Sunday, December 9, 2012

And So This is Christmas: an Unbeliever's Guide to Believing

And So This is Christmas: an Unbeliever’s Guide to Believing

It’s hard to write anything original about Christmas. Holiday self-help advice gets about as original and moving as the countless bad renditions of any number of holiday songs playing non-stop from the first of November until the New Year.

So why am I compelled to offer it?

People try. It’s charming really, the effort made by everyone from the smallest tot to those most advanced in the art of grand and great-grand parenting, to observe the weeks called “The Holidays” with glee and hope for renewal and connection. Why?

Who really knows?  But it goes deep, even deeper than how many of the world’s spiritual traditions invest those weeks around the North’s winter solstice with significance, doesn’t it?

In reality the holidays aren’t easy.

Often they aren’t nearly as fun as they are made out to be. Many years we are left with the feeling that we have failed at the true test of the holidays, failed at being “happy”.

The Holidays as they are promoted are like a giant pressure cooker: the pressure to be happy, to spend what one may not have enough of… money, time, love, friends, family…  the pressure of the idiotic idea that material gifts can buy or even symbolize the complicated and multifaceted nature of connection and love.

The fact is, however, that at a more deeply felt level there can also be the pressure to put aside what may be the more realistic innate and symbolic structure of the time of the year, the passing of precious time, the losses, the introduction of the New.  This passage will happen even if we aren’t ready for it and may not, at any conceivable level, be able to “afford” it, “afford” to be somewhere New when what is Old seems to be slipping away or being taken from us, even stolen.

We count what passes. People, homes, friendships, age, health. What else? This is something that seems unavoidable as the world spins and tilts us away from the light, and we get ready for the long stretch into longer days, the growing season, the hope… the hope FOR hope.

We measure change. It is in our DNA; packaged in these things we call holidays. And sometimes I think they have been almost completely co-opted by a materialist perspective that tries ever so diligently to rob us of our connection to the deeper meanings in the season, the sobriety of it, the losses, the potential and its tentative hold on what we wish the newness will grant us. The fact that the holiday’s truest visions have been so powerfully denied only accentuates their power over us. In that propagandized denial of the full range of the nature and meaning of the turning of the darkest darkness to the gradual rebirth of the light, we are forced to deny our own inner revolutions… the necessary changes of living.

Even if we are fearful about what is ahead; even if we read in the dreams of the turning of the world the coming of storms and droughts, the potential for poor harvest. 

It is easy to be led away from the truest observations of the season through the propaganda of a hoarding mentality that gets reflected in a make-believe over-abundance, a release of endorphins through a compulsive purchase that shields us from very real trepidations that we are required to feel to be fully human.

How do we rescue THAT? How do we rescue that when THAT is the reason for the season, that teeter-totter balance between what we love the most and what we fear losing the most or may have already lost? The yin-yang of what is new and why it must come and that which must be left behind?

We may cut a tree down. We may take out the heirloom ornaments and lights. We may contemplate each sparkling story as we hang it from the tree. We may laugh with others, we may walk quickly into another room to shed deep tears, we may hold on to whom ever stands near and feel the real warmth of how we could not go forward into an unsure future without that kindred heart beating… beating, beating….

All this empty buying! What does it signify actually? What does it mean?

This season I think I will vote to suspend my disbelief in the sacredness of the turning of the year and how this time of the year is the most appropriate for that deep observation.

I think I will give in to all the tribal and even pre-tribal wells of genetically imprinted deep knowledge that these darkest days have always held for me and for my predecessors, the so-called primitive ancestry that could not know that the great dragons and Manitous that lived in the blustery winter sky were even more frightening than they could imagine, more frightening in the reality of their random emergence and arrival; that they could just as easily snuff out me and my entire world suddenly and too quickly for that blinding flash to be seen by me or anyone like me.

I will believe in the season’s magic as if I had never used a wheel or made a loaf of bread.

I resolve to reject happiness and joyfulness uninterrupted or undefined by great sorrows and fears as anything honorable to be achieved, as anything healthy, normal or human.

We are a species of connection at the same time that we are a race of lonely seekers. We live in a space of simultaneous opposites as a premier fact of our phenomenology of being and always have. We are different enough from one another that we require some ongoing and concrete recognition of our hard won similarities in order to succeed as an organism on a similarly interwoven galaxy of a planet full of other organic and inorganic forms that must live in some kind of harmony, even through destruction by one of the other… the shit of fear ripening and fertilizing the birth and sustenance the other’s hope.

We hold the spear of terror as we approach one another; we grope for signals that we belong with one another, walking into the New Year together. With food. With a drink of cool water.

Now, right now, we are woven tightly, ever more tightly, into the drama of our miraculous planetary configurations. It was always so, but as the ice unleashes astonishingly beautiful and terrible torrents of waters due to the melting of our polar caps, as our most intricate and life-infused population centers are threatened with inundation by the by-product of that great melt, we cannot ignore how we are woven into this great miracle of chaos and order, all at once interpretable, documented and at the same time completely misunderstood, far out of our concrete grasp of understanding. Just as we have only begun to understand our own brain’s workings, our planet and its cradle in the slurry of space is only starting to be fathomed while it is simultaneously moving into an era of the unfathomable.

And so this is Christmas. And what have you done?

I promise to make a study of remembering during this solstice. To remember and work to allow tears and gratitude. To relax the automatic tightening of the well of my throat that keeps the sobs from rising up.

I want to miss those who I have loved who are no longer here. I want to hold on to the visages of those who walk with me still...  as they are and as they have been and may be.

I want my gifts to always be in hand, those things that leap from the soul to the soul and still know these metaphors do exist, these metaphors for the hot liquid core of why we remain a treasure. They exist even when we are so completely inconsequential to the order of things as it moves on, as it covers us in darkness, blinds us in dawn, as it grows incredible Sequoias and fills the hot vents at the bottom of the sea with the soup of our ancestors.

And I want to laugh. It would good if you could join me. Because no matter what lies before us, we are here now, and it is good.


Anonymous said...

Bob, this is such a very beautiful piece. It rings true for me in every possible way. I was playing with some ideas in my head about my own holiday article, and now, I probably don't need to do one. This is so honest, insightful and touching to me, that I kind of want to share it around as much as I can, with due credit to its author, naturally.

My brisket is in the oven, a platter of potato pancakes waiting to be served, and some of my crew are out shopping for the rest of the multitude of holidays that our crazy-mixed up group wants to celebrate. The season has begun and I am filled with conflicting and heavy emotions. I have to work hard on my own willing suspension of disbelief, but your article has given me some good thoughts.

Bob Vance said...


I wish I were close enough to share your latkes!

Thanks for the complimentary comments. This is a difficult season for many people... it comes complete with the strain of a deep ambivalence and so, naturally, is a time for transition...