December: looking back

by Jeff Oaks

Being able to think back in time is the true gift, I think, at Christmas. Not everyone can do it, or can bear it. Children can’t do it very well; they don’t yet have enough material. (Well, some do, the ones who have had to learn to keep track of their environment because the adults around them seem unable to do it.) I know some adults too who avoid the idea of looking back, believing that it can only result in tears, shame, needless discomfort. So much of Christmas is geared toward delighting children with promise of what’s to come that what goes on meanwhile inside adults can get missed or even dismissed as “grinchiness” or “exhaustion” or “a failure of the heart to open,” if you’re a new agey type.

We should be spending our time thinking back, I want to argue. We adults are supposed to be exhausted. The darkness of the day helps exhaust us, slows us down, turns us inward, thins the walls we’ve spent the year shoring up. We’ve spent the whole year doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, paying our bills, worrying about our retirement prospects, trying to steer our own and our families’ lives amidst the constant pressures of the year’s economic, cultural, international, and personal currents. We never know if the decisions we’ve made have succeeded until decades pass, when we see the results of investments and divestments we’ve made. At the end of the year, in order to make sure there has been at least one clear, measurable success, one moment of happiness, we spend ourselves out. Adults’ deep presents are the expectations that twinkle in our children’s eyes.

Occasionally we get the present-buying right for partners and parents and actually surprise them, but generally, since we’ve been giving each other little presents all year long (helping out with laundry, the kids, keeping the boat steady), the desultory gifts of socks or perfumes or gift cards we give on Christmas represent the more difficult love to articulate–the love of each other’s ordinariness, which becomes more and more keen the older we get. We reward each other’s stability, which is what we depend on the more the world feels unstable.

To get my mother in her last years nothing but my company for Christmas was a sign that I’d been paying attention to her evolution away from the material. I knew she didn’t want more stuff. Instead, we made dinner together. She shared her recipes for things. I showed her that I knew enough now to take care of myself and her too. We made each other laugh until we ran out of breath. We argued with each other. We agreed completely about politics. That intimacy was the sweetest gift we gave each other. That was Christmas, our only debt to each other.

The Christmas after she died was quiet. I drank tea from her mug. I made the traditional dinner, which we’d made the year before. I’m sure I cried but I didn’t cry much. Her death hadn’t killed me, as I was sure it would. In fact, against all propriety, I felt freed to do and say whatever I wanted. I hadn’t even realized how in little ways I’d been holding myself back for her sake. After a year and a half of worrying about her death, my own life showed up again. Some part of me began planning books with a energy that surprised me. I had friends whose love became even more sweet to me. And of course it didn’t hurt to have received from her enough money to make me feel “safe,” at least economically.

This is my first Christmas with my husband. At the beginning of this year, as Facebook reminded me recently, I announced I was ready to date again. 9 months later, I was married. That we found each other, that we fit so well together despite many differences, seems to be evidence that the world is open, is surprising, is still wild at its core. He has been full of Christmas excitement, and although I resisted it at first, it’s been surprising to me how infectious it’s been. In fact, I look back at this year with a kind of hopeful wonder. I made some new friends via dating apps, including one really amazing artist. I got married. That wasn’t supposed to happen not so long ago. A new chapbook of poems came out. My essays, which I thought were probably unreadable to others, have been getting published and have slowly turned into a book of prose I’ll send out next year.

He put them together, out of plastic branches and fairy lights, but I’m now usually the one who plugs in our tree and then the mantle and window wreaths at night. Sometimes when he’s asleep upstairs and I’m (as I often am) unaccountably awake, I come downstairs and turn it all on. I wonder how I ever lived without it.