“After the ecstasy the laundry,” a phrase taken from Jack Kornfield’s book of the same name. To me, at this time of year it means after the wonder, joy and goodwill of Christmas — the ecstasy — we go back to our lives — the laundry. Angels and stars and Kings and shepherds. Birth of a baby upon whom rests the salvation of the world. It is quite a miraculous story. And every year as we speak of the birth of this child we associate with it all our hopes and longings for peace and joy in this life. This is the ecstasy of Christmas. In the darkest time of the year it’s promise revives us. Or it doesn’t. Maybe we never even experienced the peace or the joy that we’re told we’re supposed to feel at this time of year. And all of a sudden it is January. Cold and snowy. Dark, maybe even desolate. Does Christmas change us? Does it somehow better equip us for January? For any hint of an answer to that question, we might have to consult less lofty beings than kings and angels.
“The Camels Speak” ~ Lynn Ungar
Of course they never consulted us.
They were wise men, kings, star-readers,
and we merely transportation.
They simply loaded us with gifts
and turned us toward the star.
I ask you, what would a king know
of choosing presents for a child?
Had they ever even seen a baby
born to such simple folks,
so naked of pretension,
so open to the wind?
What would such a child care
for perfumes and gold? Far better
to have asked one born in the desert,
tested by wind and sand. We saw
what he would need: the gift
of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way,
making do with what there is,
living on what you have inside.
The gift of holding up under a burden,
of lifting another with grace, of kneeling
to accept the weight of what you must bear.
Our footsteps could have rocked him
with the rhythms of the road,
shown him comfort in a harsh land,
the dignity of continually moving forward.
But the wise men were not
wise enough to ask. They simply
left their trinkets and admired
the rustic view. Before you knew it
we were turned again toward home,
carrying men only half-willing
to be amazed. But never mind.
We saw the baby, felt him reach
for the bright tassels of our gear.
We desert amblers have our ways
of seeing what you chatterers must miss.
That child at heart knows something
about following a star. Our gifts are given.
Have no doubt. His life will bear
the print of who we are.
What do we get from the ecstasy that carries over into the laundry? What can we learn from the various participants in Jesus’ birth story? The camels offer this wisdom: accept the weight of what we must bear, move forward with dignity , it is possible to live on what we have inside and lift others with grace. Maybe we ought to practice being camel-like because these are important gifts.
In the Arabian desert camels were a preferred mode of transportation for humans and goods. They also furnished shade, wool, meat, milk and hides. A one hump camel, called a dromedary, can weigh as much as 1500 pounds and can carry about 990 pounds though 300 pounds is more comfortable. Their leg muscles are very strong. Domesticated many thousands of years ago by frankincense traders, camels can lose up to 1/4 of their body weight in fluid, something that would kill both human beings and most other animals. They do this, not because they store water in their hump, but because they are able to drink huge quantities at one time and their bodies absorb it very slowly. Inside a camel’s hump is fat, which it draws upon for energy. If it uses up a lot of fat energy, the hump shrinks and even slides off down the camel’s back onto it’s side! A good meal or two fills and restores the hump back to it’s proper place on the camel’s back. (www.marissamontes.com) So you see, the camels spoke true. They really do accept the weight of what they must bear, move forward with dignity, live on what they have inside and lift others with grace. What would it look like if we did the same?
The gifts of the camels. Accepting the weight of what we must bear means facing and working with the reality of our lives. Not so easily practiced. How many of us ignore and deny realities we don’t want or like? That pain we’ve been having pretty steadily after we eat but never acknowledge or do anything about, for instance. How many of us pretend that something is true when it is not? The family that presents a functional, happy face to the outside world when in reality it is falling apart, for instance. How many of us fight against reality by demanding that it be different than it is? We want our friend, our spouse, our child to be other than he/she is and we let them know that regularly by our criticism and judgments, for instance. How many of us sink under the weight of fear, sorrow and/or bitterness at a reality full of suffering? The seemingly arbitrary unfairness of life fills us up until we cannot imagine ourselves in any other state but despair and resentment, for instance.
Holding up under a burden, accepting what we must bear means naming what is, admitting the truth of our lives rather than denying it or fighting against it or allowing it to defeat us. Life brings us what we deserve and what we don’t deserve. Life brings us what we ourselves have caused to happen and what has happened through no action or intention of ours. It takes courage to accept the reality, but I believe it helps us ultimately. Remember that a common load for a camel is 300 pounds, but it can carry as much as 990 pounds. We too might be able to bear more than we think we can.
Moving forward with dignity. Camels often appear ungainly, even awkward under their burdens. When they race they seem especially ill proportioned with those skinny legs. Nothing like the stunning beauty of horses. Yet, camels move with dignity. They do not look uncomfortable in their own skins and when they walk, they hold their heads up high. Facing and accepting our lives with heads held high in all the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, well being and ill being. Acceptance brings dignity as we hold a sense of comfort in our own skins, with nothing to cover up because we know we can withstand the reactions and responses of other people. We have seen the truth of ourselves in the mirror and taken it in. No one can take away the dignity in that.
Making due with what there is; living with what you have inside. It requires self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Camels have inner resources of energy and they pace themselves so that they use their fluid wisely. To what extent does any of us trust our own inner resources, or believe that we have them? Fear can make us forget them. I am both drawn to water and afraid of water. I tell myself I can’t swim but really I’m so scared that when I try to swim I stop breathing. And then I panic. I forget that if I sync my breath to my body movements I will not only stay afloat, but I will swim. I need to trust the resources of my body.
Others of us are not aware of our inner resources, much less know how to use them wisely. If I asked you now to name twenty strengths you have, could you do it? Could you say how those strengths enhance your life? Think of a time when you have surprised yourself with what you could do, or what you knew. Write it down. Use it. Build on it. What we have inside is mighty when we access ourselves. Acceptance means not only naming our limitations, but also naming, and claiming, our strengths. Our dignity comes from an awareness of both.
Lifting others with grace. Using our strengths to help others get to where they’re going. Using our resources to connect with patience, dignity, acceptance. Camels allow human beings to ride upon their backs. They do the work of others. Because camels played such a key role in caravans of transport, they helped people of different cultures to know and mostly appreciate one another. Strengths in the service of building strengths. When we lift another with grace we acknowledge who they are and offer our respect for their dignity. It takes the inner resource of humility to kneel and accept another’s weight. And we can best use our inner resources in service to others when we have a good measure of self-acceptance and self-knowledge. And there is balance. A camel transports for eight months of the year and spends the other four months resting and doing camel things.
When we think about the life of Jesus as it has come down to us, we can see that his life indeed bears the print of the camel gifts. His burdens were many and heavy and he bore them and continually moved forward with dignity, right to the end. Misunderstood by most, distrusted and reviled by many, he certainly had to live on what was inside him. Betrayed and abandoned, he certainly had to die by himself also. At the same time, his presence, his life and his teachings certainly lifted, and continue to lift, humanity.
May our lives too bear the print of the camel gifts. May we find acceptance of the truth of our realities. May we live conscious of our own dignity. May we know our inner resources and develop them to their best use, one of which is in service to others. These camel gifts put flesh on the hopes of the season for peace and goodwill and joy. They show us a way to move closer to what we have made Christmas symbolize, namely the birth of our better natures. So let the Angels sing and the Kings follow a star and the shepherds leave their flocks in search of the ecstasy. After the ecstasy we will ride the camels home and do the laundry, wise with what they have given us and determined to put it into practice. May it be so.