"Here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi".--O. Henry
Last night on my drive home, one set of households had erected lighted letters on their wooden fenceway. At first, I thought the letters spelled out "No Happy New Year", and I thought for a moment of the bahhumbug community. But then I realized the "No" was "ND", because the A in "AND" had burned out.
I was relieved to see garish holiday cheer in bright lights.
During Thanksgiving weekend this year, the stores seemed to me to be one endless line to check out. Although the part of me that thinks about such things hoped that a good Christmas shopping season would lift our economy, creating jobs, in fact holiday sales thus far are a good bit down. Part of this is the economy, but I believe that in part we are all just tired of the mercantile excitement of it all. Perhaps now that all merchandise is essentially available to those who have means, we are now becoming sated about merchandise.
Lately, a television special or two recalled for us the Christmas of 1914. During this holiday season, ordinary soldiers on the British and German lines during the First World War declared a de facto holiday truce, and even gathered together to celebrate. The truce was never officially sanctioned, and was ultimately suppressed by the "brass" on both sides. If only the truce had held, we might have missed so many of the horrors of that war, and of the next war.
The holiday season has so much potency. For some of us, it is a memory of happy, by-gone childhood days. For others of us, it is a set of unpleasant memories and deepest loneliness. Some of us construct new memories in places where good memories have not been before. We cannot make Christmas cards of our lives, in which all the angels commence to sing Gloria at the more opportune moment, while a cursive Happy Holidays covers over us like that silver printer's ink. But we can make our own paths in our own ways.
All my life I feel that I wait for some change, when everything will begin to make sense. But the older I get, the more I acquire the sense that it is up to me to make of the times what I wish them to be. I do not question that the ultimate answers are there for inquiry. I've just learned over time that I must be a participant in the search. This involves much stumbling in the dark.
I tend to underestimate the importance of individual action to make positive change. But so many things I admire arose from action by very "ordinary" people. The public library system in much of the country arose from the efforts of those overlooked and mildly derided civic "ladies' clubs". Organizations to fight hunger and stop family abuse arose from grass roots efforts, after government ignored and in some cases, did not admit, the problem.
The civil rights movement was sparked at the grass roots, not in the corridors of power.
I think it's an awesome responsibility--to realize that even with all the baggage one carries, one must find the connections to the things that are truly meaningful. But it's a responsibility with rewards. The point is not to have the best light display, or the largest number of good deeds performed, or the most impressive gifts. The point is to reconnect with the things that matter--the things that nourish us and those around us. Instead of folding ourselves into ornate holiday cards, we seek instead to be simple greetings.
Three Thanksgivings ago, my wife and I sat in our favorite restaurant in southern California eating salmon and duck. We had just been for our annual hike on the cute chapparal laden Clear Creek Trail in the Angeles National Forest. We sat in a quiet reverie, enjoying our meal. Then my wife began a discussion of how we didn't really want to grow old in California, away from our families. By the time the meal was over, we had decided to move nearer our home towns. I spent part of that weekend in Descanso Garden, in La Canada, where camellias bloom in November and the gingko biloba trees always drop their golden leaves right on Thanksgiving weekend. I loved that garden--it was my home away from home. But that weekend I saw it through new eyes, as I knew I was to leave it. A few of my holiday cards this year contain photos of that garden--my floral holiday, my winter paradise.
By the next April, I was planning my current law firm with my current law partner. By that June, I was driving our dogs across the desert, while my wife was in a town in Kansas, watching her mother pass away. I believe that our California lives truly ended as we sat in her mother's condo at the end of that June on the final night. It was a sad punctuation, but a punctuation nonetheless.
We moved back to Texas, where we both started our careers again, more or less from scratch. My wife returned to writing and editing, after a year teaching English. I moved from the "downtown" law firms of the first fifteen years of my career to start a suburban firm on a shoestring with an old friend--a fascinating experience in mixing the old and the new. It's been intriguing for both my wife and I, adjusting to so many new things. But even though I miss having a mountain almost in our back yard, the move to Texas has been extremely easy. We each get to see our families more often than we ever could in California. Although we miss very much the wonderful friends we have in California, we've been pleased to keep the binding ties in place, even across the distance. In this holiday season, we both come to realize how important it is to maintain those connections with the people we know. I notice this holiday season that we are both working to expand our circles of friends and acquaintances, and to re-connect with old friends and acquaintances. We've both come to recognize how important it is to appreciate one another, and the bonds we have with others.
When I was a teenager, I always played one of the shepherds in our church's "living Nativity scene". We would don these felt costumes, stand on tall church steps in a bath of floodlights, and stay stock still for long moments at a time, so that townspeople could stop and see us looking all gospel-y, if one overlooked the tennis shoes. During the breaks in what was often 35 degree weather, we'd drink hot chocolate from wonderfully scalding hot thermos bottles. I notice as the years go on that I spent too much of my youth always wishing to be something that I am not.
In the nativity scene, the older, cooler kids got to put on felt luxury roles and play wise men and angels, while the less graceful and younger among the boys got the consolation part of "shepherd". I do not know why I aspired to the bearded magi role, as I looked entirely convincing as a shepherd, having had a deft way of leaning on a staff. After all, the baby Jesus, the star of the show, was played by a plastic doll. I wanted to be a wise man, though, and to be seen by all as a wise man.
Now, as I sit in our spare room, where the disarray I've created looks as if I should aspire to be the wise janitor rather than a wise man, I spend an insomniac morning reflecting on the things that matter. I no longer fancy I know the answers to all the questions, and, what is worse, I'm not sure I even spot all the issues anymore. But I'm certain that whatever stars I see in the East, I must follow them. I no longer know where they lead, and I no longer believe that I will get to don those richer felt robes the wise men wore. But when I went to the mountain, the thing I found out they were telling was this simple thing--find peace, share love.