Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas in India

One of the more unusual Christmases I’ve had in my life was in Kerala, India in 1978. Since this is the year I finally returned to Kerala (see February postings), it seems a good time to invite a guest Blogger—my 27-year old self—to tell that story. So this Christmas Eve entry comes from the journal I was keeping at the time, more or less exactly as I wrote it:

December 24, 1978—Varkala a pleasant village leading to the Arabian Sea. Checked into the Guest House and walked down to a small, but quite beautiful beach. Stood a long time gazing out into the shimmering water, just as I used to gaze out over the lights of L.A. up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center each night of the 7-day retreat, imagining everyone cozy inside their houses, filled with the warmth and love I hoped Christmas would awaken in them, and me silently blessing them all. Somewhere halfway across the world, people are awakening to the last day of breathless anticipation before the final release. Some are stoking wood-burning stoves or out sledding while here a purple-sari’ed woman walks slowly amongst the palm trees. The New York Times no doubt filled with its portraits of the needy, television awash with Christmas specials, the streets bustling with last minute shopping, the radios playing the old familiar songs. Whereas we sit down to a meal of chapatti and vegetable curry, with boiled bananas and the ever-present tea.

Earlier this morning, Karen got through to her parents on the phone and had a 17 minute talk with her folks that left her in tears—her first Christmas away in 28 years. I talked for minute or so, blurting out whatever came up to fill the $10 a minute silences. (How strange to talk on a phone again! Telephones, cars, record players, the daily realities of my American life, are simply not part of my world anymore here in India.) Karen’s folks seemed fine, there’s a little snow, Barclay took Pammie to the movies and John’s out caroling.

John’s out caroling! That image struck deep and my heart almost burst imagining him going door to door in the snow-lined streets of Plymouth, Michigan, that “Leave It to Beaver” suburb of my childhood fantasy. I imagined him singing with wide eyes and O-shaped mouth in joyous song.

Sometimes it seems as if my whole life is an attempt to live up to, to live in, the heights of my childhood visions. Christmas was usually a time when those visions rose highest and there was that one moment in particular when the world stopped and froze itself indelibly on my memory, made a permanent home in my heart. And like all our best moments, it was nothing spectacular, simply walking home on Sheridan Avenue alone at night, the lights twinkling, the streets piled high with snow, the Christmas songs singing in my ears, and stopping outside my house to gaze at it all, knowing that there could be no heaven greater than this. My sister was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on the organ and listening to that old familiar carol play, I was granted a glimpse of a life of boundless joy and fathomless love. “Then rang the bells, so loud and deep, God is not dead nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”

If a genie appeared to grant me one wish, I would without hesitation wish that the whole world stand there with me on Sheridan Avenue. And if I look at it closely, I see that the whole world did stand with me, is still standing there now, just as it stands on top of Mt. Baldy blessing the lights below, just as it sits here under the ceiling fan with curtains waving in the breeze. There is simply nothing to do but rejoice, to lift the voice in song, to open the heart to love, to bow the head in gratitude. May Christmas sweep over the world in its purest expression, lifting each and every person from their sorrows, their sufferings, their self-created prisons, into the realm of everlasting joy, of wide-eyed wonder and visions of sugar-plum fairies, of at least one moment of knowing why one is here on this earth. May I ride with Santa Claus tonight, dropping blessing down the chimney so that on Christmas morning, all sentient beings will wake up to themselves. GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO!

I hope that 27-year-old would be pleased to know that 33 years later, though constantly knocked off track by my own failings and the world’s disappointments, I’m still working on keeping alert to miracles and trying to be faithful to that life of “boundless joy and fathomless love,” Ho! Ho! Ho!

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