(This column originally ran on December 3, 2010. Kathryn Eastburn will return next week.)
‘Tis the season of contradiction. Bare black tree limbs, frozen earth, and neighborhood houses lighted up like Vegas. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and a constant string of economic forecasts based on how much we might or might not spend on stuff we don’t need in this holiday season.
Meanwhile, 28 million jobless Americans lose their federally funded unemployment benefits, barely raising a peep.
Yesterday, as I was crossing a downtown intersection, each corner was occupied by a homeless person, including one woman with a baby in a stroller. Stuffed in dirty jackets against the cold, they were courteous to passersby as they panned for spare change, with little luck. On the opposite sidewalk, a hoedown of some sort. Five well-dressed adults, presumably business people, rang bells and circled a red Salvation Army pot festooned with silver and gold. Every time a pedestrian dropped a nickel, a quarter, or a dollar into the pot, these revelers rang their bells madly and whooped and hollered like fans at a football game.
December seems to bring out the best and the worst in us. We rhapsodize over our childhood memories of Christmas, and remember fondly the years when our children were little and still subject to delight. But out here in the middle distance, the end of one year and the beginning of another starts
to look like those pages flying off a calendar in an old black and white movie, time gone out of control.
In the Christian tradition we are told to train our eyes on Mary, huge with child, awaiting the miracle of her son’s arrival. I love this story and every telling of it: no room at the inn, a lowly stable, shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, a star to the east, the friendly beasts, the manger, no crying he makes. But this year, I am pregnant with fear, not hope. With anxiety, not joy.
This year, my children and I will converge at their grandmother’s house the week between Christmas and New Year’s, to stage a Christmas celebration for her and ourselves. Mama Bettye, the truest Christian we have ever known, is sick with cancer and the after effects of chemotherapy, so we will be doing the cooking. Church might be out of the question.
I am hoping only for some quality time together and some good smoked country sausage from a Tennessee cousin. Every Christmas of their lives, my mother has made hand-rolled biscuits for my children to go with the sausage, but this year I think the recipe and the technique will have to be passed down to us. I hope we can manage.
Meanwhile, I will try to embrace the spirit of advent, to prepare for the coming. It’s hard in a year that has brought us a sudden and unexpected death that has shaken our world and left it feeling fragile and uncertain. What is yet to come, we wonder?
Last week in church, the preacher used a word that’s now stuck in my head: retooling. It’s an ugly sounding word with a message of hope at its core. It means to alter or adjust to become more useful or suitable. It resonates with me at this moment because I have realized recently that one of the insidious side effects of trauma and grief is the inability to see outside yourself and your own small limited circle. It’s a natural response, I think, to draw inward, to pull close. It’s an urge toward self preservation. But it is wearying and limiting. It clouds the view of the world and makes everything outside the protected circle look menacing and dangerous.
What if I were able to retool? If I walked downtown again, through the same scene I saw yesterday, would I fill my pockets with coins and toss one into every open hand, even into the hands of the bell ringers? Would that be more useful or suitable than scowling at the irony of the scene and cringing when the bell ringers loudly announce my stingy, self-conscious gift?
In this season of contradiction, this year of our undoing, this future of uncertainty, I’m not counting on miracles or expecting to be reborn. But the humble notion of retooling, of gearing up, of looking outward rather than in, of seeing the needs of others and finding ways to be useful, gives me hope.
There will be many births and there will be many deaths. There will be stars shining in the dark midwinter sky, as bright as the lights of Vegas.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.