A few days ago, I remembered this post I wrote last year about that ol' Christmas feeling because, of course, I was suddenly struck anew with that lovely, slightly painful combination of joy and sorrow endemic to this time of year.
Did you ever watch Will & Grace? I don't have an absolutely clear memory of this but I believe there was an episode where Grace decorated a department store window for the holidays in dark reds and warm blacks, rich velvets and twinkling candles. As another character stood outside on the street looking at the display, she said something along the lines of "It's perfect. It's dark and glam and luxurious. Just like Christmas."
At the time, although I agreed with the "glam" part, I thought it was a pretty pessimistic take on Christmas. Of course, I was young and likely wedged so far up Christmas' butt I spit tinsel, but I really couldn't see how Christmas could be considered dark. Christmas is fun! It’s about food! And gifts! It’s bright and sparkly, not dark and gloomy! As I've gotten older, more sentimental, and less obtuse, I've realized how much the holiday season is tinged with sadness, stress and regret. Of course, there's the push/pull stress of family and social commitments, and the financial impact of gift giving and all that, but the real sombre tones come from the inevitable review of events as the year comes to hurtling to a close.
All of this came bubbling to the surface last week as I sat in a concert hall, listening to an incredible, wall-of-sound, full orchestra and chorus performance of Handel's Messiah, just the kind of thing I like. The thing about Messiah, as you all know, is that it's a work that features joyously overwhelming choral bits in order to make you forget about the huge musical lamentation in the middle. And it was during that middle part that I realized I was close to tears, right there in the middle of Roy Thomson Hall*.
There's nothing like music to unlock whatever you've put away, and while the chorus and soloists sang about Christ's Passion, I could not stop thinking about events of the past year. Of course, there are the small regrets (did I NOT say I was switching jobs this year?), the missed opportunities, the words said and unsaid, but more notably, there's been a real loss or two.
My friend Sally died this fall. I only saw her about 4 times a year for dinner, but there's a Sally-shaped hole in my world where she used to be, and I regret that I didn't have more dinners with her. I regret that I responded to the news that the cancer had reached her brain with such pragmatism, even though she herself presented the prognosis with unflappable calm. I wish I had let myself feel more at the time of Sally's news, when she was there, for God's sake, before she left the planet so unbelievably quickly. Because what's the point of feeling so much about it now that she's gone?Sometimes grief seems an empty gesture.
She was a lovely woman. Kind. Funny. Short. Endlessly enthusiastic and interested in all our stories. Strong. Brave. Really short. At least two decades my senior, Sally was a kind of proxy aunt, sister, mother and I guess I thought she'd always be around. I fear I took her grinning, low-key friendship for granted, and I'm sorry to have done so. It tinges my grief with guilt.
I think of Sally often (just as I think of another lovely woman I knew who also lost her life to cancer last summer, though hers is not my story to tell) and am childishly glad to have an old clock on my wall that she gave to us as a physical reminder of our friendship. While there's nothing that can bring her back or change the situation, I have learned a good lesson. Thanks to these wonderful women, I don't need Jacob Marley and his ghostly friends to visit this Christmas. Sally's absence will remind me to not take for granted the good things in life, to appreciate the very, very many people I know who make my life so extraordinarily rich, to reciprocate, to expect less, and to give more.
Which, when you think about it, is the real luxury of our end of the year holiday celebration. The chance to learn a lesson before it's too late, before you wipe the slate clean with the change of the calendar. Sometimes, I guess, it takes until you're 40 before you really get the point of Christmas.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
*Be warned: they don't really lower the house lights for symphony performances like they do for the opera or theatre. You can silently cry your eyes out at La traviata or Our Town and no one's the wiser, but the symphony? Not so much.