Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Not-So-Merry Christmas

            This post is for the people who have too recently lost someone dear to them, or who are sick or in trouble, or who feel alone while all about them the halls are being decked and ho-ho-ho is in the air: The people for whom this Christmas and the winter holidays are really not all that merry.


            There must have been a tree and stockings and presents the Christmas of 1943, but if there were, I can’t remember them. The country was at war, and my little brother was dying of leukemia.
            That was the year I learned about shame when I wet my pants at school and had to walk all the way home in soggy socks and squishing shoes.
            It was the year I learned about anger when I, who had never been beaten, had never hit anyone, punched a schoolmate in the nose and was sent to the principal’s office.
            It was the year I learned the big word sacrilegious. Helping my father dig a garden, I found a cluster of roots that looked like a beard, and I was assembling a twig crucifix with a bearded Jesus when my father put down his hoe and went to get my mother to deal with me.
            It was the year of my disillusionment when Mother told me the dancing lights I was seeing in my room were definitely not fairies. My parents wouldn’t discover how nearsighted I was for two more years. And somebody at school had told me that there was no Santa Claus, a fact my distracted mother and father could not or would not confirm.
            I don’t associate that Christmas with Joy To The World or Silent Night. Instead, for some odd reason, that December brings up the serious and sober strains of Beethoven. Specifically, the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony, where the same repeated note of melody rides atop the minor harmonies. Where did I hear that piece of music? Certainly not at home.  But in response to my begging, I had begun piano lessons, so maybe my teacher, Miss Ethel, had played the theme for me.
            The worst thing of all, the thing that never should have happened, was when my poor mother in her grief said that I had made my little brother sicker by yelling at him when he took my doll. Certainly she didn’t mean it, would have taken those words back if she could have, forgot saying them the moment they were spoken.
            But I became convinced that she was right, that I was killing my brother, that my parents didn’t love me any more, that I was a bad girl, a dirty, sacrilegious, guilty and violent seven-year-old.

            There is an expectation that we should have some kind of amnesty from tragedy and misfortune during the holidays. “How horrible,” we say in response to sickness, death, homelessness, poverty, “especially at this time of year.” But hardship and dismay do not take vacations. Surely it must seem to some people that everyone except them is happily celebrating while they are alone in their misery.
            Verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching says “Everyone else is busy, but I alone am aimless and depressed. I am different.”
            But maybe we should just let the holidays float over us without any expectation of what they might be like, should be like.
            There was a moment of grace during that frightful Christmas. Staring out the window, as miserable as I was, I could see small lights in the dark, lights which became beautiful flickering hexagons, shifting and glowing. They were not fairies; my mother had been very definite about that. But despite everything, somehow I was filled with the sweetest sensation that something good was about to happen.