Last night, for starters. I have been gifted with a singing voice, as were Hannah and Kristi, and the three of us went to Rose City Nursing Home and Lawrence Convalescent Center to sing carols. Don't they, context excluded, sound like places you want to be? Can't words turn coal into cake?
I suppose, the adult in me says, as we roam the halls in our Santa hats between stay-out-of-my rooms and ebullient thankyous, I prefer to be sick, old and alone in this country, in this city than in Managua, where I lived for two years, where on the average sick and old means you die, or you are given a bed in the middle of your son and daughter-in-law's house and your colon sits in dusty plastic bag because completing the colon cancer surgery is too expensive, as is a colostomy bag. But at least there are people, all day, around you, talking. Do I really prefer this country?
The child in me says, I am not sick and old. That's not my question to answer. I am a healthy songbird for the moment, who has found compassionate songbird friends. I can't help but notice all of a sudden that we are young and beautiful and different from the dining room people whose space we enter that smells like piss. A woman named Katherine asks us three times what day it is then naps as we sing. June tells us she went to kindergarten, did you really?, and a Sicilian 40-year-old with pretzel legs won't let go of my hand and sings so loud our crafted harmonies melt into cacophony. And still, we are all smiling.
Except for Calvin. Calvin walks like a tin man without oil. He is large, African American, with an innocent face, a smile more luminous than a pearl bracelet from Shane Company, and the nurses say, "You think you can sing? You should hear Calvin!" But something happened to Calvin and now he can only mutter a couple words at a time. Instead, as we sing, he closes his eyes and nods and conducts, and when we finish and move to leave, I take my Santa hat from his head and beg his pardon cuz it's my Aunt's, and he kisses Hannah's hand farewell, and then I see him crying. The adult in me says, what's he thinking? Where's he been? Did our singing light up the sky between the nighttime clouds in his body and soul, even for a moment? Does the moment count? The child in me says, I bet tears are snowflakes in disguise.
The adult is taking over. My glowing laptop screen screams LONELY. I'm 27 and have never not been single and have no siblings and for a few seconds I give into Scrooge thoughts that live like lumps in my throat and I see my future--I am in my forties-fifties-sixties but it doesn't matter, all that matters is that life is narrowing out, and now I live in an apartment that's too clean, somewhere in a high-rise building in London, alone looking out the window at nothing but white snow and black life. What have I done wrong? Where did it all go?
Quite a contrast from the colors I see through the bus window on the way home from work on December 23, 2015. I'd spent six hours staring at a computer screen, and although I love the people who pay me and how good I am at what they pay me for, I also begrudge them for being part of the system I buy into, like capitalism before Christmas morning, eating my time like a mixer eats flour, and spitting out less-than-satisfying cookies.
I made cookies this year, as I listened to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole and Reeba and then realized they're about as satisfying to me as expired post-dinner mints. At least, I tried to make edible molasses ginger cookies. They were sweet, and bricks. Impossible to eat, really. But I did try, which I've never done before.
I also bought Christmas gifts for my family. By gifts I mean discounted chocolate bars and things they need. Solid wool socks for mother, a hat to cover my Dad's gargantuan head. It took me 20 minutes to find a parking spot at Fred Meyer, but I admit as I felt the hats and socks I felt a joy pinch. It is satisfying to give people what they want.
There's Nina, at work. She's in charge of a food justice program doing culturally appropriate outreach to diverse communities in a food desert. She works 65 hours a week and gets paid 40 for them, and supervises adults and interns who don't know what they're doing, in a neighborhood where little-to-no resources mean the best-laid plans of mice and women most often crumble into a poor attempt at molasses ginger cookies (but she tried, and they are at least a little sweet). And she had a fever during the pre-holiday rush, which meant that waking up every day squeezed her eyes and resolve into slits. But I also knew that Nina wanted a set of Christmas cards that she had seen opened at a white elephant exchange, a set called "spirit of Mississippi," showing black Mississippians made of paper mache playing bass, dancing in a circle of gifts, leaving Church on Sunday morning. It so happened I had a second set of those cards, and so I entered her cubicle as she slouched over a grant and said, "I came to cheer you up."
"HA, how'd you know I needed cheering?"
"Well, you often do." And then I watched her tear open the blue wrapping, (and you even wrapped it legit, she said) and listened as she said this is great, this is great, these are beautiful, thank you, this makes me really happy, this is so perfect, thank you, until I told her okay I got it can I leave now, and we laughed again, and went back to our computer screens.
It was fleeting, but I felt like Mrs. Claus.
Hey you grown up! says the child in me. Admit something to yourself! You want to be Mrs. Claus! I'm terrified of large groups of people, and small beings (like children, or elves), and hard work, and old age, and finding/committing to a Santa, and baking, but still the image of a bright-eyed old woman barking cheery orders in a snow-surrounded kitchen swallows the Scrooge. And I am reminded again of what growing up is--accepting the ice pick as it claws away on your limited time, of the sake of being who you know you are.
Hannah had warned us about Rose City and Lawrence. "It'll probably be depressing." What she meant was, like everything in life, if you nitpick, and think too much, and give in quite naturally to Scrooge, you'll struggle to see the designs of snowflakes (or are they tears?) and see only the lonely London night and the piss dining room.
Now that I've gotten the insomnia out, and the bloodstream anxiety is minimized, I think I'll end this with a cliche, the point of this whole season. The point is joy.
Don't sneer at my cliche. Give yourself a Christmas present and find your point. The point is that it's 7am now, and someone is making coffee in the kitchen, and I am no longer alone (if you'd stop thinking so much, says the child in me, you'd realize you never were). The point is Calvin's tears. And biking under a full solstice moon, wearing a Santa hat under a bike helmet. And caroling, and Nigerian songs with the Church choir, regardless of the adult questions marks between religion and I. And knowing that I am Mrs. Claus, not Scrooge, and joy comes, but making it last is hard work.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind.
And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.