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Hold Your Breath and Breathe

Cheer

Cheer

Thanksgiving was almost rough. The surprise was a sharp tug that fell short of pulling it out from under me, and turning around I saw no one. That a holiday might be difficult on my own for the first time in about fifteen years had never occurred to me until that early Thursday morning. I paced a little, regarded the sky, felt the clouds bowing down weight as they had not before. Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday among almost everyone I know. It is a secular prize, the prayers and obeisance on the edges, the day about being warm inside, cooking more than food, school and work at bay, the television all changed around for sports lovers. Thanksgiving cannot be disliked, it seems to me. That shades of the old anxiety would rise up out of the floor that day upset the universe’s illusory order.

Christmas had me wary, but without judgement or expectation. I considered foreknowledge of the blue sheen something to keep me from falling in holes, not something to keep me in bed. The gentle electricity of my old self peeking around the corner and coming out for longer rests in the sun was something I watched, and so I watched its opposite.

Bartell's Sells Christmas like everybody else

Bartell's Sells Christmas like everybody else

I bought a set of lights, figuring I could stand eight bucks; I bought a wreath and two little pines that sit in my window. From the street coming home the lights tell me it is home, that the trees are growing in their little pots and that many springs from now someone will enjoy their iridescent green. Vince Guaraldi’s  iconic music drifts everywhere and the city gives in to its invisible sway: turn signals blink in unison, all the women in their winter boots step in time, everything blinks and glows. I don’t push or expect anything, don’t block or shape anything, don’t hope or repress. It is all right and it turns out it is.

Christmas becomes a mandatory holiday for me: I can’t bill Microsoft for time on Friday or Monday, and working the weekend between seems pointless. I am a long way from starving, and taking time for myself is a new thing to try.

I made a list and have done some of it. Another $200 at Ikea gives me just enough shelves to put the books away. I have a box of LPs and random office supplies left. I did my end-of-year giving. I got some exercise, spend two bucks at the computer parts recycling place for a far superior keyboard, on which I now type. I spraypainted the rust spots on the front railing in Saturday’s sun. I finished a book, made an omelet. The list includes lists all through December, most items crossed off but never all. Isn’t four days enough to at last unpack everything?

Saturday the books go on the shelves. I have a pile by the stairs of those I don’t want: duplicates, never read, no interest, would rather not have her copy. A swim makes the afternoon soupy with exertion’s good fatigue and I spend some hours staring out the window. That night I have some of the most fun I’ve had in a while: Seattle’s trademark LGBT holiday cabaret musical Homo for the Holidays. [The devout and extremely conservative should probably not click through.] My friend and I laugh ourselves hoarse at the show’s punch and wit and peacockery.

Getting to bed very late I do not know what time it is, but in a new way. Dissociation I know well–the lack of embodiment, the sense of eternity encasing the world in brilliant glass, clocks that spin but time that doesn’t move. This distance is new: the world paused as it holds its breath, not starving for air but held to keep the quiet. Is something ending, something starting? I think it is the inbetween time, wholly nascent, pregnant with nothing but its own undefined possibility.

I remember in high school going to a Christmas church service. Much was made of Christmas falling on a Sunday, making it extra holy, extra observant. I probably played the snarky adolescent intellectual, wondering why any day should be more holy than another, since God created all of them equally, isn’t that right? Nobody knows when Christ’s birth really was–Christmas has been all over the calendar, the day rising and falling in holy emphasis over the centuries. That we are gathered here on a particular Sunday in a particular month is an accident of history. I don’t remember all of that, just the guy at the altar and a sense that this was all an act, but having acts is important to us. We need narrative.

Christmas is quiet. The edge of some fatigued sadness is off to the side, out the window, pressed between the clouds and we on the surface, but I can feel it without going into it. I open the box from my mom with the cat. Two sweaters, a couple boxes of thin mints, a Lowe’s gift card. The cat prefers the box and tissue paper to the fuzzy mouse. Garrison Keillor comes on the radio. Christmas is quiet for him too, a time of contemplation and silence, wondering how the world can be so wonderful when a Charlie Brown like him is in it. He talks to a two-time poet laureate for a measured dialog full of pauses between two reserved men on Christmas and meaning and time. What can Christmas mean from Hawaii, where women walk free of snow and cold in sundresses in brilliant warm sun? The former poet laureate agrees the ways of the Lord are mysterious and great material. A call to a woman on a New Hampshire mountaintop gives a quiet poem about horses and loss through time. That is such a lovely poem, Keillor says in his drifting oceanic voice, and the woman says he is very kind.

Books get put away. I have a lot of books. People respond to texts and wish me Merry Christmas, make jokes, say hello. Kind emails appear. It is not as all right as it has been; the electricity is not quite present, not quite enough to lift me a few inches above the floor. But I am not falling through it.

The email and the call with directions to dinner comes. A friend has invited me into the controlled roil of Greek family Christmas. I am determined to make this exactly what I need.

For the first time in years, I take a nap, unintentionally. I have strange half-dreams of places I don’t know and of things and person-things I don’t remember, waking up to 1979, 1983, 1991, now. The cat looks at me funny as I lie on the office floor. It’s getting dark and I’m late.

My friend’s grandmother’s house is something out of a magazine just leaning into reality but without grime of any kind. The home is perfect: every surface smooth and uniform, the wood floor fitted together as tightly as sheets of paper in a ream. Christmas decorations are arranged in tasteful density on runnered countertops and in display cases, the glass shelves devoid of dust. Warm light falls everywhere and people mill in happy volume, all dressed well for business semi-formal dinner. I sense I am underdressed but no one says anything as my friend greets me, I am hugged by the resident matriarchs built like bulldog fireplugs, led to the bar for the drink I must have by the man of the house. Just soda? Nothing stronger? You sure? Makers right there, good whiskey you know, very good. Silent men sit at the table and flip between basketball, football. Gorgeous women in modest dresses and expensive shoes shine from corners talking about their children, meaning shouting quietly over the general din. Food out of a magazine is arrayed in deep, gold-lipped porcelain: spanakopita, mashed potatoes, roast, ham, green beans with basil and lemon, a Santa Jello mold that despite its incongruity is eagerly consumed. My friend’s cousin who I met previously talks with me about living in Georgetown and writing professionally, and hopefully I don’t bore her. My friend’s wife says I look so much better than I did last year. As the night goes on the Greek matriarchs set plates of rich desserts in front of me, which takes many minutes of polite struggle for them to accept my refusal. They are all concerned with my getting enough to eat. A cousin’s girlfriend has made exquisite cake balls, and eating one I feel like Mr. Creosote in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. I survive eating three.

At the end there are many hugs amidst yelling children and feather rustle of coats. The women are all soft, warm and smooth except for the elbows; they are like receiving a hug from pudding. Yes yes, says the old man. Thank you for coming. Merry Christmas.

Streets are empty going home, though the Walgreens on 65th and 15th is open. I drive through West Seattle to see the Christmas lights, but after a few houses that look out on the bridge approach the lights are modest. I feel the electricity, that sense of college Christmas break release and okay, drifting through the radio and the open window. A couple guys with cigarettes are laughing on a streetcorner. Awesome, I hear one say.

A few cars move on the dark streets now, but not many. People are moving now. We are all moving up out of the bottom of the year’s parabola, riding up to the next solstice and the sun, but I still have a soft spot for winter and dark, the reason for the lights. Whatever I got this day it was what I needed. It has been awesome enough.

 

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