This Christmas we are away from family and friends. The decision to leave was mine, and I wonder if I'm flawed, like a sweater with a snag, or worse, a defect in the domestic fabric of motherhood. I feel so overwhelmed at this time of year when other wives and mothers immerse themselves in the traditions of the season. Part of what makes leaving a little easier is that we both have families living close by that we see regularly, so, with our children, my husband and I come to an island in the sea this year. There will be no usual Christmas activities and obligations. And, as if to justify missing the snowfall at home, I imagine that a balmy breeze is truer to the nativity setting in Bethlehem anyway.
I have brought along a book, Gift From The Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in which she comments on the luxury of choice many of us in our North American culture have, including me, between complexity and simplification of life. "For the most part, we who could choose simplification choose complication." This statement stirs me. The author goes on to say that a simplified outward life is not enough, but I decide that it is definitely a start.
Throughout the book, the author uses the image of an island as a metaphor for solitude and reflection. Solitude is necessary for a peaceful inner life, and vacations, she writes, are like an island of space and time – I think of the five of us here as being our own island. My thoughts shift like the sand in the breaking waves to another place, to home, where it is snowing. Our mothers will be engaged in activity for Christmas Eve while I have spent the day at the beach with no responsibilities – lazy hours liberally sprinkled with sand and salt.
Showered and refreshed, I recline on the patio sipping a glass of eggnog and gaze at the ocean in anticipation of the sunset and the descent of this special night. Just offshore, the water softly breaks and a dark shape emereges; the back of a whale! Elated, I call my family over with a hushed trace of urgency in my voice. They know how inexplicably drawn I am to these mysterious graceful giants and quickly gather around me. Together we watch, captivated, as the whale gently rolls to the side and a long fin, like a slender hand, claps the water's surface, as if to ensure our attention. Her act is audible a moment later, just as thunder is heard moments after lightning. Again and again, fin against water. Then a tiny fluked tail pops up from the waves and wags in response. The mother raises her tail, bringing it down with a thud and displacing water into a fan of spray that areches and showers like a summer downpour.
I am mesmerized by this affectionate interplay between whale and offspring. It goes on for fifteen minutes, a halfhour, is it longer? And suddenly during that time I sense the significance of what I am witnessing, so grateful that I wasn't preoccupied but rather sill and available. That these whales should pause along their journey to play in front of us, on this evening, seems intentional, as if this was an intimate gift from the Divine Creator to me. Time seems to stop, until the shimmering sun slowly slips into the sea.
At church, in the glow of the candlelight, once again I think of our families at home, gahtered by now around the tree, exchanging gifts. Mild guilt washes over me like a wave, then flows away as the singing begins. "O Holy Night... The night when Christ was born..." As if speaking to reassure me, the pastor prefaces his sermon by commenting on all the things we do to get ready for Christmas, making ourselves three times busier than usual – baking, cooking, shopping, visiting, decorating – yet that is not what Christmas is about. All around me heads nod slightly, creating a subtle movement throughout the congregtion, like an undulating body of water. I feel acceptable. The purpose of Christmas, he declares, is simply for us to know God personally. The message that follows warms me like tropical sun rays.
A few days later, I enquire about a whale-watching excursion and an islander tells me that this is not the right time of year; experts have sensed only about twenty whales in this waters. He says I'd be lucky to see any activity at all. My intuition about the whales on Christmas Eve was correct; they were a gift, and they will become my personal metaphor for a simpler life wherein I recognize God's grace in the deeper, quieter moments.