I do not know if I will do it right.
I do not know if I will do this week approaching Christmas right.
In years to come, will I always think of “celebrating Christmas 2008” as a phrase that requires mental quotation marks? Will celebrating seem a tricky word for a process of adapting day by day to a different emotional landscape from which to view the approach of the great festal event?
It hits me in the waiting times – waiting for a lunch companion, waiting for a bus. Late yesterday afternoon, I stood by myself at a bus stop where five major roads would normally be teeming with traffic at that hour. Instead, only occasional ploughs and sanders crisscrossed the area in the midst of a snow event that was significant but foreseen early and forecast accurately. No one who did not need to be out on the roads was out.
It was actually calm although the air about me with its windblown snow was growing darker and darker. Across the road someone was waiting for a bus travelling in the opposite direction, but I could not make out much about the person in her long winter coat and hood – neither her age nor her mood as the wait continued for both of us. I was only a twenty-minute walk from home, but I had opted for the bus ride to avoid the effort of planting boots in all those blocks of uncleared sidewalks.
I was tired but I was in good spirits after lunch with a friend. He and I had arranged to meet when the snow forecasts signaled an earlier than usual let-out for many of the city’s workers. It was a comfortable time to claim four hours of a waiter’s attention in a popular restaurant. We would not get to toast one another’s Christmas any closer to the actual day, so we sank into long and earnest conversation, treated ourselves to oysters, unwrapped what I kept referring to as a “gewgaw or two” with which we showed what we remembered about the other person’s interests and history.
So I should have been fortified to face the half-hour wait for the bus. I had taken care of myself. I had shared time with a thoughtful, dependable friend who was ready and eager for the kind of conversation I love. We had talked dreams and asked questions and heartily laughed over the inevitabilities of our lives.
The bus arrived that was travelling in the opposite direction from the one I wanted, and my lone company at that snowy intersection boarded the well-lit coach. The bus started again and moved into the darkness of one of the five roads. Soon I was back by myself with the ploughs and sanders.
It was an intersection at which three churches stood, none of them now open. Snow swirled around the random steeples of this New England town center and smudged their outlines against the evening sky. It was a Matthew Arnold moment as the normal uncertainty with which any commuter awaits a bus scheduled for every half hour turned into an awareness of standing by myself – in more ways than one – on that darkling suburban plain a week before Christmas.
What kind of waiting had I opted for?
What certainties had I foregone months earlier – familiar home, familiar companionship, familiar patterns – for… well, for what? For standing by myself? For waiting with no obvious one person to call should the waiting extend longer than expected? For watching the outlines of church and other familiar havens smudge as the hours went by?
I would have done well then to recall a moment five hours earlier when I had sat in a major city church in another part of town waiting for my lunch companion. I had arrived unaccountably early and with some pleasure entered a church that has always been a favorite. Up in the sanctuary two individuals were working to prepare the church for the greening later this weekend. After I texted my lunch friend about my location, I got to sit undisturbed in a pew and look up into the ceiling murals high above me. I was suddenly praying and admitting silently to God and to myself that this was a strange way for me and for other people I have known so well to be awaiting the arrival of Christmas.
I cried. I grew quiet. I stayed looking up even while I heard doors open somewhere behind me. Without needing to turn, I felt my friend enter the pew and take a place beside me. I knew from the kind of quiet that followed that he was praying too.
And with a quiet, snowy lurch my bus rounded the corner and pulled up in front of me.
I boarded, and I was heading home.
Photo of church ceiling uploaded on Flickr by innusa