My immediate family has never had a birthday present ritual. If someone sees something they like want to give someone, they buy it, and maybe give it to them on their birthday, or maybe give it to them whenever, or maybe they just buy the person a burrito the next time they see them. Because my birthday is always around Thanksgiving, I usually see my parents in the week before my birthday, and we take that as an excuse to eat cake. On my 25th birthday my mother brought out an Entertainment Book, dropped it on the kitchen table with a clatter and announced “Happy Birthday…your brother had to sell these for school”.
Still, two nights ago my mother slipped into another room after dinner and returned with a familiar looking box from a local jewelry store. She handed it to me and laughed “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When I opened it I wasn’t surprised to find a gold chain with a single, small pearl.
When my apartment was broken into a few years ago all that was taken was jewelry, because that was all that I had. There were only one or two things that I truly lamented losing, and one was the little Add-a-pearl necklace I’d had since I was a girl. Most of my cousins also have them, and as birthdays and holidays passed we’d get another pearl here and there and have them added to our necklaces. Mine only had thirteen or so pearls on it (or maybe seventeen? For whatever reason I’m certain it was a prime number), and since I’d reached adulthood and passed the age of getting little gold boxes on my birthday, it seemed destined to stay at that number of pearls.
It wasn’t until I realized that it was gone that I started to cry. My grandmother had been dead two decades, and I knew that the loss of this sign of her love didn’t mean she loved me any less. The other wonderful women in my family, my aunts and my mother, were all still in my life – in fact, no one in my mother’s large family had died since my grandmother’s passing twenty years prior. Still, I was raised among sacramental people, treasuring signs and objects, and the loss of that particular object was devastating.
Not only was I raised to be sacramental, I was raised on Roman time, so it’s no surprise that it took 2+ years to replace the necklace. I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s admonition to ‘try, try again’ as I heard the readings for the First Sunday of Advent (and not just because they mention a house being broken into).
Most of us are probably familiar with that quote attributed to Mother Teresa to the effect of “some jerk on the beach might knock down your sand castle – build one anyway”. I worry that people are tempted to take the suggestion that “we know not the day or the hour” as an excuse to do nothing, because who knows when Christ will return and transform it all?
It’s true, we don’t know what’s coming. I try to believe in the liberation of uncertainty. If I really don’t know what’s coming – when the Lord will return to us, when the bottom will fall out, when my stuff will be stolen – I am free to just build. For all we know someone could yank my necklace off my neck tomorrow – that didn’t stop my mother from giving me a tangible sign of her love and our memories. My apartment could burn down tomorrow – that didn’t stop me from cleaning up this afternoon. The people I love, everything I love, could be taken from me in a heartbeat – that does not stop me from loving with my whole heart every minute of the day.
We can’t predict when destruction and sorrow will come for us, but we can’t predict when redemption will knock on our door either. So we ‘try, try again’, building and rebuilding. When the unexpected comes all I can hope is that I am caught doing that which creates the world as it should be. Until we can enjoy the world as it should be, we keep trying, doing our part to increase beauty and love, clothing ourselves in the armor of light.