Here we are again at the end of another year and it’s Christmastime. Let’s set aside the shopping, baking, and sparkling baubles for a moment and ponder a familiar seasonal conundrum. Why didn’t we finish all the things we set out to do or at least make an appreciable dent in moving along that elusive path we’re on? By December, the year-long cacophony of what ifs and why nots has achieved a tormenting hold. If you strip away the pageantry of Christmas, we’re still just us trying to carve out and extract the best from this life we’ve been given, and it’s simply the end of another year. What was I expecting? I didn’t do much differently this year, though I AM still alive (no small feat). Was I honestly counting on the year to press out all those wrinkles, and now that it’s December, am I really going to STILL fixate on them? ‘Tis the season of trying to wrap it all up with a pretty bow, I suppose.
I do love this time of year. The air is crisper and the lights are brighter–little twinkly smiles that beam at you from inside windows–and there’s a big ball of hope and love that swells up so full you think it might just burst. For me, this joyful yuletide crescendo continues until sometime around Christmas night, after all has been unwrapped and revealed and then things deflate, leaving behind a gentle return to life as it was, in many ways a welcome relief. Each season, we get this glittery December window in which to dispense this magic over others, but the window is narrow, producing an urgency to harness it and spread it, but hopefully saving some for yourself. Of course, the window is actually as wide as we make it and we’ve got a full 365 days to work with.
Christmas isn’t just a calendar day or a season, it’s a billowy set of sails that charts our course for December and beyond. By the twelfth month, before us is a rich end-of-year stew–chock full of different ingredients, some quiet and lovely, sunny or lonely, some full of remembrance and yearning, dreaming or improving. When we’re young, this season takes forever to get here, but when it finally does, it brings weeks of anticipation with which to plan and savor. As adults we set about intentionally mining for that magic that only Christmas can bring. The season moves at rapid speed and that fairy-tale attention once placed on you now lives inside you, yours to harness and give, though at the end of a tough year, you wonder sometimes if it will even appear. When you least expect it, however, you find yourself pulling from way down deep to do something nice for someone, and you keep doing it again and again. THIS is Christmas.
Walking through our city’s botanical garden recently, I felt some of the magic, but it was a diluted strain and not the intimate experience I’d treasured years earlier under this same canopy of twinkly trees. The last time I came here acapella carolers’ drifting wintry notes drew me in, and I moved in closer to sing with them. These sounds brought sweetness out of the dark and filled me with a renewed appreciation for familiar carols I will forever know the words to. On this night I’d wanted the sparkle to grab my hand, and lead me into the season. Instead, I just saw lights, albeit choreographed spectacular ones, which seemed more fact than emotion. As I meandered along to piped-in familiar songs—The Nutcracker Suite, New York, and All I Want for Christmas is You—the music swallowed up any traces of silence I’d hoped to get lost in or those quiet conversations you hear along a path. It was an orchestrated noise you could hear, see, and even taste if you were willing to stretch your budget further. Directional signs led people to lines for s’mores kits and marshmallow roasting stations, light necklaces, and other tempting extras for purchase, but for us our entry ticket was enough. Off the main path was a tiny Christmas village around which an electric train circled, which I found mesmerizing.
It must be my brain, noisy in all seasons, that craves the quiet, that prefers the sound of snowfall versus sled blades cutting the ice, an intimate conversation over a pulsing party, acapella singing under the stars to brightly lit choirs. Thankfully I’ve got a detailed loop in my head that can recall past merry moments, but I’ve gotten better at noticing which bits soothe and inspire me. It gets noisy starting in Halloween and ramps up until the new year, but if you work at it, you can extract a version that works for you.
These are a few of my favorite things in no particular order:
❄️That first snow falling softly and your dog pressing her paws in it, incredulous, as if it appeared solely for her wonder and enjoyment.
❄️A fresh boxwood wreath on your door
❄️Children peeking from the top of the stairs ready to bundle down the steps and discover their surprises
❄️Ball jars of eggnog chilling in the refrigerator, gifts for delivery later
❄️Caroling with neighbors.
❄️Silent night sung by candlelight at church on Christmas Eve
❄️The sight and smell of cranberry pistachio biscotti cooking
❄️Newscasters on Christmas eve reporting Santa sightings
❄️It’s a Wonderful Life, the movie.
❄️It’s a Wonderful Life, the experience.
❄️A fresh cut fraser fir stretching out its branches and feeling at home in your living room.
❄️Noticing your tree is drinking water and filling it up every morning.
❄️Stringing lights on your tree and then running outside to see the pretty view from the street.
❄️Stuffing holiday cards into a nearly full post box.
❄️Taking your children to the PO to drop off a letter to Santa in the North Pole
❄️Grocery store lines and talking with strangers about the meals they’re planning.
❄️Christmas Eve night when all the packages are wrapped and there’s nothing else to do but look around and soak it all in.
❄️Wishing strangers a Merry Christmas
❄️Letting the tired mom in the minivan with a Rudolph nose and antlers cut you off in traffic.
❄️Finding coins to give the Salvation Army bell ringers.
❄️Finding bills to give a homeless person on the ramp to the interstate.
❄️Wintry pillows and pets who snuggle.
❄️Ornaments you’ve never loved but grew up with which you now appreciate and carefully hang.
❄️Champagne and clam chowder on Christmas Eve.
❄️Sweet rolls Christmas morning.
❄️Realizing how much time and energy your parents gave to make your holidays as special as they were.
❄️Christmas Eve brunch with your best girlfriends.
❄️Finding the perfect gift for someone and beautifully wrapping it.
❄️Opening your mail to find Christmas cards, some with a heartfelt handwritten personal note.
❄️A living room strewn with wrapping paper Christmas morning and your cats joyfully romping in it.
❄️Going to bed Christmas Eve knowing you gave your very best and excited to watch it all unfold in a few hours.
❄️Your dog gnawing a bone from her stocking and beaming lovingly at you in gratitude.
❄️Cats on their sides humping their catnip toys, dizzy with delight
❄️Napping Christmas afternoon sleepy from mimosas and sweet rolls and secrets that finally got unwrapped
❄️A Christmas cactus that has bloomed
❄️A paper white narcissus, standing tall and thin, blissfully unaware of its glorious scent.
My neighborhood is going to sing carols again like they did last year which was my first time participating. For any locals who want to join me, please reach out. It’s on Sunday the 18th. Here’s a sampling from December ’21:
Nothing is perfect but trying to watch the chaotic tennis match between past and future Christmases only robs you of this Christmas. Believing the purpose of the end of another year is for all to be solved feels short-sighted and shallow and surely sets you up for failure. Instead, I believe our takeaway should be simply, “All is calm all is bright.” Remember? From the song? As the following clever poem illustrates, the power just might reside in our lungs of all places.
My brain and heart divorced a decade ago over who was to blame about how big of a mess I have become. Eventually, they couldn’t be in the same room with each other. Now my head and heart share custody of me. I stay with my brain during the week and my heart gets me on weekends. They never speak to one another; instead, they give me the same note to pass to each other every week, and their notes they send to one another always say the same thing: “This is all your fault”
On Sundays my heart complains about how my head has let me down in the past and on Wednesday my head lists all of the times my heart has screwed things up for me in the future. They blame each other for the state of my life. There’s been a lot of yelling – and crying so, lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my gut who serves as my unofficial therapist. Most nights, I sneak out of the window in my ribcage and slide down my spine and collapse on my gut’s plush leather chair that’s always open for me and I just sit sit sit sit until the sun comes up. Last evening, my gut asked me if I was having a hard time being caught between my heart and my head. I nodded. I said I didn’t know if I could live with either of them anymore. “My heart is always sad about something that happened yesterday while my head is always worried about something that may happen tomorrow,” I lamented. My gut squeezed my hand.
“I just can’t live with my mistakes of the past or my anxiety about the future,” I sighed. My gut smiled and said: “In that case, you should go stay with your lungs for a while,” I was confused, the look on my face gave it away. “If you are exhausted about your heart’s obsession with the fixed past and your mind’s focus on the uncertain future, your lungs are the perfect place for you. There is no yesterday in your lungs, there is no tomorrow there either. There is only now. There is only inhale, there is only exhale, there is only this moment. There is only breath, and in that breath you can rest while your heart and head work their relationship out.”
This morning, while my brain was busy reading tea leaves and while my heart was staring at old photographs, I packed a little bag and walked to the door of my lungs. Before I could even knock, she opened the door with a smile and as a gust of air embraced me she said, “What took you so long?”
~ John Roedel (johnroedel.com)