I was out running in my neighborhood tonight, and I couldn't help but notice the number of houses with Christmas lights still lit. In the grand tradition, of course, Christmas decorations remain up until Epiphany, and maybe it was that. Or maybe nobody's had a chance to take theirs down yet, because it's been butt cold here, and everyone's had to go back to work.
Whatever the reason, I was happy for at least one more night of holiday shine. I smiled with each twinkling house I ran past. All week, I've been saying "Hello" to our Christmas tree in anticipation of telling it "Goodbye" on Saturday. Every year, when Brian and I take a trip together, we look for a new ornament in whatever locale we're visiting. This year, we got a hula girl ornament in Hawai'i. Last year, we got a po' boy ornament in New Orleans. We have a tiny Rockefeller Center from New York in 2010, a turquoise cross from Santa Fe in 2014, a toucaned bauble from the Guinness Plant in Dublin in 2009, a Day of the Dead skeleton from Mexico in 2015, a molded glass streetcar from San Francisco in 2007, a pair of IKEA lovebirds from 2005, when we'd just moved into this house and were poor.
These little things only come out once a year, but they're tiny totems of us, and it always feels wonderful to see them. I'll miss them when they go away; for the rest of January, the house will feel emptier, dimmer, while we wait for the light to come back and Daylight Saving to end.
It's funny, the idea of a totem. Of a sacrament. Our Christmas ornaments are little clumps of molecules not so very different from the soup Brian made for dinner tonight with coconut milk, rice, and shrimp, the cars in the driveway, Lady Gaga's meat dress, or the moon. But humans have this amazing power to imbue things that, on their own, have little meaning with an entire universe of love and memory.
This is the difference between denominations that believe in transubstantiation and those that don't, right? For Catholics, for example, the bread and wine become literally, physically, the body and blood of Christ. For Protestants, they're symbolic. Theology proceeds from these distinctions. Difference. Inclusion and exclusion. But maybe it's both. You'd have to be one of the two people in my marriage to feel the emotional weight of the Christmas ornaments, but it's real. It creates a physical presence in the world. Like hope. Like glory. Like fear. It lives in the body.
My therapist, on my first visit, asked me where my feelings of anxiety live in my body. I thought it a strange question—stranger still was that I could answer him: "Right here," I said, motioning without hesitation to my solar plexus. It's the place I breathe into in meditation. It's the place that vibrates during chants and singing. It's the place tears and sobs used to get built up before I learned to let them out.
I tend to tune out when religious types start to talk about demons, angels, spirits, ghosts, haints. I don't know if there's a supreme evil power, but much like the tiger in Calvin and Hobbes, "I'm not sure mankind needs the help." But I do believe there are things we can't see. Memory and trauma and love and hope: These are things in the world. They live, move, and have their being. And we personify them. We give them form—arms, legs, faces.
Advent. Epiphany. Waiting. Revealing.
I'm working on writing about how this season—and this series—has surprised me, and I'm going to publish that piece as soon as I can (hopefully tomorrow). In the meantime, I'm going to take one of my last long glances at our Christmas tree. I'm going to breathe in its memories, meditate on its totems, then go upstairs, pull the sheets up, and climb in bed next to my husband while we wait for whatever comes next.