Perils of the night

On a very old website of mine, I hosted the text of some writing I’d done in college–twelve years ago, that was what passed for my professional portfolio. I happened to be looking at the site today and I found that one of the pieces I’d uploaded was a meditation I’d been asked to write for a Wednesday evening Advent service at St. David’s, the church I attend when I’m in Cullowhee.

 

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I’ve copied the meditation here, under the read more. I was nineteen when I wrote it, halfway through my second year of college.

Reading it over this morning for the first time in over a decade, I felt a bit breathless. It just so happens that I’ve been more than a little preoccupied with themes of shame and judgment lately. If I didn’t know that writers frequently write things that are wiser than they are, I would be tempted to think I was much smarter 14 years ago than I am now. In some ways, I probably was.

My favorite thing about the Advent service that year was hearing the Collect for Aid Against All Perils for the first time, read out in a dark sanctuary lit by candles:

“Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy, defend us from all perils and dangers and this nigh, for the love of thy only son our savior, Jesus Christ.”

Every time I read that, I think about the scene in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising where Will and Merriman have to battle the powers of the Dark in an old church around Christmas.

The build-up to Christmas, to say nothing of the holiday itself, is a conflicted time for me, as it is for a lot of people. But this is my favorite part of it.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

1. If you’re going to write about Christmas, you have to pick a side: pro or anti. Indicate that you are “meh” about Christmas, or that you can “take it or leave it”, and no one will believe you, not really.

2. The Christmas that you were 6 years old, you had trouble finding your shoes when it was time to leave for the 10 hour drive to your grandmother’s house. You nearly cried because you believed your parents when they said the trip would have to be cancelled because of your shoelessness.

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3. You were 12 when the big annual Christmas trip to Kentucky became something to dread rather than look forward to. There was an overlapping church retreat you wanted to go to instead that year. Presents were less exciting than people for the first time ever.

4. By high school, you were dreading Christmas so much that you gave all your friends your grandmother’s address and made them promise to write during the week you were gone. This was 1997; your grandmother wouldn’t have internet for another decade.

5. The first Christmas after you started college, you got presents for everyone, joined in the cooking, and tried to act like an adult. It lasted until the first time your mother ordered you to do something, and you found out that nothing makes you act like a child as much as being treated like one.

6. The Christmas your uncle was home on a brief leave from Iraq, you gave an Oscar winning performance of a person who was enjoying herself. It was so good, there were moments when you forgot you were faking.

7. When you were 27, your cousin and her friend took you to a bar and a drag revue on Christmas night. You had 6 Irish car bombs and didn’t throw up. It’s still the best Christmas you’ve ever had.

8. The first Christmas you didn’t go see your family, the complex was so deserted you felt like the sole human survivor of the apocalypse. While your roommate was away, a cat came to visit. You ended up naming him Beau and keeping him hidden in your room for the next six months.

9. The next time you went home for Christmas was the last.

10. Last Christmas, you were dating someone, and you got the world’s most amazing Christmas package in the mail, complete with a stuffed stocking. You lied and told her you wouldn’t look in the stocking until Christmas morning, but you were too excited to wait.

11. These days, your Christmas traditions involve dropping roommates off at airports. You make hot buttered rum and watch all the QI Christmas specials in a row. Your favorite part is digging out the ornament collection you’ve been working on since you were six and decorating a tiny tree.

12. The really difficult thing about Christmas is that it’s no longer the time of year when everything stops in its tracks for a week. You don’t go new places or see new people. Your life carries on the way it did the week before and the way it will the week after, unless you make yourself stop. And it’s difficult to stop, or see the point in stopping, when you’re alone. Are you happier alone? Usually, you think so. On the whole, you probably are. But there’s no point pretending it’s a normal day, and anyone who tells themself otherwise is selling something.

Memorial

In 2002, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, my university held a memorial event on the front lawn of the university center.

In the weeks beforehand, the English department held a speechwriting contest to select a student speaker for the memorial. I intentionally didn’t enter. When it came to making remarks on 9/11, I had very little to say that I thought anyone would want to hear. I also wasn’t terribly impressed by the whole notion of our holding a memorial service in the first place. We lived in western North Carolina, an entire world removed from DC or New York; hardly any of us had even a remote personal connection to anyone who’d been injured in the attacks. I wasn’t making plans to even attend the memorial, let alone try to be part of it.

But the hour of the contest deadline arrived—actually, it had already passed—and I got a phone call from the professor who was running it. She’d heard I might be interested in writing something for them, and could I come up with a draft by tomorrow afternoon? I weakened under this direct appeal to my vanity. With effort and self-restraint, I sat down to my computer and produced a set of remarks that would neither offend anyone nor make me into a hypocrite, and slid them under the professor’s door the next morning. A few days later, I got another phone call: I’d won the contest, which made me one of the memorial keynote speakers, alongside the Chancellor and a local firefighter who’d traveled to New York the previous year to assist in the search and rescue efforts.

Twelve years on now, I don’t remember much about the memorial. I don’t remember giving my speech, though I can remember writing it. What distinguished the event from my perspective is the encounter I had afterwards with the firefighter.

I remember him as being older than me by about ten or fifteen years. He had a dark crewcut and a receding hairline and a mustache. He spoke in a thick western North Carolina accent, and he’d cried while giving his speech. When the speeches were over, he came up and introduced himself to me.

“I heard you’re going to be a teacher?” he said.

At the time, this was still true, so I said, “Yes.”

He reached for my hand, which was a little startling, because I wasn’t expecting it. He pressed something small with sharp edges into my palm. He closed my fingers over it, as if whatever he’d given me was precious. His friendly, chatty, country-boy manner melted away, replaced by sudden focus and intensity.

I opened my hand and looked at what he’d given me. It was a very small bit of broken concrete.

“That’s a piece of the rubble from the Twin Towers,” he told me. “You show that to your students one day. Promise me you won’t ever let them forget.”

I went totally blank for about a second and a half.

At the age of twenty, I was still surprised when I perceived a significant gap between my understanding and the understanding of people older than me. So there was something quite shocking about the fact that this man was imposing upon me the burden of keeping 9/11 fresh in the memories of tomorrow’s children. As if we weren’t on the brink of invading Iraq. As if history weren’t clearly eddying around this one event.

But this was a memorial service, not a debate, and the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass this man for his obvious sincerity. He’d gone to New York at his own expense to try to help save lives. He deserved respect for that. So I kept my clever mouth shut, and said, “I promise” and “thank you.”

But I didn’t become a teacher, so I’ve never had to make a decision about what to talk to students about on 9/11. I still have the piece of rubble he gave me, though. I keep it in a small glass apothecary bottle with a stoppered glass top, trapped like a bad genie.

I was nineteen years old on September 11th, 2001. Across the country, it was my high school graduating class that flocked to join the armed forces in the year leading up to the Iraq invasion. I lost college classmates who were in the reserves as they got called up, one after another. Unlike anyone who’s younger, I came of age in the pre-9/11 world; unlike anyone who’s older, 9/11 and its repercussions have dominated the entirety of my adult life.

I am in no danger of forgetting.

But sometimes I wish we would try.

Knowing Better

My most embarrassing memory of college is of something that didn’t embarrass me at all while it was happening. Which is the worst kind of embarrassing memory, in my opinion. When you feel some degree of shame or self-consciousness while the thing is happening, you’re probably exercising at least little self-control. It’s much, much worse when you’re completely confident that you’re right, because then there’s no check whatsoever on your obnoxious behavior.

Neither of my parents went to college. Neither did any of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, or older cousins. My going to college occasioned both pride and suspicion among the adults in my family. While my friends’ parents were giving advice (or making demands) concerning what they should major in and what classes they should take, the only piece of advice my family gave me was to be on my guard against those well known liberal predators harbored by every institution of higher learning, whose goal in life is to brainwash well brought up students from conservative homes into turning their backs on everything that is right and decent. “Don’t let anyone change your thinking” was what my family told me, unaware that when it came to things like abortion, homosexuality, and the unquestioned wisdom of the Republican agenda, I had changed my own mind already.

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