December 21st, 2012
Today I was out walking with a friend, and we were talking about the dark days of winter, the time between the end of Daylight Savings Time and the Winter Solstice. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s only about six weeks of darkness, and then the light comes back,” she said. “Only” six weeks of darkness. Time attenuates in the winter, I think, or during difficult times, when days are short and nights seem endless. Like cavewomen and cavemen, we hunker down into our caves and await the return of the Light. No wonder we speak of the “Dark Night” of the Soul.
And then of course, there’s Christmas in the modern world. My father hated Christmas. Perhaps to compensate for his own lousy childhood Christmases, he made a huge deal of it when we were kids. Our house was lavishly decorated by my mother, and Christmas morning always brought a giant pile of gifts under the tree that took hours to open. We celebrated for days, and with large quantities of alcohol. There was a big Christmas Eve party at my Aunt Anne’s, followed by Midnight Mass, then Christmas Day at my Aunt Mel’s, with dozens of our Irish Catholic clan in attendance. By New Year’s Day, we were all exhausted.
As an adult, I remade Christmas in my own fashion, with new traditions and rituals, celebrating the end of one year, one season, and the beginning of another. Each year my Christmas card list grew longer and longer, and it seemed like “The Holiday Season” grew longer and longer as well. I strung lights, I baked cookies, sent a long, detailed Holiday Letter, shopped for the “perfect” presents for everyone, bought tickets for holiday chorale concerts and plays and saw the Nutcracker more times that I can count. It was fun, it was my own Holiday Season, without much alcohol around, and no family drama. And by New Year’s Day, I was exhausted.
Then came the Fire, and Christmas burned up with everything else. By that time, boxes marked “Holidays” took up most of the storage closet in the garage. The ornaments, the creche my mother gave me, the funny little metal snowmen that went on the front steps, the little fake tree, the tree stand, the lights, the boxes and boxes of decorations, went up in smoke. After the fire, as my brave friends and I dug through the ashes, we found bits and pieces of Christmas, scattered throughout the ruins of the house, but nothing intact. We handled these broken bits with rubber gloves, took pictures for the insurance claim, and then dumped them all in the dumpster, off to the Haz-Mat landfill. So much for the family treasures, lovingly and carefully packed up each January. A spark, a flame, some wind and wildfire, and it all goes away.
My first Christmas after the fire, I went to the Goodwill and bought some strands of lights that were in a bin, and a box of old wooden snowflakes, covered with glitter. I went home and found a box of push pins, and stuck the snowflakes and the lights up around the little cottage. “There,” I thought, “I’m done decorating.” Then a few hours later, the UPS guy showed up at my door with a huge box, and when I opened it I pulled out a gorgeous live tree, beautifully decorated with lights and hearts and ribbons, courtesy of my cousin Bridget. I had not spoken to Bridget or seen her for over twenty years, and she sent me that lovely tree, and I wept at the sight of it. Such gracious generosity from a long-lost cousin.
Later that night I sat down at my laptop to write my annual Holiday Letter, and I stared at the blank screen for ages. At one point, my friend Linda called and asked me what I was doing. “I’m trying to write my annual letter,” I said, ” But I can’t think of what to say.” She laughed and said, “Are you KIDDING me? What are you going to write - ‘Hello Friends, This has been rather an eventful year?’”
I said, “How about this – ‘Dear Friends. Shit happens. Happy Holidays from Me and Nellie,’ and we both laughed until we could hardly breathe. When we settled down, Linda said, “Seriously, you know you don’t actually have to DO Christmas this year, right? Just take care of yourself.” I said, “Oh, okay.” And so I didn’t write my Holiday Letter, or bake, or buy presents, or do Christmas that year. Or last year, really, not much.
This year I realize I don’t know what I want to do for the Holidays any more. It’s not that I’m depressed, or want to skip Christmas, far from it. I’m actually enjoying the blank page that is now the holidays. These days, there are no boxes in storage whispering, “Hey, open us up. Write those cards, buy those gifts, time’s a wastin’…” Instead there is a spaciousness, a question mark, an opportunity.
It is two years after the fire, and I am still reinventing myself in so many ways. Tragedies like fire or flood wash away, burn away so much more than “stuff.” They burn away routine, tradition, habit, and like it or not, give you a clean slate, an empty page. I stare at that page tonight, realizing that like everything, it will fill in its own time.
Last night I was walking around town and decided to take myself on a spontaneous tour through the neighborhoods and look at the lights. At one point as I walked I thought, “Hey, I don’t have to decorate this year, because everyone else has done it for me! They did all this work, and I just get to enjoy it. What if I just pretend that this whole town is my backyard?” I walked around with that awareness, looking at the lights, the trees, the decorations, and enjoying them as if they were mine. I felt like we all shared one big backyard, and our decorations went on and on for blocks.
I walked and walked, and when I got back to the car, I took one last look around and said softly, “Thank you, everyone, for putting up all these lights, for helping me celebrate the season. We are the cavewomen, and the cavemen – you and I – and you are my tribe, and we are all lighting up these Dark Times together.” And I climbed into the car and headed home, humming “Joy to the World,” and smiling.
Wishing you the Happiest of Holiday Seasons,