In so many ways, it’s been a perfect holiday. Almost immediately the days fell into a simple rhythm: mornings of work and exercise, meditation and house chores. Afternoons with a book or a needlepoint project, holiday music on the stereo. Long walks at dusk taking in the winter sunset, the Christmas lights, the moon rising over the mountains.

The first Christmas Matt and I were married, I held the romantic notion that we would—of course!—spend Christmas Eve together. There would be candles and white twinkling lights and enough sweet vignettes to generate dozens of Norman Rockwell paintings. What I had not taken into account was that I had married a church musician. Early in the day that first Christmas Eve, Matt left for the church, muttering something about having to do the bulletin for the services that night. I was left alone, and angry. Matt returned home after midnight services. I was already asleep.

This scene was repeated our second year of marriage. And our third. And our fourth. Clearly, I am a slow learner. Eventually I figured out I could be bitter or I could joyfully claim the day for myself. Most years, with only a smidgeon of bitterness, I work and practice, see friends and go on the long walk through our neighborhood to view luminaries. I attend the candlelight service at St John’s and wave at Matt through the crowds and choirs. I come home and drink a glass of wine in front of the twinkling white lights draped across the mantle. It’s OK. Lovely, even.

But this year, because all his services were pre-recorded ahead of time, for the first time in our relationship, Matt and I spent Christmas Eve together. We worked and practiced, read and ate soup. As darkness was descending upon the day, we took the long walk through the path of luminaria that lined the streets and up and down the walls and sidewalks. “Hey! This is beautiful,” Matt said. It was. It is, every year.

Indeed, it would be a perfect holiday if there wasn’t for that cloud of fear, virus and uncertainty hanging over us. If Christmas Eve together had been a choice and not the result of our lives being shut down and choirs hushed. “I could almost be blissful,” I said to a friend when we were out walking last week, “if only . . .” She paused. “But Amy, there is always going to be ‘if only.’”

Ah. And there it is. How to sit in the messy middle of what remains dear and precious about our days and hours and at the same time to stay mindful of the very real brokenness of the world. For there will always be light and beauty and singing and magic and hunger and suffering and sickness and loss. In Rapt, Winifred Gallagher writes about being diagnosed with an advanced and “particularly nasty” form of cancer. She decided that “This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.”

That afternoon as my friend and I were walking through neighborhoods and ditches in the North Valley, just across town from my little corner of the universe, we found ourselves behind three sandhill cranes taking their own leisurely stroll down the street. Sandhill cranes are huge, tall enough to partner with for a racy tango or a Viennese waltz. This trio of birds was gorgeous, regal and majestic. We stopped, stunned into a worshipful silence.

As much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.

A reader recently reminded me of a poem I posted years ago by George Bilgere entitled “Going to Bed.” I had forgotten this poem, but these days it resonates more than ever.

 

I check the locks on the front door
and the side door,
make sure the windows are closed
and the heat dialed down.
I switch off the computer,
turn off the living room lights.

I let in the cats.

Reverently, I unplug the Christmas tree,
leaving Christ and the little animals
in the dark.

The last thing I do
is step out to the back yard
for a quick look at the Milky Way.

The stars are halogen-blue.
The constellations, whose names
I have long since forgotten,
look down anonymously,
and the whole galaxy
is cartwheeling in silence through the night.

Everything seems to be ok. 

 

No question, the past year has been of the “particularly nasty” kind. We have lost so much. The cloud hangs over us, still. And yet our practice is to pay attention and hold space for the tension between the bitter and the joyful. It will never be all one or the other.

Yesterday I packed away the cranberry garlands strung with white lights and the Christmas books. I threw out the evergreen garland—no longer green— woven with red berries that had hung around the front door. The ginger cookies have been eaten. Ella has wished me the last “swinging” Christmas for the season. This afternoon I start another semester of piano lessons. Online. As I write this, there are snowflakes in the air. A black and white cat is curled up in my lap.

Life is difficult and beautiful. Both.

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