Sunday, November 27, 2011

Occupy Holiday

by Zinta Aistars

Soft, lazy rain pattering on the roof. It's a Sunday, last day after a four-day holiday, a Thanksgiving spent in and around Chicago with family. Back home now, and the house is quiet, very quiet, with only the occasional movement of my black calico cat, changing the direction of her curl into a long nap, and my old chow pup occasionally coming by to check for news and finding none.

It will snow soon. This slow rain will turn to soft snowflakes, and I'm ready. Winter will begin, a season of a deeper silence. Snow absorbs sound, covers it with lace, and perhaps that is in large part why I so long for the winter.

Only the Christmas holiday .... for that I feel no longing, only gladness when it passes with the least amount of ruckus possible. First hint of its turn toward the dark side of human nature was already apparent as Thanksgiving wound down ... in my sister's living room, we all sat around, gaping at the news on the television, even though every year at this time we see it again and again, film clips showing crazed mobs spilling into stores, screaming, shoving, grabbing for the nearest bargain, turning into frenzied stampedes as they run for the cheap television, computer, iPad, toaster oven. Emergency rooms fill with those who are injured. There are even fatalities. For a pair of designer jeans?

I do not understand it. I never will. I do not want to.

In their chase for the bargain, these people miss what has made my Thanksgiving sweet, and might have made theirs sweet, and I'm not talking pumpkin pie. Have we learned nothing? Has this lurching of our economy, so many families losing their homes to foreclosures, savings emptied, bills going unpaid, credit cards piling up to swallow lives whole, left no lasting effect on our consciousness? All the talk is about Black Friday, this day after Thanksgiving, putting businesses back into the black, making our economy grow.

Grow? Toward what exactly? Our goal should have been to achieve sustainability. We have "grown" enough, and the crash was, is, hard. It was "growth" based on no substance, all lies, all hot air, all fantasy and wishful thinking. This is not  recession we are experiencing now. This is coming back down to earth. Hitting hard reality. Here is where we should start finding our way back to reason.

When those mobs crowded stores, buying stuff and more stuff and yet more stuff that nobody really needs, my sister and I decided to get far away from the madness.

We had enjoyed a wonderful meal with family on Thanksgiving. My brother-in-law is the family chef, and he worked in the kitchen from early morning until late into the evening, a labor of love, preparing the golden bird, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes sprinkled with dill, the sweet potato casserole with pecans. My sister baked a sweet corn pudding, a cranberry relish, and two pies for dessert--cranberry apple and pumpkin with fresh whipped cream.

All yesterday's memory now, and too few leftovers in the refrigerator, as we drove just out of town, northwest of Chicago, to a quiet corner of Libertyville on Friday. St. Mary's on the Lake is a retreat and seminary, Georgian style buildings unobtrusively built around a lake, with quiet roads and pathways inviting a long walk.

I brought my old chow pup along, Guinnez, eager to stretch his legs and sniff the myriad scents of the woods and the lakeshore. The three of us stroll at an easy pace, a little wishful for a snowier scene but nonetheless enjoying the denuded forest, the occasional doe emerging from the woods to nibble at a last leaf. The lake is ever to our left as we walk, and the nearly three-mile stroll takes us across five bridges lined with tall white lanterns and only now and then past one of the seminary buildings, a church, a cardinal's retreat house, a campus library.

We come across an altar in the woods, a great wall built of oddly puckered and pocked rock, and a statue of Mary embedded in its side. Rows of tiny candles burned at the base. Bits and pieces of paper were rolled up and tucked into crevices between the rocks. I had no paper, no pen. I had no matches to light a candle. Counting rosary beads is not a part of my religion, and icons do not move me, but I found myself needing to take a moment for prayer.

I was here in Chicago on this holiday without my children. Although we had gathered at my house for an earlier holiday meal the weekend before, my son was now back in Michigan and my daughter was in Colorado. I missed them both, sorely. I bowed my head and prayed, mother to mother, asking for protection of my children and guidance on the paths they had chosen and the paths chosen for them.
This had not been an easy holiday, but there is no more healing a distraction from our worries and problems than sharing time with what family we have near. I was grateful for the rich blessing of mine. I was grateful to still be able to chauffeur my elderly parents back and forth to Chicago to be with us. I was grateful for my bond with my sister. No matter how vastly different our lives and the lifestyles we have chosen, we have always found common ground. I was grateful for the pleasant distraction before returning to working on those various problems awaiting me at home.

But here I am, back home again, listening to the rain on the roof, basking in the silence. There is a time for cheerful noise of family gatherings. There is a time for solitude, and no longer dancing around the thoughts and subsequent decisions that at some point we must tackle. Yet the issues that cloud my horizon now are, alas, not all mine to solve, and much of it requires the hardest task I know .... to let go and to wait. Wait for the answers others provide. Wait for resolution. Wait for decisions out of my hands.

Up to me is how to respond once the waiting is over.

A text blips on my cell phone, announcing that my daughter has returned from her trip to Colorado, safely home again. I wait for her phone call later in the day to tell me about her trip, and I wait for the phone to ring again, from my son. A mother's heart ... always circling around her children, no matter how far they may be, how grown they are, still, as my own mother reminds me, still and ever our babies, our heartline, even when the child grows gray.

Raindrops streak down the window. My old chow pup slumps on the rug by the sliding door to the backyard, dreaming of romps on a drier day. I watch him raise his handsome red-furred head to gaze out the window, take a long dog sigh, then rest his soft muzzle on his paws again.

I think about something I heard a few days ago from a supervisor at a hospital emergency department during an interview for an article I am writing. Holidays, she said, are the hardest time of the year for very many. While the media would like to present it as a happy time, a time of celebration ... and the retail businesses as a time of sell-ebration ... that tends more toward myth than reality. Statistically, she said, there are more suicides and suicide attempts during the holiday season than at any other time of the year. More depression, more domestic violence as tempers and disappointments flare, more broken families. Even heart attacks and strokes increase as bodies break down from stressed spirits.

How sad, I think. And how disconnected from those raging sales mongers and messages of joyous Noelle. Once, so very long ago, it was meant to be a season for reaching out to touch others and to open our hearts and share our most loving selves ... it was a time to remember the value and meaning of spiritual communion rather than a blitz of shopping. The whole point of Christmas was to remind us that material things will not  save us, but love toward our fellow man will. How did we lose our way?

Something about holidays makes our hurt places surface more than at other days of normal routine, I think, and the myths perpetrated by elf-riddled movies and glowing advertisements of limitless bounty only make it worse, the disconnect that much sharper edged, for those who have not. The holidays tend to spotlight the imperfections in our lives. Rather than focus on all that we have, the contemporary version of Christmas emphasizes all that we do not have: perfect lives, fat wallets, mountains of gifts, and relationships spread with honey. All things perfect. Not. And so the suffering becomes keener, hearts break and tempers bust and bodies break and lives shatter.

We just don't want to consider all that. It doesn't glitter. Another image comes to mind: I recently saw someone on Facebook pass along a post that read, "I am allergic to negative people." Really? Meaning who exactly? Those who are in pain? Those who are worn out? Those who may need a hand up? Those who have lost their smile, their hope, their way?

Perhaps in that one line we have summed up all that has gone wrong with this season and with this society all year round. We prefer the myth to reality. We prefer distraction to contemplation. We prefer stuff to substance. We prefer an artificial happiness, achieved without deserving. We prefer to live in a state of ignorance, because at least momentarily it feels like bliss. If we are enjoying a moment of personal happiness, we want to shut the door on any possible reminder that others may not be.

Thanksgiving was wonderful. It's blessing will carry me through hard times I know will yet arrive. It was a glorious time to absorb the positive, feel its warm embrace around me, giving strength and courage to work through the negative. There is a season for all things, and a time for all kinds of emotion. Eternally positive people in my book are escape artists, maybe even con artists, picking and choosing some emotions while repressing and suppressing others.

The holiday season should be for us all. Those of us with imperfect lives need a holiday, too, and I'm pretty sure that means all of us. It should be a time that opens community-wide arms to welcome the sad as well as the glad, the homeless as well as the wealthy, the 99 as well as the 1, the old and withered and ill as well as the young and beautiful and vibrant. It should be a time that gives new hope to the well situated and lucky as well as those down on their luck. After all, the lucky today may very well be the unlucky tomorrow.

If life were fair, we would all rise up on our good deeds and hard work. Life is not fair. Never was, never will be; it is the nature of living. Sometimes, too often in fact, those who do everything right can have everything go wrong by chance and circumstance. We turn away from that hard fact to our own peril.

Sometimes our days are surprisingly warm and mild, but some days it rains. We lean against the rain-streaked window, energized by good times spent with those we love most so that we can be available to share our strength when it is most needed. I missed my babies this past Thanksgiving, but I am thankful that their mere existence so enriches my life. Mary, hear my prayer. You know what it means to lose a Son, to watch Him suffer and be able to do nothing. Some paths we must travel to the very end. Let us give thanks. Giving thanks, after all, is always a bargain.

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