Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Ghost of Christmas Past

I am no Scrooge, but now that Christmas is here and I still have some holiday time left, I am invoking my hypothetical Ghost of Christmas Past to see what it would show.

The earliest Christmases I can remember were full of joy, the kind of absolute joy that only a child can possess. The church was filled with music, bedecked in colorful lights and tinsel, the air was subtly pervaded with the pungent smell of the big pine tree towering in one corner, and we kids sang at the top of our lungs in honor of Baby Jesus. But my pinnacle of bliss was the two bags of candies I received after the celebration, one for being just a kid, and another for being a choir member. In those days candies were a special treat not to be taken lightly, and I remember falling asleep with the bags of sweets still clutched against my chest.

All that came to an abrupt halt when communist soldiers swarmed our land and local lowlifes rose to meet them. The next Christmas found our church closed down, my father taken away, and us moved to a shack in the middle of nowhere with just a small kerosene lamp making a feeble attempt to light up the surrounding darkness. That did not dampen my spirit one bit though, and I asked my older sister who had a good voice to sing a few Christmas songs with me. She was dilly-dallying, but I could tell she was warming up to my idea when our mother made the mistake of urging us on, to which my sister flatly refused out of spite I could sense. I wasn't interested in that mysterious mother-daughter friction, all I wanted was some holiday music, and for the first time ever I felt sad on Christmas night.

A few years later, I was all alone treading the streets of another town. It was Christmas Eve, and I was shivering in my threadbare jacket while watching other people having a merry time. I stopped in front of a church, looked at it the way I suppose a wounded man would look at his amputated arm. For a fleeting moment I thought I was going to cry, but then I laughed at the idea of crying and walked on. Late that night, back to the tiny room I called home, I stood very still when my nose caught the familiar pungent smell coming from a twig of pine I had taken from a nearby hill early that morning. I picked up the little twig, walked out into the dark and flung it as far as I could.

After that one, Christmas no longer excited or bothered me, and from an eager participant I became an indifferent spectator. In the meantime I grew up into a young man, life started to take new shapes and meanings, pushing old priorities further back into the cobwebbed crannies of my mind. I had some good Christmases, such as those when I had someone I could call my own next to me in a church listening to old songs sung by young children. I also had some bad Christmases, like the one when I stretched my body on a sagging cot staring at the stained ceiling of a dorm room and wondering whether I should take a sleeping pill at eight p.m. to forget my unbearable loneliness. In any case, Christmas had long retreated from center stage to mere backdrop for my own activities on that particular night.

This year I went to church on Christmas Eve. What brought me there was a simple "why not" when someone asked. I listened to the old hymns of my childhood, sang along a bit and found the antiquated lyrics somewhat funny. The church was old and there were signs of dilapidation. My aesthetic sense cried in protest against the decoration in poor taste and the sadly flawed music. The guitar was out of tune with the piano, and did they really have to play both instruments at the same time? The choir didn't start their song in sync, and that guy's solo number sounded very much the same as Pierce Brosnan croaking in Mamma Mia the movie. Then suddenly it dawned on me that I got it all wrong. This was not a performance, but a group of people doing their very best to express how they felt towards the Savior despite their limited talents and resources. I had also got it wrong when I had turned my back on Christmas because I had been hurt, and I'd been getting it wrong all the way back to the time I had gone to bed with two bags of candies pressed against my chest on Christmas night.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Old Man Doing an Old-Fashioned Thing

Just a couple of days ago I was driving home from work. It was nearly dark, and while inching towards the intersection between Telegraph and Huntington I noticed the left-turn lane was devoid of traffic, which was very unusual at that rush hour. Something was happening there, I thought.

Indeed, something was happening there in the form of a man standing in the middle of the lane, waving the traffic away from it. He wasn't wearing a police uniform nor the neon vest characteristic of road workers. A deranged man, I thought, maybe some victim of the current economic slump.

As I drew nearer I saw that it was an old black man in an old black coat. His decrepit Ford was broken down in the middle of the lane, so he'd not only raised his trunk lid to signal trouble but also stepped out of the warmth of his car into the bitter cold of a windy winter afternoon to keep other drivers from getting stuck behind his car. What a lot of trouble to take just so other people wouldn't be inconvenienced.

As I was easing my car past the old man and feeling grateful for his consideration, I watched him closely and thought that somehow his appearance went well with his action. Both were old-fashioned, and both were incongruous with these hustling modern days.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Forgotten Photo

Recently on a website a group photo showed up, which showed yours truly of a quarter of century ago. The photo was blurry, still I could recognize long-forgotten faces.

I was the emaciated, shabby-looking boy standing at one edge of the group next to my then best friend. There were some other classmates, both close and not so close, and a few teachers as well. All looked both familiar and strange, the kind of strange familiarity one encounters when going back in time.

In a flash the Dark Age of my life came back, that slice of space-time continuum which I would rather relegate to the oblivion of a black hole, preferably a big one. Let's just say there was nothing remotely happy about it, when one cold night I stood on a hill looking down at all the cozy lights in the valley below, acutely aware that there was no place for me anywhere within sight and beyond.

Naturally I was not pleased when seeing that old photo, which brought back unwelcome memories. Then I confronted myself with the question whether deep down I was a coward. Pleasant of not, that period was a part of my life, even a formative one I might add. If at the back of my soul there's always this faint note of sadness the way the relic radiation is ever present in the cosmos, it's largely because of those years. If I grew up a kind man instead of an insensitive egoist, those years were partly responsible too. I realized I could not reject something that had put its print inside me so deep it had become part of me.

At least now I can look at that old photo not with aversion, but with a reluctant appreciation of my appalling state of want in those long gone days.