Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance.  It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall, the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters; in His splendor He set the sun and the moon to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men, and filled the broad lap of the world with branches and leaves; and quickened life in every other thing that moved.

So times were pleasant for the people there until finally one, a fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world.  Grendel was the name of this grim demon…


Feeling outcast and enraged, envious of the warmth and light of the Danes, the monster Grendel preys upon them while they sleep, attacking and ruining the peace of the mead hall in which the people escape from the dark and the cold and the unknown they contain, until Beowulf comes and slays the monster and frees the people to live without fear.  I’ve been thinking of Grendel lately, and finding myself identifying more with him than with the fortunate Danes.  I spent most of yesterday with a severe case of “house envy” after a wonderful dinner party Saturday night.  Our hosts for the evening were a young couple with a daughter a bit younger than AE.  They have a beautiful, spacious home, with a brand-new, state-of-the-art kitchen, lots of living/entertaining/play space, a huge bed in a comfortable master suite, the list goes on and on.  It wasn’t a McMansion by any means, just a modest but comfortable house that’d been added on to over the years and decorated with love and good taste.  But once again I felt this nagging sense of entitlement, of self-pity:  why don’t I have a house like that?  Is that too much to ask?  I just want a home to which I could invite people over, hold a birthday party for my child, have room to breathe on a cold, rainy day.  I love our home, it’s been a wonderful place for M and me to start our lives and our family together.  But it is very small, as those of you who’ve visited before know, so it tends to feel very tight, especially when it’s cold outside and toys are strewn around, and you want to decorate for Christmas but find that every square inch is used up already, every surface and wall.  You want to put up a real Christmas tree but realize there isn’t any room, nor is there enough space to really stand back from a distance and admire your handiwork. You can’t get outside, can’t get perspective.

Ninety-five percent of the people in our neighborhood are poor or immigrants with six people living in the same size house as ours.  Generations before me raised an entire family in this home.  They had far fewer opportunities and have far less money, and yet here I go again, feeling sorry for myself, feeling entitled to more, waiting for that imagined day when I will have “enough.”

What my house envy reminds me is that I’m not so good at living in the present, of seeing and enjoying the abundance all around me.  I feel the first pangs of winter and decide I will just “survive,” get through, until spring comes again.  I see my house in comparison with another and decide that I’ll really start to live and to have fun once we have a bigger house, more money, etcetera etcetera.  I start to act like a Grendel, imagining myself on the outside, envying those who seem to have more. 

So I am trying to learn to live in the present moment, with joy for the blessings great and small (though really, are there any “small” blessings?).  As cliché as this sounds it’s surprisingly hard to do.  This weekend it was terribly cold, so that even when it was sunny, on Sunday, it was still too cold to be outside.  I tried to take AE out so we could get a few minutes of sunshine, thought it’d do my mood some good, but it was just freezing:  her little hands were like ice but once I put mittens on her she couldn’t really play because it was like trying to push  her play stroller wearing oven mitts.  We went back in the house, me hating winter more than ever because it means we can’t be outside; I always feel in spring and summer like I need and want to be outside, soaking up the sunshine and warmth, every possible second.

Today I decided instead to embrace the present situation, not just survive until spring but to find things to enjoy right now.  I bought a little Christmas tree and AE and I set it up this evening, lit a bunch of candles around the house, enjoyed the warm light they offered.  Maybe it’s the cold and the dark, but I once again found myself recalling another medieval English text, another moment of darkness versus light, joy and life versus “just getting by.”  It’s from The Ecclesiastical History by the Venerable Bede and quotes a cleric offering the pagan King Edwin his opinion on why the teachings of Christianity might be worth considering: 

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.
The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”

Well, I’m going to enjoy this in-between time; I am going to practice living joyfully in the moment instead of looking restlessly to some imagined future.  Tonight AE and I danced and read books in the warm little glow of our tiny house, and I gave thanks for my sweet, happy, healthy girl, my loving, kind husband, my furry, patient, good-natured dog, my wonderful family, and a snug little rabbit hole that I know we’ll always look back on fondly as the house we made a home, to which we brought our baby daughter home for the first time, a house that stretched its little walls to hold all this warmth and light and love, even if only for a little while.