Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sharpening Neglected Sympathies

Tonight, we went to a Christmas party. It was our annual holiday celebration where I work. Last year, this party was held at my house, in the first serious snow storm of what proved to be an almost impossible winter for us: snow, ice, blocked streets, closed stores, missed work. By the end of last year's party, our guests had to scramble into their cars and race to their buses just to try to outrun the worst of the weather. Some of the younger people spent awhile on our sidewalk, tossing snowballs before they had to leave, but leave they all had to, and quickly, once the snow really started coming down. Still, I think it was a good party, before the blizzard. This year, at the home of a dear friend and coworker, things went better. Her house was delightfully decorated for the season, roomy enough to accommodate the crowd, while never feeling less than happily crowded: with friends and the families of friends, food of every description, and all of it delicious, drink, treats, music and merriment, -- and the weather was splendid. I even got in a bit of Christmas caterwauling with a few game and or tipsy souls, trapped with me, and a Christmas songbook, in the kitchen. We may not have completed a single carol, and I doubt I stayed on pitch for three notes together, but still, it was great fun, and reminded me at least that Christmas, indeed, is upon us. Dearest A. and I had a grand time! We retired from the festivities fairly early as I'd worked all day and still had readings to rehearse for Monday, and A. has a mathematics final exam for which he still needed to study. We couldn't have liked it more, but...

Christmas has not come easily this year. I haven't planned as I should have done, and I've let too many things things slip; from my bills to my Christmas cards, and I didn't really get going with my Christmas readings, for reasons too tedious to detail, until something like the last minute, so that now, with only one of the three scheduled readings done, I find my evenings, still, all but wholly occupied with stomping around my cold office, reading and reciting and making a hammy hash of things. Meanwhile, I've sent off but one of the gifts I intended, have yet to even think of what I might send my parents this year, or my brother, and have left all my many, and even my dearest, friends without so much as a "Merry Christmas" from me so far this holiday season.

It seems, I've already then made something of a mess out of Christmas.

I love Christmas. I still look forward to its coming. I like working in the bookstore when it's slightly frantic. I enjoy Christmas music, the traditional decorations, customers with lists... the lot. In years past, I've managed things better personally and sent off gifts and cards, made DVDs of my Christmas readings, burned CDs of Christmas music, bought a tree, but this year I instead replaced the tires on my car, scrambled to find a second story to read aloud as my encore for Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, worried about getting used stock out onto the sales-floor in time for the holiday shoppers, and dithered and dawdled and doodled away my December. And now, here it is, and I must make the best I can of what's left of it.

No real idea of quite how I got here, but here I am.

And so, at this late hour, I am pacing the floor in a bathrobe, trying to find a voice for Mr. Wardle, and prepare for tomorrow's reading.

As I mentioned above, I've already done my reading once. I drove from work to the Bellevue bookstore Friday night. Unfortunately, this year, my readings did not make it into any of the "upcoming events" listings in the local papers, so the only publicity for them came in the bookstore and on its website. Last year, in the midst of truly awful weather, I drew a modest crowd. This year, I read to two shoppers and four employees. (It would have been five, but one had to get up and answer the phones.) I will admit, as the minutes ticked by the time designated for me to start, and I found myself still looking out at empty chairs, I could not help but think that this year, my Christmas was simply not meant to be. Hard not to be discouraged, looking at empty chairs.

As it was the first night of Hanukkah, I'd prepared a short story by Isaac Beshevis Singer as my encore. The good folks at the Bellevue store, in addition to setting me up with the requisite comfy chair, a table at my elbow, with a bottle of water -- and a single rose -- lovely touch, that -- had put up a menorah, at my request, so that I might light the first candle before I read "The Parakeet Named Dreidel." It was all rather perfect, actually. Except for the absence of an audience!

An announcement was made on the bookstore's public address system, but I thought I might simply have to thank the staff for their efforts, and slip away quietly. I made up my mind, I wasn't going to just sit there forever waiting. I certainly wasn't going to read into the empty air and hope the few shoppers in the place might wander by and linger. But then first one, then a second booksellers came over and sat down. I was more than a little embarrassed, though grateful for their kindness. I was willing to read to even just a single person, but I did feel bad about taking these young women from their work. But then first one lady, not employed by the bookstore, and then a second, sat down and a few other staff members joined us. Now I had an audience. Gratefully, I said a few words about Capote, and his story, and then I started:

"Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago... "

The Holidays, however neglected, ill-considered, badly managed, nevertheless have a power to make all of us better than we might be otherwise. I know that sounds a perfectly cliched bit of nonsense, but I'm afraid I can think of no better way to say it and, as I truly believe it, I'm afraid that statement will have to stand. Helping my friend decorate her house for what turned out to be a lovely party, recording a few Christmas poems for this blog, finding books from a gift-list for some elderly stranger at the bookstore, and reading A Christmas Memory aloud again, to an admittedly small, but nonetheless superb audience of attentive and appreciative listeners, going to a Christmas party with friends and in the company of my good husband, singing snatches of carol in a kitchen, all of these things have roused in me, at last, something of the Christmas spirit, again, to put it no better way. Don't ask me how, mind you.

But no, that's wrong. I know exactly how it happened. Christmas is and always ought to be found in company. I'd only to look around me to remember that. I guess I finally did.

I'm looking forward to reading tomorrow night, and again on Wednesday, to being again among friends. I must remember hereafter how this works.

And now, I must try to not embarrass myself too much tomorrow by stumbling through the skating party from Pickwick. Back to work!

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