“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
— Etty Hillesum
I find myself returning again and again to Etty Hillesum’s words, absorbing them, hoping they will take deep root and live in me during this holiday season.
As I sit in my kitchen on this gray December morning, so aware of time passing and so wishing to make the most of each shared family moment, the idea of cultivating peace at home and in my heart seems particularly apt.
These are short, dark days. Much of the world is in turmoil. Our country feels divided, split by cynicism and falsehood. In my own life, I’m feeling the weight of having too much to do and never enough time to do it all. No matter how early I get up or how late I go to bed, I don’t get enough accomplished. There are no Christmas cookies this year, no handmade gifts, no special things to place under the tree. My writing is stalled, my concentration jagged – I keep thinking of all the loose ends I’ve left dangling, keep wondering where, exactly, I’m meant to be and what I’m really meant to be doing, keep being distracted from the slow, painstaking work of crafting sentences and returning instead to the ever-expanding to-do list. Neither place feels quite right: I “should” be working on my manuscript, and I “should” be creating Christmas for my family, but instead I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, feeling as if I’m failing at both.
Yesterday, my son Henry turned twenty-two, a fact that fills me with both pride and wonder: how did we get here so fast? Wasn’t it just a few short years ago that he was a week old and we dressed him up in a tiny velour Santa suit and posed for our first family portrait? Wasn’t it only yesterday that he spent the days before Christmas sitting upstairs at his desk writing college applications? Now, he’s just months away from graduation, months away from having to find a job, a home, an adult life of his own. The years fly by, faster and faster it seems. This week Jack was accepted at Boston University, his first choice for school. I’m thrilled he’ll be close to us next year, but stunned to realize he’s actually old enough to go to college. Over the weekend, my husband pulled out a pile of old photographs of our boys when they were little: all fat cheeks and cuddles, innocence and giggles. Tiny beings that live now only in pictures and in our memories. Amazing to think that our lives have already had such breadth and span, that we have lived through our child-rearing years, raised sons to young adulthood, watched them leave home, and then eagerly awaited their return, knowing that soon they will leave again.
Tomorrow night, Henry will arrive and our family will have two short weeks together. Today, I’m preparing for his homecoming by clearing all my books and papers out of his bedroom, where I’ve been working these last few months. But I am also taking some time to prepare myself. Instead of getting started on a new chapter or running around doing errands and last-minute shopping, I’ve decided to stay home and just sit in stillness for a while. Today, I need to cast my lot with “being” rather than with “doing,” and to trust that being is enough. To believe that reclaiming large areas of peace in myself is perhaps the most urgent, most necessary work I could do.
I feel inspired, most of all, by a moment on Saturday afternoon at my brother and sister-in-law’s house. Jack and Steve and I had attended their four-year-old’s Christmas pageant, an epic musical production performed by sixteen nursery schoolers in full costume. Afterward, as the whole extended family sat around in the living room enjoying a late lunch of chili and cornbread, little Gabriel accidentally whacked his grandfather’s dish from his hand; a direct, home-run hit. Food flew everywhere – an entire bowl’s worth of chili spattered on the beige wall-to-wall. There was a moment of stunned silence in the face of the disaster. Gabriel’s eyes filled with tears. And in that instant, as chili seeped into the rug and everyone leapt into action, a choice was also made for peace. No one shouted. No one scolded. No one got upset or delivered a lecture about little boys who ought to be more careful.
“It’s all right,” Gabe’s mom said, as she went for the Resolve and paper towels. “It’s all right,” my brother reassured his son, as he got down on his knees and began to clean up the mess. You could feel the tension in the room dissipate as quickly as it had come. Peace reclaimed and reflected back into the world. Peace as moral duty. Peace as the true lesson of the day. Peace because Gabriel, too, will be all grown up in the blink of an eye, and soon enough his own parents will be looking back at his vanished childhood, wondering if they’ve taught him well, if they’ve prepared him to bring peace into this troubled world. Small moments; big, lasting impressions. I like to think that, as the big sister with the grown-up kids, I’m the one who can teach my younger sibling a few things about being a parent. But just as often, he teaches me.
I know that what matters most this week is not how much I manage to get done, how many words I write, or how many presents I wrap, but how I choose to be. And that what brings our sons home to this house, my parents to our hearth on Christmas morning, family and friends to our table for dinner, is surely not just a sense of duty and tradition but a universal longing for connection and love, acceptance and peace.
Peace is what we all yearn for, and peace is the gift that we can offer one another – in a word of forgiveness, in a smile, a hug, a kindness done, a gratitude expressed. Even in the ease with which a huge mess of chili gets cleaned off a rug.
Reading the newspaper each morning, it is easy to despair, easy to see how readily seeds of hatred and fear grow into crops of violence and cruelty. But I take my cue from my brother and sister-in-law’s loving patience with their children, and solace in the faith of a young Dutch woman who could envision the possibility of peace even as she awaited her own certain death at Auschwitz in 1943. This is the Christmas spirit I aspire to embody, the truth I will try to remember as we light the candles, serve the meals, play the music, and celebrate this time together: peace begins here, right where we are, and peace is always possible.