Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ghosts in My Machine



You know the story of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," but I'm going to retell it anyway:

Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly moneychanger, is visited on Christmas Eve by four ghosts: his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, who warns him that his stinginess will doom him to a life and afterlife of loneliness and pain; the ghost of Christmas past, who shows him through a montage of memories how he became the man he is; the ghost of Christmas present, who shows him how some are rejoicing at Christmas, while others suffer, all of them grieving or berating the coldness of his heart; and the ghost of Christmas future, a silent specter who shows him how little time he has left, and what a miserable end he will come to, due to his solitary selfishness. The shock of the experience changes him into a man of love and generosity, and both he and the world are better for the transformation.

It's been told and retold, performed on stage, filmed, animated, digitized, updated, glossed, channeled, interpreted, interpolated, and yet it is always recognizable. Frank Capra's film "It's a Wonderful Life," which takes many of the ideas central to it and spins them out in very different, but still consistent, ways has itself become a lodestone to be mined for endless adaptations. As the calendar year draws to a close, both these stories are impossible to avoid.

What keeps us coming back to this theme of spectral visitation at Christmas? Why are we willing to sit through version upon version of the broken-hearted loser being scared straight?

I'm writing about this question because the last forty-eight hours have plugged me into my own seasonal ghosts. I know it's not even Christmas yet, but Thanksgiving gatherings have a similar impact for me. Consider this my own private Advent. You're welcome to join me for the ride.

It starts in trauma. I am the product of my own history, the most evolved form of me. Everything that has ever happened to me remains a part of me. The more traumatic experiences have shaped me more significantly, and remain with me much longer, though even they will fade with time. Holidays bring many of these traumas back to the surface, especially if the event that's influencing me took place on or near a holiday.

Much of Scrooge's memory of Christmas past has to do with the possibility of love in his life which he squandered, choosing money over relationships. Had he chosen a different path--had he chosen marriage and family over wealth--he might still have difficult memories to wrestle with. My own coupled holiday memories stir up both warmth and grief, sweetness and bitterness. There were times when I recaptured much of my childish enthusiasm for Christmas because of who I was with, and how we spent the day. There were also times when the holiday encapsulated all that was wrong about a relationship, and triggered the countdown to its unraveling.

There was a Christmas in Illinois that was my first away from home. I was 26, married for just a year, and everything about it was beautiful: we gave generously to each other, drawing on our meager income as student pastors, attended parties, sang carols, delighted in opening gifts that had been shipped across the country from my family, had the most beautiful Christmas tree I can remember. It was hard taking it down; I wanted it to last forever.

Seven years later, we had our last Christmas together. We were already technically separated, sleeping in different homes at night, but we spent the morning together for the sake of the children. We even managed to be together for my family's Christmas party. But the end was upon us, and the grief I was choking back through that day haunts me.

For years afterward, Christmas was a day for grief. Part of our parenting plan was making sure we both got time with our children on the actual day of Christmas. In retrospect, I believe this decision was all about us, and not in any way about what the children needed. For me it was the beginning of the end for my love of this holiday. Any joy I felt at waking up with my children and unwrapping gifts with them was quickly lost in bundling them off to the rendezvous that would take them to their second round of emptying stockings and opening presents; if, on the other hand, it was my turn to pick them up, I woke up to a feeling of profound emptiness, and knew once I had them with me, that everything we did was a reprise of something they had already experienced earlier that morning. Apart from my own sadness was the grief I felt for them, having this day of giving be forever a symbol of their parents' inability to let go.

In later years, once the children had been moved to Idaho, the back-and-forth aspect of the day relaxed. I had them now for holiday breaks, so they could spend uninterrupted time with me on that day. And then came the year of the blizzard, 2008, a time when I was already reeling from months spent fighting a custody battle, and the weeks I was supposed to have with them shrank to just a few days. I grieved again on that Christmas day, though I found friends to share it with. And then I let go of it.

Since that year, I have been in a relationship that is more mutual and mature than either of my marriages (note that I didn't even mention the tantrum Christmas of 1998, which signaled the beginning of the end for marriage # 2); I have also abandoned many of my nostalgic ideas about what Christmas must be, especially when it comes to the commercial aspects of the holiday. And most recently, perhaps most significantly, I have been volunteering with Amy at the annual holiday dinner her synagogue hosts for the poor and homeless. This has been a piece in the de-Scroogification of my soul. I will still travel to McMinnville at some point during the holidays, as I did for Thanksgiving, because the coming together of my family is a vital and worthwhile aspect of the celebration. I will also be decorating a small tree because it's pretty and gives me joy.

You might be wondering, after this description, what has evoked these thoughts of bygone yule trauma. Overall, you may be thinking, I seem to have evolved to having a mature, realistic set of expectations for holidays. You'd be right: I no longer invest large portions of my emotional wellbeing in having to have the perfect Christmas. And mostly I've been having far better holidays as a result. I'm able to enjoy the celebrations for what they are, rather than what they aren't; to appreciate the people I'm with rather than focusing on those I can't see.

And in fact, the simple act of writing this post has purged many of the holiday ghosts evoked by Thursday's Thanksgiving dinner in McMinnville. The many dinners at which I was present as a single parent, or (in alternating years) just a lone single surrounded by intact families have faded; none of them was as hard to take as the year of the divorce, and even that trauma has lost much of its horror for me, especially in comparison to more recent crises.

But the greatest factor in the taming of the Christmas ghosts is the realization that all these experiences contributed to the creation of the man I am today, and by and large, I like this man, and the life he's built for himself. It's more the lesson of "It's a Wonderful Life" than "A Christmas Carol." Ebenezer Scrooge learned that it was never too late to make a change and begin living well; George Bailey, on the other hand, learned that there was far more to his past than just a catalogue of disappointments. The world was a far better place for his activity in it. The disappointing and troubling holidays I experienced as a young adult and, eventually, a middle-aged adult, are emblematic of the forces at work in my life at those times, forces that shaped me into the man I am today, that led me to this home, this career, this family, these friends, this love.

It seems, then, that the best way to deal with the ghosts of holidays past is not to banish them, not to exorcise them, but to embrace them, to be thankful for them. So in conclusion, I can say, two days late, that I am thankful, truly thankful, for the traumas in my life, whether they came about due to family, marriage, or career. And that, my friends, is my holiday gift to you: quit trying to deny, ignore, or excise those memories. You would not exist without them, and this world would not be what it is without your presence in it, as you are. Which makes me thankful for them, as well.

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