I could see the glowing nativity from my bedroom window, the whole set in molded plastic: Mary, Joseph, three wise men, two sleeping sheep, a donkey with a saddle, Baby Jesus in the manger. My dad arranged them reverently in the front yard and lit them with a long orange extension cord plugged into a socket on the side of our house. Sometimes I’d go out and hold the Baby Jesus in my arms, though I worried this was sacrilegious. Hoping nobody was looking, I’d lift him from the manger, always surprised by his lightness. The other figures were filled with sand so they wouldn’t topple in the wind or blow down the street in a storm like our garbage cans did, thunderstorms still frequent in December in Louisiana. But the infant was light as a feather.
Now that I have my own home and children, I have disregarded the norms of tasteful bourgeois Christmas decorations—monochromatic or topiary trees, real pine boughs, an amaryllis or two in sleek, modern pots—and purchased my own light-up nativity set for the front yard, remembering my powerful attraction to that glowing Holy Family in residence just outside my bedroom window.
Our neighbors were also Catholic—most people in southeastern Louisiana are—but they had a more tasteful crèche in their bay window. From our driveway, I could just see the three elegant white figures: Mary and Joseph bowing over the baby, swaddled in real white cloth and resting stiffly in a wooden manger, all bathed in soft blue light. I imagined they were carved from alabaster, a word I’d had to lookup in the dictionary because it was in a song I loved at the time. I thought everything our neighbors did was fancy. But it turns out they were just plastic too.
Though my family wasn’t particularly religious I was scrupulous as a child, and I loved rituals. I had a very orderly prayer life but also had to tap things in my room and in the car a certain number of times and in the right order or I’d feel the world spinning off its axis. We didn’t know, or didn’t talk about, things like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome back then, or that excessive religiosity might be a sign of some mental illness. In all I don’t think my parents marked me as particularly unusual. I had strange habits and fears and spent a lot of time alone, but I didn’t cause any trouble. Yet.
Every year on December 23, Little Christmas Eve, the neighbors with the alabaster crèche threw a party at which all the neighborhood children received some small gift. It was an event we all looked forward to, what seemed like hundreds of people crushed into the warmth of their modest ranch, filled with the glow of candles and Christmas lights and the strange, to me, sounds of classical music. Their home always felt like a little church, filled with icons and statuary and leather bound books with colorful ribbons, whereas the only books in our house were the paperbacks I bought at the bookstore on Fremaux Avenue with my report card money—Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, and later, V.C. Andrews and Anne Rice.
By the time I turned thirteen, the sacred atmosphere of that house was an enormous comfort. It was my constant, the only thing in my life that hadn’t changed. My mother was sick, my parents had left our traditional parish with the somber and magnificent Monsignor Hotard at the helm for an evangelical protestant world of Osteens who promised faith healings to true believers, so I slept with my rosary under my pillow and read my vampire books under the covers. When my mother died, I worried that maybe I’d sabotaged any chance we’d had at miracles.
That year on Little Christmas Eve, I walked across the wet grass to the neighbors’ house, wearing all black and listening to Depeche Mode on my headphones. I’d outgrown sitting on Santa’s lap, so instead I wove my way through the crowd, snuck some rum into my Coke and retreated to their backyard, alone, to lie in the hammock and watch the stars.
In the darkness I could just make out the outline of their shed, where on a night years before, their golden spaniel had given birth to a litter. Their daughter led us into the dimness, and we crouched at a safe distance while the puppies emerged as tiny brown sacks. I was little enough that when one of them died, I was shocked by its fragility, but at thirteen, I dwelled instead on the improbability that anything so small and fragile should live. My own mother was in bed back at our house, suffering another toxic dose of chemo, dying at thirty-five.
I tried to sneak by him on my way out, but Santa bellowed my name and handed me a small package wrapped in silver paper. Embarrassed but secretly pleased, I shouldered through the local dignitaries, out the front door, back across the grass to our house, quiet and dark so my mother could rest. I went to my room and shut the door, pressed play on New Order, “Everything’s Gone Green,” a song with lyrics about the confusion sprung up from devotion. Show me, please show me the way, it pleads, over an incongruently frenetic dance beat. I opened my gift, which was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I read it cover to cover, again and again, lingered over the inscription on the inside of the cover. It was a vote of confidence in my promise as a writer, all I’d ever wanted to be. I still have it. Now I teach from it. But at the time I could never think of anything to write in response to those prompts. I’d sit, pen in hand, mood music in the background, and end up doodling the initials of the boy I loved. I wasn’t ready. Not yet.
I hadn’t realized that my mind’s obsession with pattern making, with congruity, could manifest as wonder, as worship, and as an impulse toward creation. I was oblivious to the way those puppies, sleeping quietly in my mind’s eye in the glowing light of the crèche, had merged with that blazing tacky Holy Family in the yard outside my window and my own mother suffering in her bed in the next room. But I was beginning to sense those connections, the bright lines that mark the path from A to B.
I didn’t yet have the words, only the inclination, the gentle nudge to observe, to kneel, to pray.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Jessica Mesman
Jessica Mesman is a writer and the editor of Good Letters and the Image Podcast. Find out more at www.jessicamesman.com