In a surprising, uncharacteristic lapse in order and tidiness, last January 2nd, I yanked all the lights off our Christmas tree and rather than carefully and meticulously wrapping them around their designated spools specifically bought for their neat and organized storage, I threw the tangled heap into a big red plastic bin, muttered “Fa la la la la, la la la la” and slammed down the lid.
Well, sort of. A word starting with the letter “f” was definitely involved though.
To the best of my knowledge, I believe that I was suffering from a mild case of Post Traumatic Christmas Stress Disorder which develops after you’ve made it through all the pre-Christmas stress brouhaha, hopefully congratulated yourself with a glass or two of champagne or spiked eggnog on the 25th that you got it all done without killing someone in a fit of road rage in the mall parking lot, and then wake up on the 26th to the realization that the gift of Christmas just keeps on giving and giving… because you’ve got just as much work waiting for you deconstructing the whole dog and pony show.
Most wonderful time of the year? I’m not so sure.
My son asked me if Christmas was my favorite holiday because obviously it is his, other than his birthday, which I had to point out to him wasn’t an actual holiday, and I answered the 4th of July. He looked at me like I was nuts and said in disbelief, “But Mom, there are no presents on the 4th of July!”
I replied, “Exactly.”
Beach, booze, barbecues, fireworks and no endless search for the damn scotch tape, what’s not to love?
Christmas can bring any nice and normal person to the brink of insanity. Christmas lights can test anyone’s limit of patience. Just ask Clark Griswold. Also, I think it is entirely possible that Christmas lights, as well as those damn reindeer car costumes, are the reason many people just skip the whole “Christmas thing.” Contemporary and commercial interpretations of Christmas have stripped the spiritual meaning of many of the symbols of the season leaving many feeling empty asking à la Charlie Brown, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?”
Take those Christmas lights, for example. Please. (Especially the icicles ones that are still up in July that I can’t take. I. Just. Can’t.) Even secular sources indicate a spiritual metaphor behind the popularization of lighting Christmas trees dating to the 16th century when the theologian and monk, Martin Luther, started putting candles on his Christmas tree to remind celebrants of the Bethlehem star which lead the Magi to Jesus, the light of the world. Apparently, the custom caught on despite the high incidence of house fires, and in 1890, Thomas Edison, who was always coming up with bright ideas, invented the first string of electric incandescent lights which his assistant then displayed on his Christmas tree in Manhattan. (Not in Rockefeller Center as you might suspect, that tradition started later during the Depression by the workers building the plaza.)
The only problem was that these lights were expensive and hardly anyone could afford them. A few opted to rent them but even then, it was out of reach for most Americans. But fear not! This is America! This is the land of equal opportunity where if something is highly desirable, valuable and rare, we will find a way to mass produce it so every red blooded American in this country can have their God given right to buy it at Wal-Mart for next to nothing even if that means the same said American losing their job to the oursourcing of its production to China so that the only place they can shop is Wal-Mart. And just like that, voila!, its value and meaning drain away. I blame Wal-Mart. For a lot actually but I’ll only mention this because it’s Christmas and ’tis the season and all.
I don’t know much about life and I still have no clue what Lost was all about but I do know this; fake doesn’t feed anything. Excess doesn’t either.
The great American businessman and philanthropist, John D. Rockfeller was once asked, “How much money is enough?” His answer, “Just a little bit more.” And with that first case of the disease More! documented, it spread rampant throughout the country and The Great Christmas Light Fight, airing on your local station this Christmas season, was spawned. Is it me, or should the words Christmas light and fight not belong in the same sentence?
I’m not sure how this happened but this is where we have taken the Christmas light story. From a simple, humble and reverent act of remembering the light of love in the world and in our hearts to glaringly excessive and tacky commerical spectacles on our lawns crowded with inflatable snowmen and Santas in airplanes with little connection to the true spirit and sacredness of Christmas.
Each time I pass a particularly outrageous house lit up like an amusement park during this time of year, I think to myself, well, we really have it all don’t we? This, right here, is the American Dream. There is no stopping us. There are no limits. Because oh, how we hate limits. Limits hold you back. They confine you. They prevent you from doing what you want to do.
Limits stop you from living a life without limits.
So how is it, if we have it all, most of us feel we don’t? Like maybe we are missing out on something important, something great and of significance? Not just at Christmas but all year. With all the stuff to do, buy, wrap, hide, bake, light, decorate, deliver and the year long quest for the perfect family photo for the Christmas card, we allow ourselves to to be dazzled away from it and we are still left wanting… More! It’s as if we are standing in front of the All You Can Eat Buffet after our 3rd trip up and we are still hungry.
I ask you.
I got the bin of impossibly tangled lights down today. My first cranky Scrooge thought was to take a hammer to the whole ugly secret, bust those tiny white lights into a million pieces, laugh a little too hysterically while doing so and then run to any store but Wal-Mart and start over. That would feel really good. No doubt. I was already out of the running for the Most Composed Award anyway.
But then again…just who in Sam Hill did I think would clean up that mess? The Elf on the Shelf? Nah. Me, that’s who.
Not worth it.
Anyway the truth about Christmas lights, fishing lines and earphones is that right out of the box, they are just waiting to be tangled so what was the point of starting over?
Still, I so didn’t need this.
Trying to unravel this miserable wadded tight lump was a waste of time. Today is December 3rd. Time is not on my side since I refuse to start anything Christmas until December 1st on principle. I was already starting to get that feeling like a tired, wired kid at a birthday party who has had way too much sugar, who is in all ways on overload but still finds herself blindfolded and spun around for a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and then pushed in the direction of the wall with the donkey taped to it. Like many this time of year, I feel so turned around, so lost and overwhelmed and emotionally ragged that I can’t find the wall where the donkey is or even what direction it might be. I can’t take one step forward without without the chance that I am actually walking farther away from it. And worse of all, I can’t even remember why I am playing. Except for me, the donkey is Christmas.
And then, something inside me got to work.
I sat on the floor in my family room and laid the guilt of last years impatience out all around me. Then, with equal impatience, I started to tug and pull. Tugging is what you will always try first with a tangle. It makes things worse but this is what you do. Sometimes you make things worse before they get better. After a few more tugs, I started working it more gently, careful not to break any of the bulbs. Soon things began to loosen up and unravel a bit and there were more spaces in between the mass of tangles.
This was encouraging.
So I flipped on the tv because it was obvious I was going to be here for awhile. This was a mistake. What fresh hell is this? Mass shooting in California. 14 dead. At a holiday party.
This was discouraging.
It can absolutely blow your mind how cruel life can be. I am always deeply surprised by it. You almost have to turn away, protect yourself from taking it all in. We see the brutality of life and also what lives inside us and we don’t like to see it. Many turn away. We distract ourselves with meaningless activities and shiny objects. We allow ourselves to get dazzled away and all tangled up by the hustle and bustle, consumerism and excess of life trying to push down the profound collective anxiety and terror and helplessness we feel.
Because what are you supposed to do when what is happening can’t be? Again and again and again. It all seems so hopeless. Hopelessness seems to underscore everything.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Secret Life of Bees. In it, there is a character named May who is so sensitive to the sadness of the world that her sisters have constructed a wailing wall like the one in Jerusalem so that May can write down the sad things and stick the notes in her wall. This seems to help her.
Maybe that’s what I need. A wailing wall. I have sisters.
I turn off the tv feeling more lost, more turned around, more emotionally ragged. My spirit felt as deflated as all those pools of lifeless Santas and snowmen splayed out on the lawns in the dewy dawn of morning as I imagined what the victim’s loved ones must endure, especially this time of year. It was going to be a long December for them.
I can remember my long December five years ago when suddenly, out of nowhere, a corner of the curtain of truth was lifted-not everyone you love will die later. This one inconvenient truth, that some of them will die sooner and in ways that are shockingly difficult to absorb, can hurt and anger you beyond any reasonable chance of healing.
Slowly, the anger and frustration started to build up inside me. My hands clenched the lights harder trying to find some space in between the tangles. How can it be that we are here again? This was our country’s 353rd mass shooting THIS YEAR. Is this the price of freedom we are willing to pay?
The first time I voted in a presidential election I had to ask the older gentleman volunteering there how to do it.
The nice older gentleman said, “You’ve never voted before? This is your first time?”
I said, “Yes. Yes, it is”
He said, “Well then, it would be my privilege to show you how to vote.” And as he led me to to the voting booth he added, “But I cannot tell you how to vote. Because this is America. And we value liberty and freedom above everything else.” Wasn’t he darling?
But here is the thing.
This doesn’t feel like freedom. It feels like hell. The real honest to goodness kind and not just the Whole Foods on a Sunday kind.
How is it still possible that any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Jane, as the case may be) can easily get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction whose only purpose is to kill- to kill at a distance, to kill with speed, to kill with maximum lethality, to kill with the minimum amount of effort possible?
How could our founding fathers have possibly have imagined the kind of weapons we would develop and have the right to bear when the most advanced weapon they had at that time would probably have been a manual rifle, capable of firing two or three shots per minute. I mean these are the same men who were still sticking candles in their trees. For another 100 years.
The question of limits.
Consider unfettered access to other WMD. Nukes don’t kill people, people do?
This is not forgiving territory.
Life can be so punishing, it makes you want to punish back. It can make you mad.
Anger is pretty much considered a trashy emotion that we civilized people can choose not to feel. One we can choose to rise above or successfully contain by taking a number of deep breaths or applying a thick coat of positive thinking on top of it. Screw that. Anger is a natural emotion not a character defect. Not a weakness. But unlike joy or sadness, it just needs a little polish before you release it into the world. Because anger can be clarifying. Anger can serve to clarify how you feel about something in one sharp instant. And with this clarity can come fuel.
Anger makes you question the way things are. Anger makes you change the world.
Thirty-five years ago, a heartbroken and angry mother questioned the way things were. She saw something that either nobody else saw or people saw but didn’t think about. Or they thought about it but didn’t do anything about it.
She saw that the world was broken.
Because her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Knocked out of her shoes walking to a church carnival.
After her long December, she learned that this was not the drunk driver’s first accident while drinking. She learned what police officers and traffic-safety advocates already knew, that drunk driving was not on society’s radar. That drinking and driving was considered normal behavior. It was just how you got home. She learned there were no limits on how much someone could drink and get behind the wheel of a vehicle capable of mass destruction. Of easily killing a carload of teenagers, a bus full of children, or a little girl walking to a church carnival. She learned that tens of thousands of people were dying each year from drunk driving and nobody seemed to think about it or care. It was just the way things were.
And this was wrong. It was a broken thing.
John Keats said, “I must choose between despair and energy, I choose the latter.” And so did Candy Lightner, founder of MADD. She picked herself off the floor of hopelessness and made a promise in her deceased daughter’s bedroom one day, she would do something about the outrage of drunk driving. She would change the ways things were.
And then she got to work.
She initiated one of the greatest grassroots movements in American history, standing toe to toe with all the politicians who knew the stats but did not act and with the powerful alcohol industry that put profit over safety. She got all the people who never thought about it, to think about it. She got people to see the truth that she saw with her own eyes because that’s what the truth is. It’s the thing you recognize instantly once you see it even if you’ve never seen it before.
Candy Lightner was not a polished, experienced political activist or lobbyist. She was just an ordinary mother who saw something nobody else chose to see and said, “Enough. Not on my watch.”
She had seen the truth. She had spoken it out loud. And this unleased it into the world. Airborne.
And the world is a little less broken now.
So what do you do in such difficult and violent times? When the best I can manage is a crabby hope and shoestring faith that better days lie ahead? When having hope seems illogical.
I ask you.
While I was working this through in my mind, tugging at it, trying to get some space in between the tangles, I glanced up. Sitting on the shelf was our little nativity scene which I had just put out.
Now, I must tell you, I’m not heavily into the Bible, anyone who talks about Jesus being their best friend or who will happily inform you they have a monopoly on the truth but I will say, I love our little nativity scene. It is in pretty sad shape though. The only figures left are Baby Jesus, Mary and a sheep or two. The last of the three wise men mysteriously disappeared last year and the others went years ago out of the small, slippery hands of the little angels that lived here replaced by the bigger ones who seem to have no interest in any scene that doesn’t involve friends, pizza and black electronic rectangles.
It is clear that Jesus is the superstar at Christmas. He gets top billing. He is front and center in the Nativity but, for me, there’s something about Mary…
Mary was a mother.
Mary didn’t turn away. Mary did not lose faith or hope that a bigger truth would be revealed. That there was a way to make something meaningful and beautiful out of the given situation. A miracle even. Instead, she created a space for light and love to enter even when the world told her there was no room for it.
Mary followed what was true no matter where it lead her even if it lead her to a stinky, old, rundown barn with cracks in the walls and roof. You can find miracles and truth in rundown barns. Those cracks are way the light breaks in.
Then, a smallish miracle.
I started to think about all the places in our country’s great history where we have ended up in a stinky, rundown, old barn. Where there seemed no way for any light to get in. Where there was no room at the inn for hope. Slavery, suffrage, segregation, succession…
If it is true that America is the land of The Great Christmas Light Fight, it is also true we are the land of self-correction. Where a crabby hope and shoe string faith can be enough for truth to somehow win out in the end. Where enough people can question the way it is and the world changes. Where in the blink of an eye, a scream of a bereaved mother, the deepest, hardest, most ruined parts of our nation can change because nothing built on lies or laws that oppose the nature of things can endure.
Hope always catches me by surprise.
Did you know that you are made of stardust? Everything we are and everything in the universe originated from stardust. From recycled bits and pieces of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies that continually float through us everyday directly connecting us to the universe and each other. Talk about awesome.
You might be wondering why this matters. Well, I’ll tell you.
This matters because origins matter.
This matters because our nature is that we are part of a bigger, less isolated truth-we are all literally part of each other. Connected and tangled up with one another as surely as a wadded lump of Christmas lights.
This matters because it is a lie that we are separate. Einstein called our experience as being separate an “optical delusion of consciousness.”
This matters because when we remember our collective truth, we will finally understand that,
Until we are all safe, none of us will feel safe.
Until we are all full, we will still feel hungry.
Until we all have peace, there is no peace.
This matters because, for us, anything is possible.
Because we are made of everything.
Have a merry little Christmas, maeve
-Full quote by Albert Einstein:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us, universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
If you have made it to the end of this piece, first, thanks!! You obviously have excellent taste and do not have ADHD. Second, and more importantly, if after reading it, you have decided that prayer or meditation or wishful thinking is not enough unless your prayer is “Dear God, Help me get off my lazy ass and do something.” If you have decided that “liking” a gun control stance or preaching about it on FB is just for show and pretty much worthless. If you have decided that bitching about it over lunch is a lot of hot air. If you have decided “not on my watch.” If you have decided that writing about it is still not enough then go here: www.everytown.org and do something. I did.
Edmund Burke said,”The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Yep. That.
Cannot tell you how much I enjoy your writing! Every one I read becomes my new favorite😉 . Love this piece immensely. Thanks Maeve! Merry Christmas!
Thanks Reen. Merry Christmas to you and all the “K’s”!