I read this as a guest on Lake Effect, a popular show on WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio. I hope you enjoy listening, reading, or both.
Step I. Complain.
“Here’s the deal, Cathy. I hate fixing the Christmas lights on the crabapple tree, because it’s freezing in Milwaukee, and when I face south I can’t see anything because we live this far north and the sun is in my eyes, and the squirrels ate the wires of the lights, I guarantee you, because they’re squirrels, for God’s sake.”
“You don’t have to do it this year, you know,” she says. “Let’s just enjoy the holiday.”
“This time, I believe you, Cathy. I’m going to tear down all the wires from the crabapple and, instead, we can have a Christmas tree inside with lights, at the same time that our Chanukah candles will be burning. Your Catholicism, my Judaism. That’s all I need.”
Step II. Deconstruct.
In mid-afternoon, I deposit onto the front lawn an extension cord, a pruner, a pole for stringing (and unstringing) lights, and a six-foot, aluminum A-frame ladder. With the tormenting sun in the southern sky, I begin the deconstruction of Christmases past. Carefully. Our crabapple tree is vicious. And it knows it. Its protuberances, to which the apples and wires are attached, are armed with sharp points that assault exposed skin. Especially hands. The vexatious work of freeing the wires can’t be accomplished while wearing warm gloves.
Step III. Be surprised.
A half hour into my work, a single mother in her late twenties, and her four-year old daughter, walk from the apartment complex across the street, and stand holding hands on the sidewalk a few feet from me.
“Hi. How’ve you been?” I say to her and her little girl with wavy blond hair who’s all bundled up in her blue winter coat and scarf, and looking up at me with her big brown eyes.
“We’re good,” the mother says. “Thank you so much for lighting the tree again. We love to curl up on our window seat and look down at the lights every night before she goes to bed.”
I’m surprised by her misunderstanding, but I manage to say, “It means more than you might imagine that you told me this. Tonight, you can curl up and see the lights.”
Mother and daughter head across the street, and upstairs to wait.
Step IV. Reconstruct and Remember.
The plan has changed so I need to know which lights actually do work. I plug in the extension cord, and only the bottom strand of three hundred lights is working. I tell Catherine what has happened, and she leaves to buy new lights while I re-twist the twist ties I had untwisted. When she returns, I unplug the extension cord and begin the arduous task of replacing squirrel-destroyed strands with new ones, and the crabapple tree exacts its price in blood from both hands already burning from the cold. The thing is, all of this feels familiar…and good.
My thoughts return to a winter, fifty-five years ago. I’m twenty and helping dig ditches and lay pipe to bring water from the Sea of Galilee to communities and agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley. It’s colder than usual, and the pipes, wrenches, and chains brutalize ungloved hands. During a welcome coffee break from laying pipe, I contemplate the minor abrasions and cuts on my chapped hands, and feel rewarded to be part of something beyond my shallow concerns over inconsequential discomfort.
Step V. Find your prayer.
Renewed by my Jordan Valley memory, I’m determined to finish lighting the tree before the fast-approaching dark. Moving the ladder every few minutes, I progress along the circumference of the tree canopy untangling strands of lights and attaching new ones. It’s seriously dark when I plug in the extension cord again, and the tree awakens in glory, decked in twelve hundred miniature, warm white lights.
That’s when my dear friend, Frank, pulls his pickup truck into his next-door driveway, brakes hard, and jumps out. For the past eight years, he and I have talked very often about how much his Catholic faith and my Jewish faith have in common. Today, Frank shouts, “Let there be light! And I’m going light our birch tree, just like your crabapple.”
“I hope you do, and it’s no surprise that both of us were thinking about Genesis when you pulled your truck into the driveway. You probably don’t agree, Frank, but I think all of it is metaphor and allegory. ‘Let there be light?’ For me, it means fill the dark void with acts of human lovingkindness. I mean, look at all this light around us…and your birch tree will make it even better. It’s so beautiful, Frank, a person could almost think…I don’t know…I’m going to do what Catherine said we should do. Let’s just enjoy the holiday.”
“Amen,” my dear friend says.
“Amen,” say I.