Mert and I are visiting my family in Boston for Christmas. My sister and her husband are at work and the rest of the family is arriving tomorrow. Mert and I took a walk around Brookline and found a nativity scene with no Jesus in it.
I immediately thought about finding something irreverent to put into the spot. A potato? No. But how enticing and powerful—and different—an absence is from a presence. When the church puts a baby Jesus figure into the scene on Sunday, everyone who sees him will know what to expect…son of god, everlasting father, prince of peace, and so on. These are not bad options. But when the scene is still empty, people can create different things. What if a girl doll appeared? Or a brown baby doll? Or if Mary had simply given birth to a normal boy?
Back at my sister’s apartment, things are quiet. She and her husband have set out a menorah to light on Saturday evening. It is empty. Allegorically, the Jews have nearly purged the temple in Jerusalem from their oppressors, so they can make it sacred again.
I’m far from blasphemous potatoes now. I remember lighting candles at Christmas Eve church services. When we sang Silent Night, the church turned out the overhead lights and we passed lights from candle to candle. I always sang the baritone harmony in the song and, in a sort of intuitive sense, the harmony seems to be empty, too, waiting to be sung.
A few days ago, back in Brooklyn, Mert and I videographed and photographed Let the Light In, a secular solsticey gathering of dance and song. We talked with one of the curators, Coco, about the evening and life in general. Experience needs to be named, we agreed, or it means nothing. But it mustn’t be named inaccurately, or too taxonomically, or it loses its mystery. We looked at a magnet on the fridge my mom had given me, from Australia, evoking the walkabout. I learned in a religion class that aboriginal people in Australia walk songlines, which enable them to navigate Australia’s vast interior and also, by singing the songlines, to keep the land alive. Could we say that aboriginal people are walking to name the world? To call it into existence, said Coco.
People have been using these rituals for centuries, to transmute emptiness into connection, hope, and meaning.
As individuals and communities, as we face a new year,
What child will be born?
What flame will be passed?
What harmony will be sung?
What places will become sacred?
What life will be named?
What world will be called into existence?