On the day after Thanksgiving I stopped to change buses at our little student neighborhood right on the water. It has quaint old houses and gardens and charming unique family businesses and shops and open cafes and fanciful public art. At holiday season the stores put up lights, and play holiday music. Young shoppers flock around with cinnamon rolls and cocoa. Musicians play in costume. Dogs wear reindeer hats and sleigh bells and blinky-light collars. Our magical music store keeps an open door with live or recorded music playing, and a lobby stocked with flyers for upcoming events — like their public open house the first Sunday in December every year where everybody brings a plate of cookies and has fun in jam sessions and playing the different instruments. (I once spent a happy afternoon there in the back classroom, playing all the hammer dulcimers.)
To recover from Thanksgiving I had my heart set on a cheering little stroll on the waterfront street to take in the people and the sights. This year, my hopeful idea did not work as planned. At 4:45 pm, on American peak-retail “Black Friday” and the kickoff to the winter holidays, our delightful mini-downtown was empty. The businesses were closed up. The streets were not full of shoppers or tourists. Even the music store was silent; their bulletin board had no upcoming event flyers, and they’ve called off this year’s open house.
The scene called to mind “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with George Bailey’s daymare vision of the Georgeless wasteland in Potterville. Darkness fell. It was starting to rain. Crossing the footbridge I was all alone. There were only three men around; they were conversing quietly beside the bridge, sitting on the ground outside a makeshift tent. A teenager crossed by on the other side, weighed down by a black trash bag on his shoulder. I forged ahead at a brisk clip, without even stopping to pull out the phone for photographs. I took only a glance overshoulder at the downtown lights, gold and silver on black velvet water.
Then, right in the middle of the bridge, there was a new sign:
No Jumping From The Bridge! Consequences are fatal and tragic.
Wait. What? The logic and sentiment of that public service message stopped me in my tracks. Not only the “fatal” part, but the appeal to reason pointing out that the outcome would be considered tragic to those left behind. It is rare for anyone (outside the world of advertising) to give urgent heartfelt personal counsel to anybody. In this pensive setting, the warning sign struck a caring philosophical tone, like a bedtime story moral read out loud by the little plush animals at Pooh Corner. It was heartening to marvel at the people who designed that municipal sign, processed the metal work, and set it on the bridge in anticipation that someone would need that very message, standing right on this very spot, and that the sign might help. Because you just never know.
That reverie led to four realizations.
Realization 1 of 4: It’s time to give up popular-culture holidays, or at least to give up the appearance that I can transform them into something fun. Secular society in general (and the world of advertising in particular) lays out the expectation that we should all have the supplies and organizational management and social skills to make these days a time of consumption and entertainment. For too many people that’s a heavy yoke to carry, one that leaves too many behind.
This cavalcade of assumptions gives single people a special task: please make being alone look like a great time, so that the rest of us don’t have to feel uneasy around you. The idea is that if single people are mature self-actualized adults, we should not have time to be lonely; we should be too busy on the El Camino de Santiago, whale watch, Vipassana retreat, and of course lots of volunteering. Well, I’ve worked a whole array of meaningful solo activities over the years (including the natural history museum feeding venomous snakes, but that’s another story.) Yet still, the hardest part of any holiday is the crash of sadness afterwards and when eager people ask “How was your holiday? Do anything fun?” And still my default answer is to burst into tears. Then people usually laugh in bewilderment and walk away, and that’s the end of the conversation and/or the relationship.
Well, it’s time to admit it. I have no idea how to be single, and no idea how to thrive at secular celebrations. Because to me, the essence of celebration is coming home at last to the person or people who I’m allowed to love, and who love me. That’s the holiday I’ve always yearned for, because celebrations outside the context of family don’t make any sense.
However, that said — no matter how one feels about holidays, it is still right and good and essential to support other people who celebrate theirs. (In fact, I just baked cookies and want to bring some to Neighbor Livie. Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.) Okay, I’m back. Livie liked her cookie sample. Anyway, it is important to write out and mail cards to those who like cards, bring them flowers, bake them treats, make snow angels and chalk drawings with the neighborhood kids, visit the nursing home, check in on folks who live alone, and whatever else one can do to lighten this time of year for other people. But it’s high time to put to rest the charade that holidays are in any way about me, or about having fun. My dream of love and family may happen only in heaven. So from now on when people ask the holiday fun question I can just say “Thank you, my holiday will be in heaven.” That ought to work just as well as standing there dumbfounded and tearful. All this led to Realization Two.
Realization 2 of 4: Celebrate real holidays from now on instead. That idea led to Realization Three.
Realization 3 of 4: If the most endearing moment in days came from gazing fondly at a Don’t You Even! placard in the rain, then that’s not good. It was time to get off the bridge and get to church.
Since then I’ve been studying articles in pravmir.ru, all about Orthodox Advent. Their calendar year round is a cornucopia of fasts and feasts and Scripture readings and lessons and prayers and hymns and saints to inspire, with something uplifting and beneficial to commemorate every day.
On Sunday, at the Greek church two buses away, the bookstore ladies gave me a warm joyful welcome. I hope that they forget my last visit two years ago, when they inquired kindly about my Christmas and I broke down and wept while blocking the icon aisle. Among the many works of art, household items, and reading materials there were two excellent new books to buy and take home. The store also had incense, all different scents. I gravitated right over to the rose oil, not to burn but just to keep in the prayer corner. It comes in pink nuggets with the sweetest fragrance.
Realization 4 of 4: Now that flower season is about over for the winter, why not start photographing and even drawing pictures of bridges? Bridges are good transition symbols for leaving one place in life and entering another. Maybe these pictures can be nice enough to cheer up someone else.
Because, you just never know.