We travel to New Hampshire at most Christmases when we don’t have a brand-new baby (or the threat of one), to see my dad and stepmother. They live in a beautiful house they designed and built, completely off-grid, on a mountaintop in the Monadnock region. It is, I always say, a wonderful house from which to be in the world. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not: the house is full of windows, as its primary energy sources are active and passive solar, and out every window is a vista of striking beauty. Just being here is restorative, but also inspiring, and the back-and-forth between the two sensations is little short of a miracle.
I’ve been thinking about inspiration a lot, lately, in all of its forms, and about miracles. It’s hard to think of one, I suppose, without the other. I mean the Thich Nhat Hahn version of miracles rather than the standard Christian varieties (the miracle, he says, is not to walk on the water; the miracle, he says, is to walk on the earth). But at Christmas time, I am reminded that much of humanity heralds as a miracle the birth of an infant around this time, and his astonishing gifts of kindness, courage, generosity, and clear sight. Having two small boys of my own is miraculous enough to me — their small hands (Chi’s fingers, I decided yesterday, measure nearly an inch now, from tip to dimple) — but that they occasionally also exhibit these larger gifts is staggering. It gives me, in a phrase, hope for humanity.
Barbara Kingsolver’s character Codi in the unparalleled Animal Dreams struggles with hope, having learned early that loss hurts (here we remember The Princess Bride: “Life IS pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something). But Codi has a sister, Hallie, who lives inside her hope: “What I want is so basic I’m almost embarrassed to say it. Elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. That kids might grow up one day to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.” I’m paraphrasing, since I left the novel at home, but I’ve read enough times to be fairly sure I’m close. Hallie says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. The very most you can do is live inside that hope.” It’s easier to live in what’s already around you, to try to welcome that or at least not fight it tooth and nail, and to try to make small differences where possible. But this, I know, demands a shift in what Kingsolver dubs “ground orientation.” As Codi says, “I’d spent a long time circling above the clouds, looking for signs of life. Hallie was down there living it.” Perhaps the hope, then, is not necessarily the abstract kind that sets lofty goals and five-year plans. Or perhaps it might be, depending on the person. For me, the hope seems smaller, more local, at least these days.
And as I write that, I realize that I’m fulfilling the prophecy of Loyd in that novel, whose brief disquisition on what animals dream about constructs the title of the novel. “I think animals dream about whatever they do in real life…it’s the same with people…your life, what you do and all that, it’s not separate from your dreams, it grows up out of them. So if you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.” (This section is horribly bastardized, a hybrid misquote from a longer conversation. But you get the idea.) So as my life has shrunk, and yet expanded in a L’Engle-esque miracle, my dreams have shrunk. Perhaps I should say, focused. And I’m eager to see the bigger work return to center stage, because I still believe in the macro-levels of hope that are realized from there. And yet, at Christmas, it’s easy to be reminded as all mothers are, that in each child lie the seeds of transformation, of hope, for us and for the world. It’s possible — I might even say it’s likely — that we are, each of us, the gift of hope, the possibility of honesty and beauty and love.