Twenty years ago, on this day, at approximately this time, on the eve of Christmas Eve, I was woken by the ghost of Christmas Present. Actually, I just woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. Do you ever have one of those nights? Now, if this happens to me it's usually either because I had too much caffeine too late in the day or because there's something stressful on my mind. But as a nine year old child, I didn't have much access to caffeine or experience with stress.
I was just too excited about Christmas (Eve). Also, I had developed a small sleeping disorder. Someone with authority had told me that in order to get to sleep I needed to let every part of my body fall asleep. I would lay in my bed and begin with my toes and work my way up to my head and out to my fingertips. Okay feet, fall asleep. Okay...now ankles... Inevitably, before I made it to my neck I would have an itch of some kind that of course needed scratching and I would have to start all over again. I never wondered how I had managed to sleep so well before knowing about this trick. I never considered scrapping it entirely.
On this aforementioned Christmas Eve eve, I had tried all the tricks. Nothing worked. I made some pathetic attempts to pass the time. Television - channels with static, blank screens and one black and white "classic". So I turned to more industrious entertainment. I tried to make Christmas ornaments using the metal lids from mason jars. I figured I could punch holes in the shapes of stars, angels, whatever. The noise when I hammered the nail on the metal lid was difficult to suppress. I went outside, but the silent night just made the hammering seem ridiculously loud. Eventually I just gave up. These were the longest and most agonizing 5 hours of my childhood.
Anticipation. Sometimes the involuntary tensing of muscles before your older brother gives you a wet willy, dead leg, or monkey bump. Sometimes it's the need for sleep and the suspicion that an itch is coming. Sometimes it's the giddy expectation of Christmas mirth and merriment. I know much of my life is lived in a place of anticipation. Sometimes it takes the form of dread. Sometimes excitement. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe I spend too much time in this space. But it seems the ghost of Christmas Future won't stop visiting me, won't leave me alone, won't just let me be. And if not him, the ghost of Christmas past reminding me of awkward moments, missteps, regrets.
I recently heard about a woman who was released from the company of past and future. I heard her story on one of my favorite podcasts - Radiolab. This woman, a brain scientist actually, woke up one day with a throbbing headache behind her left eye. An ache that turned out to be a stroke. Eventually this stroke, that happened in the left hemisphere of her brain, made it impossible for her to access thinking. She was aware of her body, her experience, but she had no access to her past memories or future worries. Both of which are controlled by the left hemisphere.
I lost my balance and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me, what is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and — total silence.
And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.
She describes her experience as sheer joy. All the brain chatter gone. Years of regret, stressors, emotional baggage, gone. All she experienced was the present. Eventually she regained her functions which is what made it possible to give talks and interviews and share about her experience. When asked in the interview which she thought was more important - the thinking, processing, remembering, analyzing part of the brain or the sheer experience part, she couldn't answer. She couldn't decide. And this from a scientist. But she spoke like a poet, with such tender nostalgia for those few moments of complete experience.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, this master teacher, begins his book this way: "Vapor! Vapor! Everything is vapor!" I used to think that this meant that the teacher was saying that life was meaningless (as some versions interpret it). But I wonder if maybe I completely missed his point. Maybe, coming to grips with the vaporous reality of life actually infuses it with meaning. I lie in bed and think. And my brain fools me into thinking their is a real thing called the past and that there is this very real thing called the future. And I am usually, at any given moment oblivious to the present moment. This fleeting, vaporous moment.
It's like this: I love my children. I love the different stages they are in - 5, 3, and 8 months. But I know that I can't freeze time. I can't keep them young and innocent (?) forever. It's actually because of this, because they are changing and growing that our moments together are so valuable. It's what makes you want to squeeze out every last drop of sheer experience you can.
Small children seem to do this so naturally. That's one of the things we admire and love so much about them. This is one of the blessings of being with children. We are able to relive the sheer experience and wonder of life through their eyes. Maybe this is what Jesus meant about needing to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God. A kingdom that can't be dissected, analyzed, built, or controlled. No, the language of the New Testament is that of receiving and entering in. Simply receiving and entering in. Sheer experience. That holy ghost of Christmas Presence.