I got my tree yesterday, one that smells like a tree. I figured if it didn’t smell like a tree I should just get an artificial tree and scented oils. It’s more expensive but one of few things I do for me. Single and living alone, I still deserve a Christmas tree and a houseful of decorations.
My friend Virginia helped me this year, and took her job seriously. I laughed as she told me where certain ornaments would go–several of them, she insisted on the mantle instead of the tree. I’ve never decorated my mantle with anything other than the cards and a couple of candles. Now I have lots of little scenes of animals and snowmen and Santas.
Then my friend Mary came and I let her put the Virgin Mary ornament on the tree. Virginia and Mary are appropriate names for this time of year!
Memories merge at this time of year. Each Christmas becomes every Christmas and I’m every age I’ve ever been with every person I’ve ever known. From a 1989 Christmas letter:
This year we got a real Christmas tree and have decorated it with lights and ornaments from around the world and around the generations of our families. As the sky darkened this afternoon we sat and listened to Paul’s high school choir’s Christmas album and just looked at the tree. Our own tree. Not our parents or siblings’ or friends’ or parents of friends’ or schools’ or churches’ tree. It was a comforting as well as scary feeling of rootedness. New tradition grafted onto lots and lots of old ones from around the world and around the generations of our families. And I smiled.
And another from our Merry-Christmas-we’re-getting-a-divorce letter in 1992:
Ritual is salutary. Each year the sights and sounds and dramas of Christmas take me back to every Christmas before. I remember who I was with, where I was, and what I was doing. I remember the interminable Christmas eves of childhood, and the interminable Christmas eve when I traveled by subway, train, airplanes and car from Germany to Brussels to Chicago after my term in Italy. I remember the first snows during reading period or exam week in college that somehow broke the stress of the time. I remember Christmases with my dad, now gone for two years, and Christmases without him. This year I remember Christmases with Paul, in Chicago or Mexico or Minneapolis. We developed our own rituals over the years that are as much Christmas to me as the Jackson Five Christmas album has been for most of my life. I remember because we are celebrating our last Christmas together.
So this year I visualized the metaphor, tessellating photos of my trees of Christmas past and present into one giant everytree, as this Christmas becomes yet another giant everyChristmas. Amen.
This morning as I was walking Cap’n Jack, I met a friendly labradoodle sporting a smashing Harrod’s collar. We owners asked after each dog’s breed (Cap’n Jack is a French bulldog/border terrier mix), and I mentioned the collar. She laughed that I was the first to notice it, and, somewhat embarrassed, told me her kids insisted on buying the dog a present in London. We started talking about our respective trips to London (hers this past summer, mine in 1983), especially the fun we had just hanging around, watching people, visiting churches and free museums, riding the tube and double-decker buses, and relaxing in the parks. I loved afternoon tea; her kids were “underwhelmed.”
So today I share a painting of a field in or near the Lake District, and a song I wrote when I was about to leave. I apologize that I was losing my voice at that point in the show . . .
Here’s the audio introducing the song (immediately following as song about Italy which I’m talking about at the beginning). It sets up my life immediately before that summer, which made that trip so transformational for me.
A little over 25 years ago I traveled to Heidelberg with a friend. One night we two Americans, and one Austrian we met at the hostel, went to see a Brazilian mime . . . in Germany. I remember being amazed by the universality of the non-verbal languages of mime and music. On the way “home” to the hostel, we got lost; and out of the darkness arose the words “Hey, you guys!” We turned to find a friend who I had last seen two years before at her going-away party. (I didn’t even know where in Germany she was going.) She had just taken a train back from Yugoslavia, and she was walking a route home that she had never taken. So there we all were, meandering toward our respective temporary homes a half a continent and an ocean away, only to discover, for me the first time, that the world is actually quite small. The next morning, we hiked up the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s way) in an eerie fog, and I took this picture. At the top we mused about and toasted to coincidence with my first glass of glüwein.
I learned the hymn, Lead, kindly light by Cardinal John Henry Neuman, 24 years ago. I was on a work abroad program in England for the summer. I went to a different Anglican church every Sunday–several in London, in Cambridge, in Rye, in Carlisle, in York, in Newcastle, in Exeter, in Dalston, in Mousehole . . . and I sang from the Anglican hymnal for the first time (not too many Lutherans over there). It was the transformational summer of my twentieth year, with rich memories still stirred by Anglican hymnody, Turner landscapes, and Monty Python.
I put these words and pictures in together in my head, and have held them there for about 23 years. Today, I put them together with my hands, and will now have this mantra ever before me.
Things don’t take forever to do, just as I don’t need to know forever to live. I just have to keep taking that one step.
As a child, the defiant songs
of the 60s and 70s declared
we could change the world.*
As an adult, the songs
of the 80s and 90s mused
“If I could change the world.*”
Now, in passive voice I hear
“I’m waiting, waiting on the
world to change.**”
Were there never things we could fight for, but I thought there were?
Were there things worth fighting for that no longer are?
Are there things worth fighting for that I don’t have the energy to fight?
The “truth” that Harry Potter (and now The Golden Compass) suggested to me is that only youth truly believe they can change the world. Eventually we “grow up” and try to protect what we have and who we have—and look many other ways than the uncomfortable truths. Youth hasn’t given up yet—there’s a fire there that hasn’t been squelched or stomped or merely faded to embers for lack of more fuel.
I once read a quote: “Will all those who feel powerless to influence events please signify by maintaining your usual silence.” At the time I felt it convicted others. Now it convicts me.
And as tired as I am of the tagline of the college where I taught–having seen it “thumbprinted” in so many places that it made me sick–it is positively provocative: create change. Creation is change. Seedling as it may be, it can grow. So I’ll sow.