It is not yet winter, though it is dark when we rise.
The winter solstice, still weeks away, is the bottom they say you have to hit before you can begin that slow climb up. Three more weeks of shrinking days, then three more months to spring.
These are the holidays, and our calendar is full enough, probably a little too full. More and more we seem to like the evenings when we have no obligations, no assignment viewing, no imminent deadlines. What shopping we need to do is done, whatever other errands present will be handled (I promise) with patience and forbearance. I will spend a little time in post offices and in liquor stores this month; there will be packages to be tracked down and picked up, but mostly we have arranged our lives to avoid the worst of it. We spend December among friends.
There is something in many of us that craves ritual.
That's why we persist in some inherently meaningless things; maybe why we make our beds or spend autumnal weekend afternoons watching football. There is comfort in competent repetition, in engaging with what is familiar and rote.
I don't have to think about where my fingers go on this worn guitar neck, they find the shapes I've always played, the arguments I've always made.
Our brains prioritize keeping us alive and reproducing, the prime directives that force all our behavior. Over time we became more complex, more sophisticated and less direct. We learned to take pleasure in the deferment of gratification, that preparing food could be as satisfying as eating. That the pursuit could be better than the capture. We became the game-playing animal, able to obscure from ourselves our genuine desires.
Which is another way of saying that maybe we think too much.
We also have our little patterns, our minor-key private celebrations. We take the dogs to watch parades because we know they enjoy the attention of strangers and young children who invariably ask if they can pet them. We make our evening walks together and watch the decorations going up in the downtowns on either side of the river--too early still for us.
Maybe next weekend we will string our minimalist lights and unpack our seasonal oddities. We'll put on a Christmas playlist--years ago I made up a good one, with James Brown and lots of gut-bucket R&B, sweetened up with Smithereens and selections from A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records--and I'll mix a batch of Manhattans or old fashioneds and we'll have a dance party with the puppies who aren't puppies anymore. We'll watch The Irishman on Netflix and probably fall asleep on the couch beneath a cozy promotional fleece blanket that Paramount Studios tried to bribe me with a few years ago.
December is a quiet month (except when it isn't) and it's one of those rare times when I'm able to plan things out a few weeks in advance. There are a couple of obligatory year-end pieces that I'll write --concessions to the expectations of newspaper readers and the conventions of our trade-- and I need to get working on those.
No one should complain about having to watch movies, but I have a stack of DVDs with which I need to familiarize myself. Also, some kind of year-end book essay for which I should be scribbling thoughts is looming.
But while the work is treadmill steady--there is a newspaper to be put out every day no matter what--it is not onerous. Not like running a tree saw, as a retired buddy of mine (who never worked a tree saw for hire, as far as I know) says. I'm happy for the work and--unlike a lot of people--I believe I genuinely love my job.
On the other hand, those who say if you find a job you love you'll never work a day in your life are just wrong. I think you have to work at your work, and that every occupation comes with its irritations and its grind. There's no frictionless collaboration, and if you ever get to the point where you feel like writing is easy, you're doing it wrong.
Some days I think that given the broken state of our world, only an idiot could be truly happy. And than I realize I must be an idiot.
Because at this point in my life, to be unhappy I'd have to make a conscious decision to do that. I'd have to be churlish about my good fortune (which I recognize as good fortune) and prioritize some intellectual analysis of the world over my particular and personal experience.
I know how bad it is out there, and I know that there's nothing that inoculates me from disaster. I know grief is inevitable and that fear is our most powerful motivator and that our kind is susceptible to superstition and flattery. I no longer believe that we can count on average people to be decent and to rise to moral challenges.
But most people I meet in real life are more than decent. At least that is how they seem when you get them out from behind their screens and meet their eyes. We all carry within us a capacity for atrocity, we are all capable of terrible crimes. But most of us are also capable of acts of selfless tenderness.
So maybe we should just relax into these seasonal rhythms, maybe we should just make ourselves available to the occasional invading spirit. If the lights twinkle prettily, that's delight enough--we don't always have to consider the fragility of their circuits or the presumably sad living conditions of the workers in the factories that they were made.
Sometimes it is OK just to watch them blink on and off, and to marvel at the ingenuity of a creature who could conceive and manufacture such wonders, who could master the logistics of distributing them across the globe. Is a $5 box of mini lights any less a miracle than a putative Santa Claus?
Well, maybe we are still a little shy of magic--no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. We are still bound by certain laws of physics, limited by the rules of the universe.
We cannot stop the nights from getting longer. But we can believe that spring will come.
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Editorial on 12/01/2019