I awoke long before dawn today, feeling lonely and melancholic, so I went to my bookshelf in search of solace. My bookshelf doesn’t hold books, so much as cherished memories: Most of the books I own were gifts from friends.
Today I picked up Karsten Heuer’s Being Caribou, a birthday present from my dear friend Jim. (On Christmas morning, it seemed fitting to read about reindeer.) But I didn’t even reach the first page because of what lay inside the front cover.
I loved the old Christmas photo of Jim and his dogs. Jim has long since lost and mourned them, but he still has the same radiant smile.
And I chuckled at the old Far Side cartoon a colleague gave me on my last day at the newspaper. I’ve lost touch with Tod, but his scrawled writing brought back a flood of happy memories.
Then I found an old clipping. I vaguely remember Esteban handing it to me one Christmas morning, years ago. “A song to the stars in times of darkness … There’s joy in this season, but also loss,” read the headline and lead-in.
For many — myself included — the holidays are bittersweet. This morning I thought of the loved ones I’ve lost, of my own uncertain future. I thought of the friends who have mourned children and parents this year. And I couldn’t find words more beautiful and fitting for all of us than those of Camille Gage.
A song to the stars in times of darkness
Last Sunday was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. There were 8 hours and 46 minutes of sun. It was the first official day of winter, but here in the upper Midwest winter has already made itself known. As of this writing, I’ve shoveled the snow off my sidewalk three times in the past 36 hours and it’s 6 degrees below zero.
It’s midnight, the house is silent, and I’m thinking about that weightless place between joy and melancholy. The holidays always do this to me.
I’ll admit I cried three times in the past 24 hours. Once for close friends who are struggling; once for my mom, who died 27 years ago and whom I still miss every day; and once at the Pantages Theatre during the musical play “All is Calm,” about the World War I Christmas Truce of 1914.
“All is Calm” chronicles an event that took place on a battlefield in Europe on Christmas Eve. In the dark of night, under a star-filled sky, a German soldier lay down his arms, walked out of his trench, and sang “Silent Night” in the so-called No Man’s Land between the British and German encampments. Following his soulful lead, soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons for the night, sang together, exchanged modest gifts and helped to bury each other’s dead.
It was this last thought that brought the tears. I thought of the U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though their experience bears little resemblance to the trench warfare of the past, they still suffer the sight of wounded comrades and mourn their dead. Their sacrifice is enormous.
Loss occurs every day and everywhere, not just on the battlefield. Over the past year I’ve watched friends and family struggle to cope with life’s challenges: a child’s debilitating drug addiction, serious health problems, financial insecurity, job loss, and the death of partners and aging parents — of heart disease, cancer and suicide.
Why do we so often feel stranded in our sorrow and alone in our grief? The presence of loss and experience of pain, while intensely personal, is also extraordinarily common. It’s the tie that binds us but is too often buried beneath a silent a soul-stifling stoicism.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 brought to mind a passage from Henry David Thoreau’s book, “Walden.” Thoreau wrote, “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look … To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
This holiday season I will aim to channel the artistry of that German soldier, who walked out of the trenches and sang “Silent Night” to the stars above — who was willing to be shot at, to die — to bear witness to our shared humanity and yearning for connection.
For everyone who has lost a loved one — and that is most of us — the holidays are a bittersweet time. This year, may we step out of our individual trenches and sing together to the stars.