Monday, January 5, 2009

What is a season?

I'm so glad it's all over . . . the holiday season, the end of the old year, the ringing in of the new, our travels, the houseguests, the meals, the gifts, all of it. Don't get me wrong. I have loved being with my family and friends. I have loved cooking for my daughter and her partner and their roommate in Massachusetts. I have loved writing the Christmas cards and Christmas letter and thinking about each person as I wrote a message and addressed their card, the first mailing I’ve done in four years. But it is a season and in that sense not normal or part of the everyday life that we get to live all the other days of the year. Because during the holiday season a lot of things get stopped, artificially, even as other things don’t stop at all, because they’re out of our control.

My husband took almost two weeks off of work, and yet work peeked in from time to time uninvited. It usually took the form of an unwanted phone call about some crisis that couldn’t readily be addressed while so many staff were with their families celebrating the holidays. But those phone calls and the underlying crises drilled into my husband’s mind and lurked behind the visit to our adopted Georgian (Republic of) family in New York and our conversations with our daughter. Because they were present for Herb, those crises were also present for me, as a shadow over my moments pondering which dishes and pots and pans to wash first so that I could prepare the next meal.

I consciously decided not to work on my volunteer activities during the two weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, because it’s also a time filled with my son’s birthday on the 22nd, my sister-in-law’s birthday on the 24th, my son’s father and his wife visiting from Beijing on their annual trip, and my brother visiting Mom and us in our home. I was making a conscious attempt to be present to the people I was with during the holidays. But those volunteer activities, my promises to get certain tasks done, others’ depending on me to do those tasks, and the sense of fair play about giving all the other volunteers sufficient time to pick up their pieces weighed upon me. As did the complexity of blended families on top of blended families and a hanai family or two thrown in. (A hanai family is a Hawaiian concept for a family of choice, the people you call into your circle to be family to you and you to them.)

Besides the obvious things that make it a “season,” like the fact that Christmas is a specific celebration packed with significance and the New Year really coming to pass at a fixed time, there is also all the cultural baggage that make it a “season.” Now spring and winter are also seasons, but they don’t feel the way the Christmas holiday season feels. Spring and winter are seasons that I inhabit, that co-exist and surround me. Spring and winter sneak up on me, usually not announcing themselves in a big way, just giving hints that they are around the corner. A brighter morning one day or the arrival of a few returning birds, maybe a single daffodil pushing through the dirt. Noticing the earlier falling of the sun day by day and the chill wind that blows when I leave the warmth of my car. Hints. Little changes that enwrap me and beckon me to attend. Not so with the Christmas holiday season in middle America where I have been barraged with decorations right after Halloween and endless catalogs in the mail offering bargains to make the loved ones in my life happy and love me more.

I admit to being sensitized, because I do flinch when I encounter the Christmas decorations in the seasonal aisle of the supermarket and when someone, often a store clerk, asks me if I’m ready for the holidays. I flinch, because I feel overwhelmed by the noise of the messages that call to me to plan gargantuan holiday meals of expensive foods, to seek, buy and wrap gifts that are just right for the recipients, and to share my holiday spirit with my friends and loved ones. I flinch, because I am at a loss as to how to tell my loved ones that I love them in ways that get through, that get past their own versions of flinching in the holiday season. I flinch, because I know that I will feel guilty after the holiday season is over, and I reflect upon the amount of food we over-consumed and wasted, the over-abundance of gifts for grandchildren who have too many sets of grandparents buying for them, and the disappearance of the time we had to spend together in real conversation that got caught up in going to and fro, from home to home, from meal to meal, from home to airport.

The thing that I could not control this season hit me hard. My friend’s partner of many years returned home from hospital to home hospice on Christmas Eve, and I knew this and carried it in my heart over the entire holiday season. None of my family know my friend, a colleague in a volunteer activity, and I didn’t ever find the right moment, a quiet moment, to talk about it with my family. No doubt it was my failing. Yesterday, my friend’s partner died, and I felt like I had been jolted awake again, after a season. Perhaps part of my gladness that this particular holiday season is past arises out of the deep sense of attending and mourning that I have done for my friend and her partner, because I suspect that you can’t really mourn in front of the dying one, and so we friends do it on one another's behalf.

Is it possible to attend from a distance, to attend in your heart and in your soul, even though you’re not part of the immediate family? I would answer Yes to that question, because I am attending now, even now, to those who are caught up in the bombing in the Gaza Strip. I do understand the politics and the sentiments and the righteousness that is felt on both sides – the Israelis and the Palestinians. Really, I do. Who on either side wants their civilian areas bombed heedlessly everyday? I attend those whose lives are no longer normal, whose lives are embalmed in a season over which they have no control and from which they have no escape. I attend those who have lost loved ones, whose loved ones have been shattered physically and emotionally, and who have lost their expectation of the normalcy of the seasons’ ebb and flow. May God have mercy and pity on us all.

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