“’Tis the season to be jolly…” In the face of every reason not to be jolly and proclaim the whole deal a cruel hoax, I find myself… well, not Ho-Ho-Ho jolly, but quietly reflective and soothed by the lit houses in the San Francisco neighborhoods. Through no will of my own, I find myself three days free of thinking about that despicable Grinch in our midst and it’s a blessing. Not escape, not denial, not repression, more like aligning myself with a greater truth. An ancient verity that runs through the blood, sings in our bones, some cellular memory of a time that never was, but is always possible, with peace on earth, good will to all.
I think my love affair with holidays and festival began young, when the dull colors and hum-drum sounds of the day-to day suddenly got more colorful and more tuneful. And even though I was Jewish by blood and vaguely Unitarian by upbringing, Christmas was the highest of holidays, when the whole world (it seemed) was aligned and united by a single purpose and myth. Never mind whether the story was true or if my family believed it (they didn’t), never mind that it meant nothing but a bother to Jews and didn’t resonate with Chinese Buddhists (who mostly opened their restaurants on Christmas Day to the Jewish folks), never mind that any religious message was hopelessly entangled with crass consumerism and a hodge-podge of pagan and department store traditions.
The fact was that for a month after Thanksgiving (back in the 50’s and 60’s) the world was wrapped in one glimmering present, lit up with the glistening lights, wrapped in sung carols, old and new, alive with stories of bearded benevolence and a melting snowman and the dastardly Scrooge and long-suffering Tiny Tim and nutcrackers and Three Wise men and a little drummer boy. On the black and white screens of the old RCA and Philco TV’s, it was a wonderful life with a white Christmas in Connecticut with the Lemon Drop Kid. Everywhere you turned— the school, the office, the downtown stores, the radio, the TV, the skating rink, life was pitched three notes higher, the colors brighter, the tingling in the air more palpable than say, a slushy week in February.
All these threads came together in one extraordinary moment when I was eight or nine years old. I was walking home down a snowy Sheridan Avenue one night, the houses lit and the snow glowing from the reds and greens and from my house just up ahead came the sound of my sister playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on the organ. I stopped to listen and look and as I stopped, so did the world. Everything held in that crystalline moment, the world was awash with wonder and somehow I was part of it all. Everything suddenly made sense and everything glowed with a beauty and a rightness that I was seeing and feeling for the first—but not the last—time. Later on, I might call it my Buddha under the Bo Tree insight, my American Epiphany, my Robert Browning moment of “God in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” The whole thing probably lasted a minute, but it has stayed with me my whole life.
I was young and innocent, knew nothing of the blows the world would rain upon me or the horrors of history. I couldn’t imagine then the loss or grief or injustice or manufactured hatred sustained by the privileged and powerful that would come my way. Compared to so many, my life—all blessings counted—was spared some of the more unbearable and unlivable tragedies of the human catastrophe. But no one gets out unscathed and I’ve had my share, some as recently as a few weeks ago. In the light of it all, it would be easy to dismiss my moment on Sheridan Avenue as illusion, as a lie, as a cruel promise of a life of love and beauty and deep meaning that would prove false. Or has it? Which is really true? Which is illusion? Which is reality?
Heaven and hell share the same house in this body and at the moment, each day opens the door to 542 Sheridan Avenue and I walk back into the warmth of my home, my sister at the organ, my Dad in his easy chair, my Mom offering my a cup of hot chocolate, the tinseled Christmas tree glittering, my outdoor vision brought indoors, to slowly fade over time. Soon would come pimples and broken hearts and disappointments, soon the TV would be filled with assassinations and horrors in the Vietnamese rice paddies, soon a President would be caught lying and asked to leave office, an American public aghast at the betrayal of their trust. (Imagine that now!!!). Then would come all the years of Christmases with my own family, the wonders and the sorrows. And then later yet my Dad leaving us and then my Mom, and some friends far too young and far too many and that childhood home gone, destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. That little epiphany traveling through all those years right up until last month, running smack into this old fellow who is still reeling from November's heavy blow and sinking under the heavy, heavy weight of 64 million people carrying forth the story of hatred that I had believed was dying and now I have to reconsider.
And yet still, I am stirred by putting the lights on the tree tonight, comforted by cradling that ornament in my hand that has travelled with me all these years, from that night in my childhood home over half a century to tonight. Its tiny voice still singing of hope and love and certainty that “the wrong shall fail and the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to all.” Not a hope for a future that may never come or a past that never was, but a present that is, right here, right now. This will change, but for now I am back home and I am happy.