Monday, December 14, 2009

Remembering to Forget

[This article was originally published in Weavings in 2008 in an issue dedicated to readers who find Christmas difficult. If you are in a jolly mood, you might want to skip it.]


The English tend to approach things gently when they can. Television presenters who survey the weather forecast supplied by the Meteorological Office use phrases such as “bright” (read: light cloud cover), or “dull.” Around the middle of December they start getting real: “gloomy,” may be the word for the day, or “miserable,” or “blustery.”

The same goes for Christmas. In September, there may be a few festive items on a back shelf in a shop, or in a curtained-off area that's being turned into a grotto for Father Christmas, but the dreaded word is not spoken.

NOVEMBER 7, 2007

This past weekend the first “how to survive Christmas” article appeared, tucked away in the Food section of one of the papers. Soon the “how to survive” articles will spill over into the weekday editions; the papers seem to vie for the best psychological advice on how to cope with the annual family nightmare. In the last week before Christmas there will also be splashy ads for Christmas-free holidays for those who have decided that they simply can’t face it again.


The best Christmases I have had have been monastic. The deepening dark through Advent is matched by a deepening silence in the house; the only decorations are the Advent candles in the refectory. The liturgy is full of prophecy and vision, sparks of light almost visible as the words chant themselves, unwinding their ceaseless golden thread in the middle of the night. Then the great O antiphons, giving voice to our longing. And as we file in for Vespers on Christmas Eve, the church bursting with the smell of greens, candles waiting in expectation of midnight, an empty manger with cow and donkey and a few sheep munching contentedly.

I love the tradition that they are wiser than we are. They receive unfathomable mystery of the divine in the ordinary with mild eyes and gentle nods as they reach for another mouthful of hay. Of course this is the way it is, they seem to say, how could you have thought otherwise? I like to imagine that Mary and Joseph have absorbed some of this matter-of-fact calm by the time the kings arrive so that they, too, have a time—probably the only time for the rest of their lives—of simplicity and peace.

After Vespers, supper; Compline, a nap if one can quell the rising joy enough to sleep; then a candle flame scattering the light before each of us as we pace silently through the dark cloisters to the church. And after the glorious all-night liturgy, a day in silence to behold the mystery.

These days most monasteries, rightly or wrongly, won’t take guests at Christmas; if I could find one that did, I would go in a minute, happy to scrape carrots or dust the choir in exchange for these few days out of time. But you can’t go home again.

You see, I’m trying to go gently into the memories of other Christmases. They are harrowing, and sad.

NOVEMBER 14, 2007

This year’s big Yuletide topic is binge drinking. The figures are alarming: ninety-five percent increase in liver disease in the last seven years, mostly among young people; thirteen children a day treated in hospitals for alcohol-related problems. People don’t consider they’ve drunk enough until they’re paralytic.

My parents came out of the social drinking culture of the 1930s. Because my father was never a sloppy drunk, and because my mother rarely drank enough to be really plastered, at least in my presence, the thought that they might be alcoholic never crossed my mind until a community I was living next to had to face its own alcohol problems. Then the penny dropped.

As my father started drinking at a young age, it’s hard to know how much of what we suffered as a family was due to the booze or to the fact that he lost his mother when he was seven years old, an event that scarred him deeply. I don’t think he ever forgave her for dying, or himself for not forgiving her. He looked like her, though without the tender expression that came through her eyes in the only photo I’ve seen.

He hated the way he looked. I had the bad luck to look like him and worse luck to look even more like her, though our features were a different shape. When I saw that photo of her, I understood that much of my father's hatred of me was the pain he must have felt whenever he saw his mother's face looking out of mine. But there is no question that alcohol exacerbated an endemic depression and deep-seated misogyny. He never forgave my mother for producing three girls.

He had the alcoholic’s grandiosity; he demanded that we match his moods; he had a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He wanted absolute control over all of us at all times, including our thoughts and attitudes. He decided in advance, according to looks, who among us would be a credit to him and who would not (me), and treated us accordingly.

In order to survive I have become very good at forgetting, but the two earliest Christmases I remember stick in my mind. The first was in 1945 when I was four years old. My father was in Burma. We knew he was coming home, but we didn’t know when. We put up a Christmas tree, which we vowed to keep until he arrived. Months later when he came back, it was still in the house, devoid of needles, with his presents underneath.

The next Christmas I remember was much worse, perhaps the worst of my life. It was just after I had turned five years old. We were at my grandmother’s house because ours had been sold. After months of tension, and anxiety levels that made beginning school a positive relief, we were moving to Washington, D.C. This would be the third move, at least, since I had been born. I was happy where we were; I liked my school; I adored my grandmother, whose house was full of treasures, including a Meissen porcelain angel in a glass cabinet to whom I silently confided my hopes and fears. I couldn’t bear the tension; I didn’t want to go.

In spite of the beautiful old German winter scene under the tree with its wind-up train scooting through snow-covered tunnels, Christmas morning was a disaster. I remember tension you could cut with a butter knife. Doubtless there had been some serious drinking the night before, but hangovers were only part of it. My older sister and I were given dolls and baby carriages. “She won’t notice,” someone muttered, but of course I did notice the vast gulf between the set my sister had been given and mine. Anyway, I never played with dolls. But I hid my disappointment; I already knew better than to say anything. The grownups went up to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. I don’t know where my sister went.

I lingered, wallowing in a pool of misery. Then I spied the beautiful fabric scissors my mother had been given as a present. In some blind chthonic trance I seized the scissors and went to work on my hair. I suppose I thought that if I made myself even uglier, my parents would be too embarrassed to be seen with me and either I would be left behind or they would cancel the move. There was hell to pay, of course. Two days later I was jammed into a chair at a beauty salon, my mother almost hysterical with recriminations, while the beautician tried, vainly, to repair the damage.

The happiest Christmas I had at home occurred in what was one of the unhappiest years of my life. I was ten years old. I had been forced to leave a school where I was doing extremely well. My first autumn in the new school was more than traumatic. I was continually sick with ear infections. Not only did I miss a lot of school, but my eardrum abscessed and had to be lanced. I was routinely dropped off at the doctor. I will never forget the pain, or the conflicting emotions: relief that my hand-wringing mother wasn’t present, yet wanting a mother, any mother, to be there with me.

Christmas was coming. “The whole family will be together,” my father intoned, while the rest of us cringed. “Won’t that be nice.” No response. Finally, my mother, meekly, “Yes, dear.” "The whole family" omitted his flakey sister who worked for Central Casting, and his aunt who was a highly successful business woman, both considered by him too embarrassing or threatening to be included.

In the school art room I seized on clay; after a few false starts crêche figures began to emerge. I was slow; the figures were primitive in the extreme, but for me they were magical. They would change Christmas into something wonderful. We would become a family at last. My father would stop hating me, my older sister would stop making me take the blame for her mischief and would want to have a loving relationship. My mother would stop being anxious, and we would do things together, instead of my hiding in my attic room, or in the woods. I loved my family dearly; the magic of Christmas would help them accept that love. Of course it was not to be. In retrospect, something far more wonderful happened.

In violation of the rules, the art teacher sent me home for the vacation with a large wodge of clay and pots of gouache. “Take your time,” was all she said. Being literal, I took her advice. I spent all day, every day in the cellar working on my figures. I would not let anyone see them. The day before Christmas I went out in the yard and cut boughs of evergreen and holly, stuck them behind pictures hanging on the wall; decorated every surface with a spray or some sprigs of holly; created a bower on the mantelpiece for my crêche. Perhaps because my mother was originally an artist, I was allowed to do this.

Just before supper on Christmas Eve the last daub of paint went on the last figurine: gold for the face of the babe in the manger, who radiated light. My mother agreed I could be late to supper. My father hadn’t come home yet. I don’t know where my sister was. Carefully I arranged the figures among the hemlock and holly on the fireplace mantel, guardian angels at each end, shepherds, sheep, donkey, white and red cow (from the carol), and, far off, the kings on their way.

Thankfully, I don’t remember what the reactions were; I don’t remember anything more about that Christmas. I do know that many years later, when I was clearing my things out of my parents’ California attic with the support of a friend, I opened a box to find the crêche from long ago. I had forgotten all about it, ashamed, perhaps, that it didn’t resemble the Neapolitan one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which is what I am sure my mother would have preferred.

But on that hot summer afternoon my eyes were opened. One by one I pulled the figures out of their protective wrappings. By the time I finished, my friend and I were in tears. The figures were primitive, yes, but there was something in their body language, and, above all, the expressions on their faces, that sent the message of the reality of Christmas: that the most precious gift we can bring to the manger is not gold or frankincense or myrrh, but our suffering; which, in the light radiating from the Babe in the straw, will be transfigured into joy.


Someone told me with a shudder that carols were now playing at Marks and Spencer, but the other day when I had to go in, dreading the assault, it was pleasantly silent except for the usual shopping noise. While I’ve heard of some outlying villages done up to the nines, Oxford seems to be much lower key this year. Perhaps it is the times; perhaps the economy. Perhaps I’m just not going into places where Christmas is being sold with brickbats.

All the same I have a mounting dread that pushes me towards international train timetables, and the desire to escape on a trans-Channel express to a place where I can get lost in the liturgy and the silence, the “healing of strangeness.”

DECEMBER 5, 2007

Woke up with a really, really bad case of Christmas depression, not so much specifically about the feast, but all those old inarticulate bad feelings. All the techniques in the world can’t take away the miasma in the pit of your stomach that you somehow have to work through alone. Fortunately I know it is not the reality, no matter what it feels like. But you still have to get through it, even if, paradoxically, at the deepest layer you are also drinking from the springs of stillness.

DECEMBER 6, 2007

The family residual has always made merely staying alive a very difficult task; underneath all the static, however, is something else. As Clément reminds us, we fall through despair into the hand of God.

DECEMBER 18, 2007

This seems to be the year that Christian Christmas disappeared from the High Street. I haven’t seen a single crêche. Christianity today is where Judaism was when “Jesus” showed up.

The carols for the Readers at the Bodleian were heartbreakingly beautiful, and utterly authentic. The community of scholars, the Bodley village as it were, gathered in the gothic Divinity School. There were electric piano, violin and clarinet, and a choir of mostly women from the staff. To top it all off, it was Charles Wesley’s 300th birthday. The piety was simple and naked in the most restrained English way, somehow both informal and formal at the same time. This carol service is always my Christmas; everything after is an anti-climax. I can’t think about the words as I sing, though; the tears come all too readily. It gets worse as I get older; fewer and fewer texts that I can sing or read aloud without breaking down.

JANUARY 2, 2008

My sermon for Epiphany is more or less done. During the Eucharist yesterday the words of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” leapt out as if I were seeing them for the first time:

The carol “It came upon the midnight clear” states the problem with devastating clarity, if only we will pay attention. “The world in silent stillness lay / To hear the angels sing.” For it is only in silent stillness that we can hear them, echoing the silent Word. This song has never stopped, the hymn tells us, but we are so lost in Babel, the kingdom of noise, that the prophecies concerning the nations go as yet unfulfilled. Instead, “Beneath the angel-strain have rolled / Two thousand years of wrong.” The trammeled poet then cries, “O hush the noise, ye men of strife / And hear the angels sing.” He knows full well that it is only when we learn silence that we are able to join the angelic chorus, to “. . . .give back the song/That now the angels sing.”


And so Christmas ends, a better one than most for me, perhaps because of this diary, perhaps just because I am learning to let go of things a little more quickly, without desensitizing myself. A tricky business. But it showed in the sermon this morning, which from the preaching angle felt better than any I have ever done, relaxed and completely taken over by the text.

Only seven weeks left in the UK. I hope the treacle-brain that is the psychological consequence of Christmases past doesn’t return when I go back to the USA, since for the first time in many years, I seem to be on a roll in terms of writing.

But I have to leave it all in the hands of God.


Blogger Bo said...

Very moving. Thanks for sharing it here.

10:57 am, December 16, 2009  

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