Culture & Conversation

Knowing when to stop


Recently, I found myself walking on St. Denis Street in the middle of the first snowstorm. I had just stopped at the bank and was heading north in the direction of my favourite chocolate store. I was bracing myself against the wind and the snow when I looked up and caught the eye of a man heading straight for me with a full backpack. My first thought was he either wants money or to sell me something, and I now have a wallet full of cash. I was right: he asked me if I would like to buy one of his paintings. Then he said, and this was the clincher, I only sell to people who eat eggs.

These days I live in the country with chickens and now when I come into town I bring eggs to sell to friends and neighbours. How did he know about the eggs? We started to talk about eggs and what it was like to live with chickens. After chickens we talked about poetry and the silences between words and then he said, out of the blue, I have some chocolate in my pack, would you like some? Well then I knew I was talking to some kind of urban angel. So I said, let me see your paintings.

The one that caught my eye was a drawing of a white lotus flower, not yet in bloom, with the words “Know when to stop” emblazoned at the bottom.

The lotus flower is an important symbol in Buddhism, a spiritual tradition I have practiced over the years. The lotus grows in dirty, mucky water and represents our ability to rise above the pain, suffering, disappointment, and general murkiness of life, to bloom and grow into our best selves. The words, Know when to stop, caught my attention because knowing when to stop has been a lifelong preoccupation for me.

Often life feels like one thing after another, especially over the holidays. Le petit train-train de la vie quotidienne has sped up even faster in the digital age, and it can feel like being a passenger on a runaway train. But then the unexpected happens, like meeting a stranger on St. Denis Street in a snowstorm. And then everything slows downs and a space opens up, a space where something more intense, creative, or daring can come into being. It is encounters like these that have made a believer out of me.

The lotus flower in the painting – yes, I did buy it – hasn’t yet bloomed, which is why it put me in mind of Advent, the time, just prior to Christmas, when Christians prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, for the Prince of Peace to deliver them from a world full of strife and indifference. It is a time of great longing and hope, joy even at the prospect of justice and harmony gaining the upper hand.

For most of my life I have hated Christmas. My father was often laid off just before the holidays and there wasn’t much money for presents. It didn’t stop me from wanting things. And I always wanted things. It was hard on my parents not being able to give me the things I asked for. Worse, the extended family we celebrated Christmas with had more money than we did so we got to be the less successful relatives from Verdun. At no time of year do I feel poor like I do at Christmas.

I have never experienced the material excesses of Christmas, although I do get to feel an excess of self-loathing at not being able to participate in the holiday shopping frenzy. When I was younger I tried to “subvert capitalism” by shoplifting my presents. More recently I’ve sought escape by signing up for meditation retreats. Anything to avoid a time of year that seems to scream This is what you do not have.

I still want things I can’t afford. And at this time of year, especially, I am easily tempted by thoughts of what I don’t have. But what this snowstorm encounter reminded me was that “Christmas” can be so much more than the narrow tug of war between excess and restraint.

What stopping on that snowy street made me realize – finally – is that by reacting against the shopping madness, the spiritual black hole, the forced bonhomie that I had come to identify as Christmas, I was missing out on what is found in between. In between is the dark and the deep winter chill, the hunkering down, the stopping and waiting for the birth of something better, hearts open to serendipitous moments of genuine connection and discovery.

It is time I stopped pushing back against Christmas and started letting some of it in. Christmas can still change the world. Joy is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it. How wealthy is that?

 Kathryn Harvey is a Montreal historian. She lives with chickens.


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