And, suddenly, the sawtooth oak is gold, dripping with leaves heavy with three days’ rain. Leaves that somehow manage to shimmer in the infinitesimal amount of light coming through the clouds. Leaves that point like fingers toward the ground to which they are falling even before they let go.
But, of course, there is nothing sudden about it. For weeks the chlorophyll has been dying, Camille-like – fading slowly, sighing imperceptibly. Way before Thanksgiving the annual carpeting of the back yard with leaves I have no intention of raking began, the soft crinkle under the sound of the car’s tires reminding me of the cellophane twisted around peppermint. Way before the time change and the nightly deer rodeo in the driveway and the irritation with which I took off the dry cleaner’s plastic from my winter coat, the leaves were changing.
There was a time when I would have attributed the sensation of suddenness – Suddenly the tree is gold! – with my failure to notice, to observe, to pay attention. I would have chided, scolded, berated myself – out loud and in the presence of the tree – for all manner of human shortcoming. By the time I was done I’d have made a good case that I was responsible for everything from the egg that rolled out of the nest in the mailbox to the Braves’ ouster from the playoffs to climate change.
There was that time, but it is not now. Because now, after living enough years and experiencing enough suddenlys, I understand that the sensation of suddenness has less to do with the event itself and more to do with the emotion felt in response to it.
Every mother knows that her infant son will eventually be 16 and driving trucks and going on dates and every mother, despite her promises to herself and her equally evolved friends, eventually posts on Facebook: “Cherish every moment. In the blink of an eye, they’ll be gone.” Suddenly.
Every single Bulldawg fan who entered Mercedes-Benz stadium last Saturday afternoon knew that college football games last about three hours, give or take an injury time-out or two. And every single Bulldawg fan, as the clock ran down, gasped in disappointment that the magical season was over. Suddenly.
The next day is Sunday. Somewhere around 10 o’clock I stumble into the kitchen, my bare feet feeling both the smoothness and the coldness of the wood floor. I have been sick all week, knew the night before that I’d not make it to church, had set no alarm in the hope that extra sleep might make me well. It didn’t. It still feels as though someone has stuffed an Army blanket inside my head.
I squint my eyes against the light that comes through the big bay window and – suddenly – realize what day it is. The first Sunday of Advent.
Like the leaves, there is nothing sudden about its arrival. For months we have moved through the church calendar – Lent then Easter then Pentecost then Ordinary Time – on the way to these four quick weeks before Christmas. It is suddenly the first Sunday in Advent only because of the feelings it elicits: Frustration at the absence of a tree and no idea when or if one will get put up. Wistfulness over the passage of another year in which things done and undone did not match up to my to-do list. Fatigue with the illness that simply will not go away.
I will, at least, I tell myself, get out the Advent wreath. It takes a while to find the candles where I put them last year. They slide out of the box, little spears of wax breaking off the sides, onto the table where the wreath with its four perfect holes awaits. One by one I set them in, straight and tall and fragile and it is only as the last one takes its place that I remember.
The first candle, the one we light today, is the candle of hope. Hope that kept a people alive for thousands of years of enslavement. Hope that changed the world forever from a barn in Bethlehem. Hope that exists today even in frustration and wistfulness and fatigue.
I stare at the unlit candle, its wick dark and curved, and – suddenly – it is Christmas.