Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sacred Pie

I’m listening to my new favorite Christmas carol on repeat. So far I’ve heard about nineteen different bands and soloists give their best to the traditional song. I love Christmas carols particularly more than most other types of songs, and each year I nurse a secret favourite. When all is right with the world, I get to sing it with a big group of people on a cold evening while we gather around a piano with mugs of mulled wine. So far, the world hasn’t been all right yet. But I’m waiting, because I’m pretty sure the experience will be divine. Until that day, I sing quietly enough that my neighbors don’t beat on the wall and tell me to shut it up. 

When I lived in Phoenix, I learned to be amazed when I heard any reference to Jesus, or 'traditional' Western spirituality. It just isn’t done much outside the Bible Belt, and even increasingly less so in those states these days. You will hear people say that this is a good thing, and it is. You will hear people say that this is a bad thing, and it is. I think whenever we lose a piece of our own history, even in the teaching if not believing, we become diminished. We aren’t as rich, as full, or as entire. But I also know from experience that it is wrong when an elite group of masochistic narcissist religious zealots try to enslave us to their own ideas of what Jesus was trying to do. 

In the end, though, this all gets a break at Christmas time. Only the angriest elves don’t want ‘Away In a Manger’ played on the radio. Only the most zealous of the zealots don’t want to admit that Santa Claus is part of the Christmas culture. Most of us, it would seem, allow more to pass through our mental sieves during the holidays. We remember the time that we played a donkey in the Nativity play, and don’t hold ill will against those who still do so. We recall our grandmother reading the story from Luke 2, and we hear the passion in her voice for a history that was alive in her present day. It doesn’t always have to be about ourselves, in other words. It is enough that a song would make someone smile. It is enough that for now, the kids sit on Santa's lap and are delighted with the world. There are other days to learn about war, about suffering. I don't have to steal someone's happy because I don't agree. The Elf on the Shelf, for example. I simply do not understand. We have enough to remember during the season without the likes of a small impish intruder to attend to each and every morning. But if you like it, I wish you well and don't mind if you post pictures and make songs. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll join in. But we won't know unless we give room for both sides. 

In many ways, we live in a time that eschews history. Or perhaps we are very selective about the history that we cling to. Some feel safer in the 1950’s, and so they call it the Golden Age. Others think we should bring back the Renaissance, and all would be well. We are all right and all wrong, as naturally we would be. History and the lessons we learn from it are subjective. The only real danger would be to not learn anything at all. We cannot assume that we have the monopoly on truth and goodness and beauty and all the ways it is to be experienced. Why do I say this? I can never see a sunset in Mesopotamia. I don’t know the way Schubert’s music sounded when it fell on eagerly listening ears for the first time. We all have our own idea about what is important, what is good, and what is beautiful. We can argue about it, and we do. You would think that the human race would be doomed to further fracture their own kind until we have nothing in common but our DNA.

The exception once again sits in front of us all as we eagerly await the fullness and joy of the Christmas season. Everything, from pumpkin pie to awkward claymation, becomes something sacred and special. The rituals we play through from year to year become something almost holy, because they connect us with the years gone by. I can’t watch Christmas Vacation without hearing my dad’s maniacal laugh. I cannot see a Christmas tree without wanting to spend the evening under it, swapping secrets with my big sister. I now have one grandparent gone, and I see him sitting on the couch, opening his gifts at 80 years old, still somehow like a child, hoping for a train. I’m connected with these events, and one even might say with these people, forever.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 2013, where I’ll live or who I’ll spend the holidays with. But I know that I’ll think fondly of this year and all the memories of trying to find an affordable tree for a small Irish apartment. I’ll laugh because I made cornbread stuffing out of the most hideous ingredients, and that my family was nice enough to eat it so we could have a traditional experience. My memories will connect me in a way that physical space cannot. My heart, my ears, and even my nose will tell me that Grandma Scott is still making biscuits and apples, even if it has ceased to be tangible. Her house might not be beautiful to you, or real. But during this season, most of you would smile as I relive times gone by. I will do the same for you. I can allow your mom's pie to be the best, as I claim the same of my aunt. We can both find the beauty in our own experiences without having to challenge the result. 

I think that we all secretly long for the season of Christmas, and my ideas on why change all the time. I think we crave the stability and security of times gone by, perhaps even times we never experiences. While we don’t live in the past, and hopefully don’t try to, we are looking forward into the complete and total unknown. The only assurance that things will  continue is our continued practice of the things we know. I know with certainty that my children’s children will know the names and faces of my own grandparents. I know this because my grandparents have made sure that I know the names and faces of their own ancestors. They have linked me with the past I can no longer physically experience, and so pulled themselves forward into a future they won’t physically inhabit. It is immensely comforting, at least in my mind. 

I don’t want to walk around with locket-sized pictures of my extended family tree, however. Instead I keep them in my heart and on my walls and think of Ma’am Lucy when I try to make pie crust, and of Grandpa Jerrell when I see a barrel of old-fashioned candy. It is enough to live this way, for most of the year. I am delighted when I have a thought of a cousin's childhood haircut, of a sheet of burned cookies that made me cry and my children laugh. They bubble up somewhere from the unconscious, as they are content to live there most of the time. But every now and again, we pay our dues to those places and people. It is only right, as a farmer reckons with his overlord. 

There used to be a widely celebrated holiday for celebrating the one who have left us, and for remembering their lives and likeness. Some think of such practices are morbid, but some probably haven’t lost a friend or a father. Death holds no fear when those we love have passed through. It is no longer uncharted territory, even if it is unfamiliar. This is the reason people travel to see the lands of their ancestors. We want to stand in a field and say that our great, great, great-grandfather planted this grass and it is mine somehow too, in a way I don’t understand. My heart leaps when I stand in this field, and it ceases to do so when I walk a mile in a different direction. This place has been held for me, if even just to stand and marvel at the gifts of wonder, of family, of belonging. We can belong to places we've never seen. We can yearn for people we never knew. We can then trust more firmly that the other places they have traveled will feel just as safe, be it unto death and beyond.

Christmas can’t be all about the past, though. It is only a portion of the experience. What else, then? Why do we yearn for the same songs and the same food and the same everything? What else would posses us to actually want to watch the terrible Frosty the Snowman movie? It is painful, but we have to do it. The voices don't stop until it is accomplished. Much like kissing a hairy aunt (not that I have any) we know it must be done. Might as well get it over with and try to find the humor as we do so. 

We want to experience magic, even if we call it something else. I don’t mean Harry Potter, although I would be very happy to experience his sort. Wonder, peace, love, gratitude, I think these feelings all fall under the umbrella of my description. We want to experience these overwhelmingly massive feelings more than we want to eat or even breathe. I can go several days without thinking about being thankful, but then when I do, I physically feel better for it. Not for thinking, ‘Yikes, I’m so glad I don’t look like that ugly lady’ but ‘Oh, how grateful I am that I can walk and breathe on my own. How amazing is it that I can read and have thoughts and enjoy chocolate? The world is indeed an amazing place, and I am grateful to be here.” But if you post that kind of thing on Facebook every day, you would lose most of our friends. Sad, but true, and I might be the first to drop you. It just isn’t acceptable to talk this way all the time. When people constantly remind us that we are lucky to process oxygen, we get the feeling that we are quite naughty to enjoy sitting in front of a movie with a basket full of buttery popcorn. We should focus on the important things, we tell ourselves. Popcorn isn’t important. Right? We can spend our money better. We don't have to have a tree, do we?

Take a look at Christmas again, and the days that lead to its arrival. We are thankful for our family, because we don’t always get to see them. We are thankful for the buttery popcorn that our grandfather eats while we watch a Christmas movie, because it matters. He matters, and what he does matters, and it wouldn’t be quite the same if things were different. We don’t practice tradition to stay in times gone by, but to remind us of how we arrived at the present. We don’t keep things the same 'just because' either, but change as the years change who we are. I don’t want an American Girl doll for Christmas this year, because my tastes and needs have changed. But I still want a present, and I still want it wrapped in pretty paper, and I still feel queasy when I open the box. 

Christmas ties us to the past, pulls us to the future, and fills us with the sentiments that our very soul craves to experience. It would be wondrous indeed to live the whole year through with these thoughts in mind. I don’t think it is possible, though. I think someone would go mad with the excess of feelings. Just like the pumpkin pie, it isn’t meant to be enjoyed without abandon. In small measures, in consistent applications, and not in a deluge of abundance should we eat pie. 

Just so can we stretch our insignificant tiny hearts to embrace the whole world at once. You cannot live at the pinnacle of exhilaration any more than you can live in the valley of the mundane. We forget who we are, though, and forget to breathe the heady air of the frosted mountains. Like a swimmer coming near the surface, we kick and push towards the coming breath that will give us the ability to endure and appreciate what comes next. This is why we love Christmas, child or adult, religious or non, dreamer or poet or scientist.

My cure for the world, therefore, is the thorough immersion into the Christmas season. It worked for Scrooge, and it can work for you too. 

If you find that your rusty heart is resistant, go bake a pie. It always helps. 

*All art by Normal Rockwell, master genius
Other pictures are the blogger's family, doing Christmassy things, and they belong to history. 

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