and when I imagined my soul I thought of the vacant hearth in our house in Virginia.

I listened to the speaker politely.

She lives alone. She has no children. Decorations seem superfluous, she said, with nobody to see them, but she makes her solitary effort each night. She opens her Bible and lights her candle. And then her thoughts drift to her childhood. Her mother has been gone just three months. In her mind she creeps downstairs with five siblings, drawn by the light of the tree her parents erected on Christmas Eve, never earlier, so that the glow announced the arrival of Christmas. “The glow,” she said again, and her heart broke and the tears came.

It clearly wasn’t part of her plan to break down, but it was more effective than anything she could have planned. Her grief was much more powerful than our bravado, and it tore through the fragile veil of polite civility we were all hiding behind. The sanctuary collapsed in tears, a bunch of grown-ups crying for our mommies, each of us burdened with longing and sickness.

Thomas Merton once had a vision on a Louisville street corner of the connectedness of all mankind, and in it everyone was shining like the sun. But looking around the sanctuary, I saw only the embers of a dozen fires almost out, begging to be rekindled.

That is my Advent this year, a time for blowing on the coal of the heart, for cupping the nascent flame against the wind as Mary once curled her body around the baby growing in her womb.

I light the third candle this week and see the darkness receding despite me. There is still no wreath and the candles are the wrong color, but this nightly action has made the house more homelike already. What was just for show has taken on meaning once more through deliberate repetition, willful insistence, trust, grace. It’s not a blazing hearth, but it is a beginning.

About Jessica Griffith

Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published essayist and the author of the memoir Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, winner of the 2014 Christopher Award. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, writer David Griffith, and their two children.

  • Jan Vallone

    “That is my Advent this year, a time for blowing on the coal of the heart, for cupping the nascent flame against the wind as Mary once curled her body around the baby growing in her womb.”

    That is one of the most beautiful sentences I have read all year, and the observation it expresses is true, I think, for many people during many Advents.

    Thank you for this lovely essay.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Jessica, it’s beautiful that you can be so honest about the complexities of your feelings about Advent/Christmas rituals. There’s a mystery about rituals, I think: they can sometimes speak to the depths of our common humanity, and other times seem empty and fake.

    Sometimes at Mass, when I’m distracted and not “in tune” with the ritual worship, I’m still grateful that other people — in my church or in the world — are being moved by it. And I trust that the time will return that the ritual will speak to my heart.

  • Marlena Proper-Graves

    This is beautiful. It touches all of us who are homesick for home, all of us who are trying to make our way in this world and who are looking for a spacious place to call home.

  • Leslie Leyland Fields

    SO beautifully written, Jessica. Haunting, full of the emptiness that often grips us this season. Thank you for sharing the glow, however small and beginning.


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