midpoint (2007-50)

Gifts of the Spirit


Keeping it simple has never been so complicated

by Stephanie Piper

Tis a gift to be simple, says the old Shaker hymn. Itâ’s a line I quote to myself a lot in the run-up to Christmas, these fevered weeks when I feel as though I have mistakenly boarded an express train instead of the nice, meandering local.

I want to stop and smell the pine branches, wander through the tree lots and weigh the merits of a Scotch pine over a Douglas fir. I want to read incredibly complicated cookie recipes featuring ingredients like anise seed and cardamom and fantasize, briefly, about making them. I want to watch the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim and remember how my sister and I used to watch it on Million Dollar Movie at home in New York every Christmas Eve afternoon when I was growing up.

And I really want the long-ago purchasing power of the crisp new 10-dollar bill that once funded all my Christmas shopping. The task was accomplished in a single snowy Saturday afternoon and involved neither a car nor a mall. We walked to the village and went to Murrayâ’s Five and Ten and Cadmanâ’s Drug Store and the Greeley House Gift Shop. Done, and home by dark.

That was then. Now, Christmas shopping requires a second mortgage and a degree in wireless technology. Simplicity feels counter-intuitive and countercultural, creaky and dated in a point-and-click world.

Each December, I resolve to pare down the excess and find the serene center of this season. I vow to write notes to old friends, to rise early and watch the orange-and-blue winter dawns. I plan to calm my days with the echo of another hymn, an Advent carol we sang in the olden days: Veni, Domine Jesu at noli tardare.

Noli tardare means do not delay, which seems to convey a certain urgency. But Iâ’ve come to believe that the invitation is not about scouring websites for holiday deals or dialing new and improved 800 numbers. Itâ’s about paying attention now, today, to the need for watchfulness. Itâ’s about finding peace while waiting for the main event.

Because it is December, and because Iâ’m compulsive, Iâ’ve translated this process into a list. Or rather, Iâ’ve added to the one I revisit each year at this time. My personal guide to spiritual simplicity, it comes with no guarantees. But it is a start.

Light a candle. Morning or evening, votive or taper, itâ’s a conscious act of light-seeking that never fails to focus my wandering eyes and still my thoughts.

Say the word. In the early silence, I choose a word to define the day for myself, and make it a kind of mantra. Accept. Receive. Surrender. When I start to get scattered, I come back to the word and try to apply it to the moment at hand.

Forgive someone. Blessed as I am with total recall, thereâ’s no end to the opportunities here: the posse of mean girls who made middle school a daily hell for me; the nosy Chicago neighbor who used to walk in without knocking and comment on my housekeeping; the blood kin who, by chance or by design, have failed me. I once thought these carefully preserved resentments gave me a kind of power. Now they just seem to block the light.

Listen. In the end, it all comes back to this: tuning out the interior carnival long enough to hear the voice that only speaks in silence.

The express hurtles past, laden with shiny expectations. The local lumbers along, slow but steady. Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be, the Shaker hymn continues. Noli tardare. All aboard.


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