Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Sunday before Christmas

It’s the Sunday before Christmas and all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.

Frankly, this surprises me. Usually this time of year the house is all but infested with rodents who have wisely determined that the balmy indoors beats the frigid outdoors any day, and the food is better, too. In preparation for their indubitable arrival, traps with their spring-loaded bars and touch-sensitive triggers were hung with great care (plus copious amounts of Jiffy peanut butter) in hopes that any uninvited mouseketeer would soon be dispatched to that other side which awaits us all. And then—nothing. 

Old Hiram Maxim would be disappointed. His design of the mousetrap as we know it has stood the test of time, even though over 4,000 patents in the United States alone purport to be a “better” model. Maxim, you might remember, went on to invent the machine gun, a fact that leads one to question whether it was due to a veritable plague of mice, necessity being the mother of invention and all. Thanks to Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, which graphically describes Fuller’s mother cutting loose on a cobra in their Rhodesian kitchen, her Uzi set on full auto, the “explosion of glasses and bottles and tins and a wild chattering of bullets...the dust, the splintering of still-falling glass, the whimpering dogs,” it’s easy to picture a berserk Maxim training his new invention on the invasive horde and squeezing the trigger. Unfortunately, it was only a short step from there to the trenches of Flanders and  Ypres.

Sheba is nestled all snug by her cage, visions of townhouse crackers and Doritos dancing in her head, while in the bedroom Lori lies asleep, the comforter spilling onto the floor like a waterfall, and I’m half-dozing at my iMac, dutifully hammering away at the keys when what I really want to do is to rejoin my wife in the slumber of innocents.

Across the street festive lights twinkle and sparkle in competition with the growing dawn. Were I to glance out the south window I’d see the doctor's house aglow with each window pulsing red, green and blue, and to the southwest another house afire with glittering white icicles and the illumined skeletal outlines of mammals cavorting in the snow. Only our house is dark.

It gets worse. Within our humble abode not a single holiday decoration or accessory is evident. No stockings hang from the chimney, no tree festooned with ornaments and tinsel, no pine wreaths nor candles nor any other thing to honor the season. It’s not so much a “bah, humbug” as it is an “ah-choo.”

A hacking cough and ribs that feel staved in. 

An incessantly dripping schnoz.

Gritty eyes.

Bone-deep weariness from lack of sleep.

Merry %@&% Christmas.

I tell myself it could be worse. My back is better after tearing it out earlier this month, so at least I’m mobile, more or less. We could have pneumonia, or the latest ice storm could have snapped power lines and trees and plunged us into that darkness we knew so intimately last year about this same time. The economy hasn’t hit us too hard as evidenced by a steady stream of brown-shirted men bearing gifts. Our kids and grandkids are healthy. We have jobs and a roof over our heads. Yes, it could always be worse.

But contemplating a Christmas-less Christmas has plunged me in a reflective mood, and try as I might I cannot shake it. For a while I stare out the dining room window where a deep burgundy sheen filters through the naked woods and rises into the eastern sky like a red tide, only to be captured in the ice and hoarfrost coating the shrubs and held there, each glazed twig and limb burning with its own incandescence. For a brief, fleeting moment the rising sun paints the brittle snow in pastel shades of the most delicate hues, ephemeral as thoughts, before swiftly fading to the coldest satin-blue. The thermometer reads five below zero.

And within these walls where I am drawn evermore inward there comes a mental shift that always occurs with the transition between night and day, as if time had been held in abeyance or slowed to a trickle and the shot of light over the horizon’s circular bow the muezzin’s call to action. I must get busy, I think, and then reminded of a treeless Christmas settle back in my chair and linger while around me the house grows yet more still and its creatures quietly sleeping. 

I wonder: can Christmas be Christmas without a tree, or gifts gaily wrapped? Are the trappings as important as the event? Ritual plays a large role in how we interact with the great mysteries of religion, society and myth. Rote enhances experience and perhaps even opens us to a deeper understanding. But is it necessary? Not necessary, no.

This, then, is my fate, one I grudgingly accept with full knowledge that the course is not irreversible. But in looking back on Christmases past what comes to me is not wrapping paper and strands of twinkling lights, not trees both real and artificial, nor even the dated Hallmark ornaments collected each year since our first together 35 years ago (has it really been that long?), but the laughter of children, the lunacy of cats and discarded paper, the closeness of family and friends, the sense of homecoming and warmth in a world gone cold, the joy of giving, an abiding feeling of thankfulness and blessings bestowed, the love in my wife’s eyes, a touch, a kiss, the intangible things that make our lives something to cherish, something to honor, something to give. 


Laurel Johnson said...

Merry Christmas to you, Lori, and Sheba. With or without trappings, Christmas will always be Christmas, if only in our dreams.

Tom Parker said...

Laurel -- Wise words. And a very merry (and white) Christmas to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

One of the best you have written in the opinion of your mother.

Unknown said...

I'm catching up on my reading. For whatever reason today, your work made me cry. Maybe because the Christmas holiday always stresses me out. I'd like just once, to let the holiday come without the bells and fanfare and enjoy the holiday in true and simple peace. Don't get me wrong, I do love least parts of it.

Tom Parker said...

Farm editor -- By not putting up Christmas decorations or wrapping gifts or any of that, I had a different sort of stress introduced to our holiday season--guilt. Usually I'm good at disregarding it but I kept thinking that I should be doing more, that there's something wrong about not getting in the Christmas spirit, that there were traditions to uphold. And then I tore my back out and got sick and I never had the energy to do anything about it.
The interesting thing about it was in the aftermath, when there were no lights or trees to put away, no wrapping paper to discard. It was, I admit, nice. And somehow I did not miss the outward trappings of Christmas as much as I thought I would.
Next year, though, I do want a tree set up. Other than that, who knows?
The important thing is to not get stressed over what should be a quiet, reflective time. (And a super-hectic time scrambling for last-minute deals!) Good luck on next year.