Lately, I’m haunted by the ghosts of all the experiences I am not having. That’s what the pandemic did: it robbed us all of the new experiences we would have had and replaced them with a bunch of experiences we never wanted. Of course, I worry about what the isolation means for my daughter first. Even when she seemed fine, the nightmares told me it was making a dent. When she started acting out in new and surprising ways, that made sense. Now she’s just listless. Bored, you know? One of my strengths as a parent is exposing my kid to all kinds of new experiences. Would-be bohemians become adventurous moms. Pre-pandemic, I rolled out of bed with big plans every weekend, took my kid on food tours of Chicago, and stopped at new-to-us playgrounds just because. When the pandemic shut us up indoors and then released us back into the wild as long as we stayed away from other people, I took it as a challenge. I pushed and stretched way outside the box to find of things to do and when my daughter and I flip through photos I took last year, I think, Damn. We made some magic.
But now I’m all out of steam, and it’s too cold anyway. The Adventure Express has ground to a halt. Mom is tired. In the old world, that would be okay. Even without me going out of my way, new experiences would be transmitted to by way of ordinary day-to-day living. My daughter would be feeling the sting of rejection and the sweetness of belonging at school. She’d be sipping cloying grape juice from the communion cup at church. She’d be inhaling the pyramid of fragrant soaps stacked up by the register at the grocery store. She’d be tasting chlorine and steaming or freezing under the wildly unpredictable showers showers at the YMCA. She’d be pressing the cool glass of the window against her cheek on long car rides. She’d know a different kind of boredom waiting in line at the post office and stumble onto the curative properties of people watching. She’s not getting any of that now. She’s not interacting with anyone besides her parents. She’s not seeing anything but the inside of our house. In a turn both welcome and sad, she very recently and suddenly outgrew or tired of the imagination games that colored her world (and mine) for the last year.
Just in time, she turned a corner with reading, and started disappearing into books. We went to the library a few Saturdays ago and she finished a small stack of “Princess in Black” and “Ivy and Bean” and “Billy and the Mini Monsters” by Tuesday. I was delighted–I hadn’t realized she enjoyed reading outside of school–but she was disappointed. “I wish I’d gotten more books. I didn’t think I’d finish them so quickly. And I know we can’t go back so soon.” We’ve only been to the library a handful of times since it reopened last year, a marked change from the trips we used to take every weekend of of her life. Regular trips didn’t seem worth the risk points when we could just stockpile books. “Hey kiddo. It’s okay. We can go back this week.”
The library is open late on Tuesdays, so that’s when we went, after a hasty dinner at home. Bundling up in heavy coats and piling into the car after dark was something we haven’t done for a year. It used to feel like such a hassle. Now it was something to look forward to and something to do in the long stretch between the end of the work day and bed. Driving through the neighborhood, looking at the colored lights at houses hanging on to winter and peeking into people’s windows–hey look, a cat! a happy family!–had something of the familiar to it. “Hey kiddo. Remember when we used to do this every week for swim lessons? It seems absurd to think that we left the house after dark so often.” My kid’s response was matter-of-fact, maybe a little defensive, maybe a little sad. “No it doesn’t.” “Don’t worry, kiddo. You’ll get to take swim lessons again.”
Taking advantage of the library’s late hours ws a stroke of pandemic genius. The people counter glowing on the wall said there were only 5 patrons in the building, out of a maximum capacity of 100. When we went on Saturday it was at 70. We had the run of the place and took our time. We sat on the floor and browsed. We looked at the recommendations from the librarians. We checked out the new titles. My kid grabbed as many chapter books as she was carry, and a few that I forced on her. I even sniffed out the occult shelves on the second floor and picked up a few books on tarot and witchcraft. Why? Because I’m starving for new experiences, goddamnit, and how else am I supposed to get my kicks? Because magic is the exertion of a person’s will to alter their reality, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now? Autonomy. Control. A change of fucking scenery.
For a year, I’ve been cataloguing all we lost in the pandemic. Collectively: people, dignity, livelihoods, homes. Personally: relationships, security, purpose, a plan. I’ve written ad nauseum about all the things we used to do and had to stop. It’s harder to keep tabs on the new experiences we might have had but never materialized.
We were supposed to go to North Carolina last year. What would I have seen on that road trip with my family that might have changed me? “You’re going to fall in love with Asheville,” a colleague told me. “You’re going to want to pack up and move.”
My daughter and I had just started a volunteer assignment at the soup kitchen last January. Our first time there, we set up the dining room, and then greeted the guests. We welcomed them as filed in in a line that stretched out the door of the church and then, after the meal, bid them good night with bagged lunches pressed into their hands. The experience was jarring for my daughter, who has never seen poverty or anything like it, and boring because we were there for a long time. What effect might a year service and small talk had on her?
We were supposed supposed to see Josh Ritter play at Fourth Presbyterian. The show scheduled for last March was kicked to September and then canceled indefinitely. It would have been our daughter’s first concert and our first show as a family. How might the music have moved all three of us?
My daughter is the only kid at church who hasn’t been baptized. I was waiting for her to turn eight because that’s how old I was when I was baptized into the Mormon church. My daughter turns eight next month. I can’t say for sure whether she would have taken that step in the church we go to now, but a year ago that’s what she wanted. Baptizing her into a congregation we haven’t seen since then, into a belief system I’ve since deconstructed, seems unfathomable, like crossing the red sea. How might her spiritual path have unfolded if we hadn’t been ripped away from our congregation? How might mine?
I was supposed to celebrate five years of sobriety in January. How many hours would I have spent in church basements listening to people tell stories about traveling to hell and back and finding God, and how might they have helped me along the way?
Last Sunday, I got in my car and cruised for a few hours down Clark Street into Chicago and back up Broadway til it turned into Sheridan. There were so many restaurants, open of course, masked patrons spilling and milling around out front. A friend recently texted about a brunch we ate eight years ago. I had been thinking about it, too. It had popped up as a “memory,” courtesy of my phone. It the best fucking brunch. Decadent. Indecent, even. How many meals might I have tasted that marked me so indelibly?
How many transcendent moments might I have had with strangers and with friends?
I’ve changed in quar, but the change has been a wearing down, a letting go. But erosion doesn’t always leave things smooth. This last year has also seen a crystalizing of every one of my sharp edges.
What would I look like if I’d been in the world mixing it up, knocking into everyone, tasting everything? What if I’d spent the last year filling up on new experiences instead of drying out trying to get by on the old?
Might my life look more like how it used to feel–like an expanding balloon, a gas giant, a star burning off hydrogen and throwing light and heat in every direction–and less like it feels now–like a collapsed lung?
“Look at my legs, mama. They won’t stop wiggling.” For a full week leading up to Christmas, my seven-year-old was a hot jangly bundle of nerves. Bouncing up from her chair in the middle of meals and virtual school and racing around the room has been her M.O. for months now, but her energy was off the charts in the week leading up to Christmas. I started preemptively pulling out the mini trampoline before dinner and encouraging her to burn off some energy. She was so excited. She talked about Santa with such fervor that I had to refrain from crooning “Santa’s my boyyyy-friend” every time she asked, “Do you think Santa likes me? Do you think he’ll write me back?” For her dad and me, the days practically fell off the calendar as we rushed headfirst into Christmas trying to get everything done in time. For her, the days dragged: so single-minded was her focus on the big day that she couldn’t do anything wait.
I know what it is to wait like that. I remember waiting like that when I was a kid for Christmas and birthdays and summer vacation. I still know how to wait like that. Once upon a time, I waited like that for family trips and parties. All last year, I waited like that for election day and an effective vaccine. Last month, while my daughter counted down the days to Christmas, I watched the moon shift around in the sky while I waited for the solstice. Admittedly, solstice has been on my mind a lot longer than that. As an early riser, I started missing the sun when it started disappearing from the sky a little bit at a time back in June. As a longtime sufferer of seasonal depression, shit started getting real when daylight saving time ended in November and sky was dark by four. As a lover of ritual, I am always on the lookout for chances to mark the passage of time by stopping it in its tracks, and as a refugee of religion, I am hungry for ways to do it that haven’t been corrupted by colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. How would my northern european ancestors have marked the darkest day of the year? With candles, of course.
I cannot state clearly enough how wholly uninterested my daughter was in the solstice preparations. She tossed the pinecone altar together haphazardly. She wanted to mute the sound on the fake yule log video I had streaming on the TV because the crackling was “annoying.” She eyed the candles nervously, perhaps remembering the time her hair caught on fire when I first started to embrace hygge as a lifestyle a few years ago. Her reluctance turned into full on resistance when we went outside to leave an offering under a tree. She took her irritation out on the squirrels. “You know the squirrels are going to eat ALL of this. They’re not going to leave ANYTHING for the birds. Squirrels are the WORST. By the way, it’s COLD OUT HERE.” I couldn’t help but think of my mom making the whole family wake up early to read the Book of Mormon in the dark. I couldn’t help but think of my mom on her knees next to her bed. I couldn’t help but think about yanking stretched and sagging tights over my little girl legs and shivering in the back of a cold van as we drove to the other side of town for church on dreary winter mornings. In Mormonism, men are supposed to be the spiritual leaders, but it was my mom who set the religious rhythm in our household, who was always trying to nudge us up onto a higher plane. I left Mormonism, but it still feels like I’m trying to haul my family with me into some version of heaven. It doesn’t matter if I’m asking my daughter to give 10% of her allowance to the church or a handful of her snacks to the squirrels, if I’m making her wear a dress to church or a hat on a nature walk. Mom’s rituals are weird and pointless and she doesn’t want to do them.
Fortuitously, my interest in the natural world overlapped with my daughter’s love of all things Christmas when Jupiter and Saturn traveled across the sky and came into alignment in an astronomical event closer and brighter than any humans have seen in nearly eight hundred years. Astronomers called it the Great Conjunction. Believers called it the Christmas Star.
The planets were at their closest on December 21st and I wanted to incorporate them into my solstice observance, but the atmosphere down here did not cooperate with my careful planning. To wit: it was cloudy, we couldn’t see jack. My daughter stomped back inside and I chastised myself for not getting my act together earlier. Both planets had been visible for nearly a week–more dedicated skywatchers than I had already spotted them from Illinois–but I’d put it off. Like a foolish virgin, my lamp was dry. I’d thought I had more time.
The next night was clear when I went for my usual sunset run. I’m mildly embarrassed to admit I wasn’t sure if the conjunction would still be visible to my naked eye. The planets had taken twenty years to get into this position in the sky. What did I expect them to do, bounce off each other like pinballs and disappear from view? Even if the planets moving as slowly as it seems like planets must, I wasn’t sure how bright they would be at twilight or if they’d be high enough in the sky to see over the treeline to the right. I scanned the skies like a magi, rubbernecking every wavering orb and turning away in disgust when they gave themselves away as cell towers and airplanes. For awhile I had my eye fixed on two points of light that seemed promising, but I didn’t trust they way they seemed to be traveling with me as I ran. I know our moon pulls tricks like that, but I thought the gas giants would be more predictable. At last I had to turn away from the southwest horizon to make my way back home, resigned and trying to convince myself that looking for the star and not finding it was more in line with the Christmas story than anything. I didn’t need to see it to know it was there. I didn’t need to witness it to experience the magic of a most singular event.
When I got home, I turned and took one last look at the sky behind me. The two pricks of light I’d spotted on my run were now fixed exactly where they were supposed to be, low over the southwest horizon, but well above the treeline, farther than any airplane and brighter than anything in the sky. I threw open the front door and called up the stairs. “D! Do you want to see the Christmas Star???” “YESSSSS,” she screamed back, barrelling down the stairs and out the front door without a coat. She followed my finger pointing at the sky, finding the lights for herself and letting out a sigh. “We’re just like the magi,” she said. “Yes we are girlie. We found what we were looking for.”
Finding those lights in the sky when I thought it wasn’t possible anymore was the best gift I got this season. The Christian narratives about preparation and blind faith were neat but unsatisfying. Can being a believer mean so little? To drag my child kicking and screaming through ritual that only means something to me? To toil away preparing and afraid of missing out? To hold out hope for things I might never see? I don’t think so. The greatest leap of faith I can take is to believe that the gifts of the universe are here for me too. The greatest act of devotion I can make is to live, to look up, to receive.
In my family growing up, we never put a tree up, hung a strand of lights, or breathed a word of Christmas before December 8. My brother’s birthday is on December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, yes; we have a few birthdays that coincide with tragedy and loss of international proportions in our family) and my parents never wanted him to feel overlooked. I continued to observe the first week of December as a neutral zone long after I no longer lived with my brother and started celebrating holidays with my own family. We only first put a tree up the first week of December a couple of years ago and I loved it so much for how it stretched out the season and gave me time and space to breathe.
When I was working my way up the ladder at a big law firm, I inevitably had massive multi-week trials scheduled to begin in December or January, and it was a fight to flip the switch and make room for Christmas in my work-obsessed mind and overbooked schedule. The cases always settled–year-end has a way of bringing people together, for the shareholders, you see–and I spent meaningful time with my family every holiday season, but I could never count on that and the first few weeks after Thanksgiving always felt like being squeezed. Bringing a tree inside the first week of December was like magicking a whole extra week out of thin air and it helped. In the lights of the tree, I could sit still and see past the next twenty-four hours without holding my breath. I wondered if maybe the Christians, with their four weeks of Advent–a whole season of waiting–were onto something.
If the idea of a month of Christmas makes you anxious, I get it. I get that this month sucks for Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and the millions of Christians who don’t observe Christmas (including Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Churches of Christ). I get that this holiday sucks for people whose lives don’t look like the Hallmark specials. Christmas can suck when you live alone. Christmas can suck when you are estranged from your family, whether you asked for the separation or not. Christmas definitely sucks when you are physically separated–by virtue of work, sickness, disability, immigration status, military service, addiction, or imprisonment–from people you love and with whom you very much want to be. Christmas sucks when you are the one who is sick or addicted. Christmas sucks when your family is in the process of changing shape. Christmas sucks in a pandemic.
I don’t want Christmas to eat the end of the year for people for whom the holiday brings no comfort. And believe me, what I want to draw out for myself is not the hustle bustle or the making merry. I’m not spending the extra week shopping, for Chrissake, or blasting Pentatonix, or slamming nog. I’m staying home with my family. I’m bringing the wild outside in. I’m turning on the lights and turning up the heat. I’m freeing up a weekend day to take my daughter, in better years, to see the Joffrey Ballet perform The Nutcracker downtown.
This year, Thanksgiving came late enough that it made sense for us to get a tree the weekend after, which means we had it up in November. My spouse was cranky about it. Behind his back, I rubbed my hands together, greedy with anticipatory glee, already relishing all the extra time. The tree we picked out had a wonky branch on the bottom, so we lopped it off and wound it in a circle for an Advent wreath. I held off on lighting a candle, though. Surely, it was too early to start waiting in earnest. I didn’t realize my mistake for a few days, when I flipped the calendar to December and counted up the Sundays left before Christmas. We’d missed the first Sunday in Advent, the one where we remember to have hope.
Of course, we could have lit the candle on December 1. There’s no meaningful distinction between Sunday and Tuesday anymore, now that we don’t go to church, and there’s no wrong time for ritual. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though. When my daughter popped out of bed on December 1, she shouted “Merry Christmas” at the tree, the lights of which are hooked up to a smart plug, which is connected to a smart speaker, which is programmed to play thirty seconds of Deck The Halls followed by a feel-good news story. She ran around the house playing with a plastic figurine of Buddy the Elf that she got out of a cereal box last year. She built Santa’s workshop out of LEGO. No sooner did we have the decorations up than it hit me: I couldn’t come close to matching that energy. Not this year.
When I think about Christmas, I feel overwhelmed. Not by the prospect of shopping or parties or travel–obviously we’re not doing any of that–but by the task of manufacturing Christmas magic on my own in a house that is still reeling from the trauma of this year. I am scraped clean of belief, wonder, and joy. Those feelings are currently inaccessible. I was not a literal believer when the year started, but I found meaning and value in the Jesus story. Now the waiting season is upon us, but it’s been eight months since I set foot in a church and the story has lost all relevance to my life. It’d be going too far to say I’m angry at God, because you can’t get mad at an absence; all the emotion just disappears.
Later in the week, I seized on an upswing in my mental state to light a candle with my daughter and read aloud the devotional materials from the church. They gave us this poem by Maya Angelou, “A Plagued Journey,” and it was so distressing I did a double take. No doubt, I could relate to every miserable turn of phrase (“bone of fear,” “bonds of disconsolation”) but I couldn’t figure out why I was reading it in the first place. The Advent reflections spelled it out for lost readers like me: candles do their best work in the dark. Hope is most valuable when we are utterly without it.
This is a dark time, but that’s okay. We were never meant to walk entirely in the light. Preparation takes time to pay off. Anticipation takes time to build. Hope is a thing we can hope for.
You don’t grow up Christian in America without hearing a thing or twenty about the “straight and narrow” path. As a rebellious Mormon, I loathed this concept. I could imagine nothing more dreary and oppressive than a life spent following a road laid out by someone else, following orders, moving forever forward while looking longingly at the roads less travelled.
As a perfectionist who never could manage to live up to that trait, I hated the concept equally but for a different reason. A narrow path offered too many opportunities to fall off. I’d never make it, so better to never bother stepping on, better to pretend I never wanted anything to do with your stupid straight road anyway.
A few months after I stopped attending the Mormon church, I started hearing the phrase crop up in recovery meetings, usually from old timers describing how the path of sobriety narrows the longer they’re on it. This scared me. Had I stepped into a way of living that was going to end up feeling as oppressive as Mormonism?
Today, more than a year into this life, I found some clarity around this concept. The straight and narrow path isn’t the one laid down and blessed by the church. It’s the path that carries each of us forward. Once you’ve found purpose and direction, it becomes increasingly intolerable to live in a manner that is inconsistent with those things. Your mind and body and soul won’t tolerate straying for long. It’s too painful. When my mind wanders to relapse, my chest tightens. When I entertain the notion of going back to the old way of living for much longer than that, my cells start screaming apart. It’s not freedom; it’s chaos. The narrowing of the path is the price we pay for finding it. The cost of learning how to live is that you can’t stop doing it.
My road doesn’t pass through the same valleys as yours. Mine is a highway through the middle of the US. The road is mostly well-paved paved but it cuts a dusty path through the desert and winds through a few mountain towns.
Our roads don’t take us through the same cities or countries or churches. Some roads don’t have a church on them at all. They are all long, though, and I suspect that our maps are all the same. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Lose yourself. And I’ll be damned if we don’t all end up in the same place.