On this major Holiday of Christmas typically spent with family and friends, I have to note that once again I am alone by choice. I stand alone under the mistletoe.
Mistletoe grew in the trees of my childhood home in central Florida and inflamed me with its rich mythology I found in the latest stack of books dragged home from the Ocala public library. Prepubescent, I didn't care much for the kissing lore, but learning that it was a hemi-parasitic plant fascinated my budding scientific mind.
The other, more pensive part of my mind that studied the migration of ants and squirrels and flamingos as a secret journey to the truth of their “home” was mystification enough to climb the trees for a sample of this hermetic plant when I also discovered that it was a symbol of immortality and if enemies met under a tree with mistletoe, they laid down their arms and maintained a true. It seemed worth a try to risk standing on the tree's frail limbs to gather mistletoe for my family in great need of immortality and truce.
I do not know or desire the need for the community experience that moves family and acquaintances to gather together. In the past when I have dabbled with mingling in the midst of communal festivities, I’ve always found it to be a mildly pleasant but unmeaningful experience. I seemed to be unable to find any sense of truthful bonding, just pretense and a dramatic effort by everyone that they were living out what it means to be “family.”
This insight, whether true gift or not, was given to me in 1959 when my father died just a few weeks before Christmas. At thirteen years of age, I was already established in the family circle as the quiet, reclusive child who said very little yet seemed to unsettle others with the way I wordlessly studied people and things around me. Each would try in their own individual way to find common ground with me but their attention span seemed short and their eyes and heart would rest instead upon the cousins and grandchildren who fawned for them, sang for them, danced for them, and who would give me a secret nod of superiority at the new game of “family” they had just won.
The death of my father, a pivotal authority figure in the family circle, left everyone at a loss. However, rather than address the angst swirling around us all, like the blue smoke hallucination that I saw as my father's spirit torn between wanting to stay and wanting to go to his final peace, we all, in our grief reverted to the cliché roles we'd been assigned or adopted on our own.
It was a relief for all of us and mostly for me. Viewed as transparent and unimportant to the clan, I had the freedom to watch the dynamics of how a family operates as a finely-honed mechanism of natural selection to protect itself from extinction. The dramas of falsehood that had originally offended me as untruthful suddenly took on new meaning and poignancy. It was just as much a matter of survival for me as it was for them. Playing the role of widowed fragile mother, bad boy brother, jocular uncle, snippy niece, grumpy grandmother, salacious aunt, and half-orphaned pensive daughter became so poignant to me that I could barely bare the intensity of watching it, swirling within it, and hearing my own silent soliloquy in counterpoint time to the practiced lines of others.
All roles in a family have their own psychological pathology if plumbed deeply enough. I've never been able to assess if this “wisdom” I gained at thirteen was a gift or a curse, a fantasy, a hallucination as a way to deal with grief; but nonetheless it was wholly mine and it has colored the remainder of my life, for better or worse.
It is a misplaced emotion to pity others who are “alone at Christmas.” By choice. I do not feel proud of my holiday solitude. It's simply a facet of my life. I am a better me by bowing to this need, embracing this need, and reveling in what it reveals to me as countless gifts from within to within which then are translated into outward gestures of love and compassion to other strangers.
My family seems to be strangers, animals, nature, and words that fly across the page of a book or journal as they follow the river of white space toward ultimate truth. It is the nature of words that they will never quite reach the “end” and that too is part of my choice to be alone. It’s not perfect and it won’t give me the ultimate answer but there is the sure knowledge that the very truth itself is a companion on the journey often disguised as a stranger, a good experience, a bad experience, whatever. If I am alone, I have the time and the quiet privacy to notice the clues, to appreciate the process, and to recognize the journey as a part of the destination.
We are all strangers. We are all family. Gather with me under the Grace of mistletoe as I wish all of you, my family, a very Merry Christmas.