Warthen: Getting into the proper spirit

Editorial Page EditorDecember 14, 2008 

EVERY YEAR AT this time, I have to admit that I have failed yet again to get into the proper spirit of Advent — that is, I admit that when I find time to think about it at all.

This is not my fault. Advent — which the church tells us Catholics should be a time of quiet, contemplative reflection and anticipation — couldn’t possibly come at a worse time. I mean, it’s just before Christmas! I don’t know about you, but the month for me consists of longer hours than usual at work — backing up co-workers taking those vacation days they have to take or lose (and which they richly deserve, let me piously add) — with every minute of nights and weekends taken up with social obligations, pageants and other things you’re too harried to enjoy the way you should, and the patriotic imperative of shopping more than you do in all the other 11 months combined.

When our kids were little, my wife would gather the family each evening — when I got away from work early enough, even I took part — for a little Advent wreath-lighting ceremony at our kitchen table. Just thinking about that, and how long ago it was, makes my heart hurt — which is not very descriptive, but I can think of no better way to put it. Sort of the way Scrooge felt witnessing Christmases Past. Lately, I have only been mindful of Advent during one hour on Sunday, with the church’s much-bigger wreath up there next to the altar. I think, one, two, three candles... must be the third Sunday of Advent... I wonder if I could swing by Harbison on my way home....

That’s the extent of my mindfulness of the season.

On Monday — as the U.S. economy continued spiraling downward, the University of South Carolina announced its plans for $39 million in budget cuts, a state panel called for K-12 teachers’ salaries to be frozen, Congress and the White House furiously negotiated a doomed bailout of Detroit automakers, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (in his last hours of freedom) dared the feds to listen in on his conversations, and the odiferous mess at the Columbia sewer plant continued to reek — it suddenly came to my attention that I had three weeks of vacation coming to me that I was going to lose, which happened to be more time than there was left in our fiscal year. Which was neither here nor there; I knew we were far too busy for me to take any of it off, so nothing to be done about it...

... when suddenly, a voice somewhere deep inside me said, Dammit, I’m gonna have me some down time during Advent if it kills me — which is not exactly the attitude that the church prescribes, but it was as close as I was going to get. I saw that nobody else in my department was off on Wednesday and Thursday, so on Tuesday I whipped out an editorial against the Detroit bailout deal, told everybody I’d see them Friday, and took off before anyone had recovered enough from the shock to stop me.

What did I do with the time? This is the good part: I spent the days taking care of my 11-month-old twin granddaughters. One of them had scared us with a bout of the croup earlier in the week (one visit to the doctor, another to the ER) and still had a raspy cough, their mother (my oldest) had to get back to work after taking off those days, my wife was jammed up with commitments and suffering from a bad cold herself, and my son-in-law was in a neck brace from falling off of scaffolding remodeling their house. I won’t tell you what was happening with the rest of our four kids, except to say everyone had a lot to deal with — some of it very painful and difficult, and too personal to go into. But for once, I was able to be there for my family for at least one of the many things they needed that week — which I think was a bigger shock to them than to the people at work.

Here’s what I did on Wednesday: I got up earlier than I do on workdays. I took my older granddaughter, who had spent the night with us, to her house to change clothes, then to school. I picked up the twins and took them to my house. I fed them breakfast, one in my lap and the other sitting in the busy saucer play station thingy — one spoonful for you, and one for you.... I changed their diapers. We played with blocks on the living room rug. I changed their diapers again. I carried them upstairs for their naps. When they woke up, I changed their diapers again and took them on a quick walk around the block (the most exercise I’d had in weeks) before mixing up their lunch. My mom dropped by (normally, I never see my parents during the work week) and fed one while I fed the other. We played peek-a-boo, which convinces them I’m the world’s greatest wit for having thought it up. I fixed them some bottles, and my mom and I held them while they drank them dry (these are the world’s most cooperative babies; they eat what you feed them, and go to sleep at nap time). I changed their diapers again, and carried them up for their second naps, and then their mother came to get them.

On Thursday, we did the same, with slight variations. Each time at the end of the day, my daughter thanked me for keeping them, which means that she had it exactly backward.

No, it wasn’t a time of quiet prayer and contemplation. And yet, it was. Those two days grounded me in a kind of physical, emotional and spiritual sanity that was, for me in December, an altered state. I can’t really explain it. Let’s just say that when I got back to work and found that the world was still talking about Rod Blagojevich and the Detroit bailout, and our state budget was being cut another $383 million, with the brunt hitting education and health care, I longed to be doing something that made as much sense as changing a poopy diaper. Or better yet, two of them. Changing dirty diapers makes sense, to the changer and the changee, and the process is far less objectionable than looking at, or thinking about, Gov. Blagojevich.

You know what? Nobody else is off this coming Tuesday and Wednesday. Don’t look for me here on those days.

Get into the spirit at thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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