Grace is hard to define. When it appears, it reminds us how little we truly understand about the mystery of being alive.
Grace feels like a gift because it seems to come out of nowhere. Like the CTA Holiday Train, which doesn’t really come out of nowhere — the CTA runs it every year — but I happened upon it, Dec. 4, in the Loop. Since I didn’t know when it was running, or even that it was running, on the Green Line that day, it felt serendipitous, enhancing the air of mystery.
There is no mistaking the Holiday Train, festooned with bright lights, accompanied by music, and featuring Santa sitting on his throne, riding backward in the open air, a hearty soul holding a mic and freely dispensing Christmas cheer. Inside each car, elves in red and green velvet welcome commuters and hand out candy canes. Sadly, this was the last day for the Green Line, but the Blue Line gets its turn this week, Dec. 12, 13 and 14.
No one is immune to the charms of the Holiday Train. Everyone smiles as the funereal interior is replaced by party ambiance. Strangers interact without the benefit of digital intermediaries. Kids enter wide-eyed and dazzled, parents in tow.
Passengers disembark with bemused smiles, which one does not see on CTA platforms any other time, as they whip out their magic rectangles to take a shot of Santa.
A moment of grace, a gift, unlooked-for, unexpected, coming from an entity not known for its gracious demeanor. An immediate mood-lifter, captured by the archaic term “cheer,” a small miracle in itself. We move through the world with such sobriety, bordering on solemnity, self-contained. Yet something as minor as a decorated train, catching us by surprise, unleashes a forgotten reservoir of “cheer.” It’s there all the time, just awaiting the spark.
It happened again at the Lake Theatre with its fancy new (yet still old) marquee, a gift in itself to our beautiful neighborhood. The featured film was A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, about Fred Rogers, the classic children’s TV personality who, thanks to the 50th anniversary of his long-running and venerated show, has unexpectedly emerged as the national antidote to the graceless toxicity of the person currently occupying the White House and polluting our airwaves.
Mr. Rogers connected. He looked directly into the camera and preached a radically simple, transformative message of acceptance and affirmation to the children — and former children — of the world: I like you just the way you are (“It’s you I like, not the things you wear, not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like”).
One day, when he was a kid, his grandfather told him, “You made this day a really special day. Just by being yourself. There’s only one person in the world like you. And I happen to like you just the way you are.” He never forgot it. “That just went right into my heart,” he said, “and it never budged.”
He died in 2004, but his wife Joanne is still around and resists any notion that her husband was a “secular saint,” though it’s tempting to canonize him. In fact, Tom Junod, the journalist who authored the 1998 Esquire magazine piece (“Can You Say … Hero?”) that the current film is based on, wrote, “Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world.” He largely succeeded, and his gentle, authentic, immense humanity is his gift of grace. Unexpected, unlooked-for, so badly needed now. Seeing the film inspired cheer.
Grace can be found in the oddest places, such as my home office, which I’ve been reclaiming from its chaotic disarray. A good thorough “death cleaning,” in the current cultural argot, is a gift in itself, the difference between feeling buried alive and standing with your two feet on the ground, all that weight lifted from your shoulders.
Sifting through my books, I came across a thin paperback titled, Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle (ACTA Publications). I have no idea how it got there. Brian Doyle, who died recently at the much-too-young age of 60, was a terrific writer. Somehow this collection of essays found its way onto my bookshelf.
Unlooked-for and unexpected, the book is as fine as you would expect from a writer who inspires so many. Doyle found so much beauty, so much meaning, and so much amazing grace in ordinary life that it makes me wonder how much of my own life I’ve been missing — or more likely, how much I’ve experienced in my life that I just didn’t pay enough attention to.
And paying attention is part of his formula, which he describes in the Foreward:
“Attentiveness is the beginning of all prayer, says the great poet Mary Oliver, and everything that lives is holy, says the confusing poet Billy Blake, and all the way to heaven is heaven, says the tart Saint Catherine of Siena, and let grief be a falling leaf, says the testy poet Van Morrison, and grace under duress is the great story of us, says the undersigned muddleness [himself]. How we reach for each other and listen to each other’s music and share stories like the most amazing and nutritious food — that’s what we are all here for.”
For Doyle, it comes down to moments of grace.
“We are given gifts beyond measure, beyond price, beyond understanding, and they mill and swirl by us all day and night, and we have but to see them clearly, for a second, to believe wholly in the bounty and generosity and mercy of I Am Who Am.”
Doyle attributes grace to God, which he defines as our label for a mystery beyond our comprehension. But even if you don’t ascribe to that label, the gifts are undeniably there if we pay attention. Just as we cannot see the forest for the trees, we sometimes cannot see Christmas for the gifts.
But seeing and appreciating the trees is to celebrate the forest.
And seeing the gifts of grace all around us is the secret to celebrating Christmas.