I'm not a religious guy. In fact, I'm really the opposite of religious, if you define it traditionally, anyway. A victim of Lutheran Protestant heritage, I was about 10 years old, I think, when I realized how bogus my religion was. I was barely past ten when eastern traditions began to beckon to me.
|The Geezers Emeritus, Christmas 1967|
Which makes it a little hard to figure out why Christmas is an exceedingly powerful time of year for me. Perhaps it's because my birthday, a reminder of mortality, is just a week before Christmas; or maybe it's because I'm responding to the distant archetypal roots of Christmas, which includes among other things an assimilation of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival. That pagan festival began on Dec. 17 and ended on Dec. 25 (oddly enough, this is exactly the period from my own birthday to Christmas).
Other symbols of Christmas can also be traced to other pagan winter solstice celebrations, which in effect are ritual reenactments of the cosmic rebirth stemming from the sun’s retreat from the earth in midwinter to its promised return the following spring and summer. So perhaps it’s all these things conspiring to make Christmas more than tinsel and eggnog for me
Whatever the reason, Christmas has always been a very powerful and joyful time for me, but also one filled with deep nostalgia and even pain. The season always paradoxically makes me think of death as well as rebirth. It is when I find myself most bluntly confronting the tragic and wonderful reality of human mortality. I'm hard-pressed to explain exactly why this is, as the power of the season seems to extend far beyond the surface Christian aspects.
And for similarly mysterious reasons, it's also the season that makes me consider the things I'm thankful about. The Thanksgiving holiday itself has little meaning other than as a time to gather together, eat, socialize and watch football. It's Christmas, on the other hand, that always makes me think about the good fortune I've enjoyed in life.
So while I really don't believe in a personified God in heaven who doles out good things on the world, at this time of year I cannot help but reflect an a huge number of blessings I've received.
Family. I wasn't close to my family of origin. I'm still not. Growing up, my family was a dysfunctional solar system, with its center illuminated by my mother, a women of damaged soul and spirit whose radiation burned us in ways that never entirely healed. Yet of the three sons orbiting that sun, I somehow became the one that would eventually be blessed with his own family, consisting of not only a loving and stable and good natured wife, but two great kids who have grown to be fine adults, responsible and compassionate and intelligent and funny.
When the kids visit these days, it's not uncommon for me to go to bed early while they (along with their own significant others and their mother, my bride) remain up playing games and watching movies until the wee hours. Laying in bed listening to this happy, good-natured family having fun in the next room—and contrasting it to early days in life where hours in bed meant listening to adult hysteria and violent emotion elsewhere in the house—I can't help but blink rapidly and recognize my own good fortune.
Friends. After now living into late middle age and meeting many hundreds of people, I know of very few who can boast a group of friends as close and trusted as the group that have come to form my extended family. The core of it are these very Geezers (Emeritus and Guest)— a group I met in childhood and with whom I established friendships that most people don't develop until college or later, if they manage it at all.
One fellow, who became my friend at 4 years of age, was a guy who once upon a time was both able and willing to debate with me the accuracy of the 500-page Warren commission report on the Kennedy assassination late into the night. We were 8 years old at the time, camping by a creek near our rural home. Years later, this same friend is willing to hike with me in Alaska, and has helped me sample most of the single-malt whiskeys poured in Scottish distilleries.
With another circle of buddies, I've gathered together nearly every year to play a ritual game of Monopoly at the holidays—a religious event with far more meaning than the Eucharist. (I'm not kidding). There's little we don't know about one another, and they are my brothers.
Along the way I've met a few others, both men and some important woman, who also became members of my family in a way that's equally dramatic. They, too, are folks I've come to trust implicitly, and who also trust me.
Who can say they deserve friends of this caliber and steadfastness?
Love. Being able to openly love without fear hasn't come easy to me. Early life experience said that some of the key people who loved you could also hurt you badly, and unexpectedly.
In my late teens and early 20s, some of this unpleasant baggage, after being long avoided, finally demanded to be opened and sorted through. For two or three years, I was a genuine mess; it was a time of drugs and hospitals and brutal medical treatment. The fact that this time was very nearly fatal is something I don't often acknowledge, but it is very much true. I know of plenty of other people who didn't survive such things.
Near the end of this awful period (and maybe it was the very thing that saved me), the first girl I ever dated—and whom I periodically dated through high school and into college—said to me matter-of-factly one day in 1978 that she would like to marry me and spend her life with me; and if it worked out, the following summer might be a good time for us to think about it.
We were just kids at the time, 23-years old, but even then I was stunned that somebody who knew me so well, and knew what I'd been through over the last few years, could possibly see me as somebody worth loving and investing in. Trust me, I was no prize in that era. To this day, I find that act of trust and confidence an amazing thing, and I'm not completely convinced that I'm deserving of it. If I'm lucky, before I die I 'll feel deserving of the love that red-haired girl offered me so long ago.
Over the years since, I've met a few other genuinely important women who became good and loving friends. One was a young therapist, only a few years older than myself, who taught me that some types of craziness need to be embraced and explored if they are to be overcome—the most practical lesson I ever learned. Another was work colleague who eventually became a dear lifetime friend, who will rank right up there with the Geezers when I take inventory just before leaving for the big dirt nap.
These crucial women, together, have more than compensated for the early deficit of being raised by a troubled mother. It makes me feel cosmically lucky. (Yeah, I know there are hints of Oedipus and Freud in all this. Who cares? I made peace with it long ago.)
Kids. I was lucky enough to understand who my kids were when they were still very young, and as a result have found them to be pretty great people, pretty much all the time.
With both, it happened in the first hours or days after their birth. With my son, we had just come home from the hospital after his delivery. I was walking with him in my arms in the living room of our new home when an April breeze came through the window, tickling his face. He was momentarily startled by the sensation, but then instantly became delighted and calmed by it. And that's pretty much who my son is. A little shy and startled by the world, but quite peaceful and more accepting of circumstances than almost anyone I know. Most of the time, I envy his view of the world and wish I were more like him.
With my daughter, it was even sooner. Late the first evening after her birth, I paced with her in my arms in the recovery suite of the downtown Minneapolis hospital where she was delivered. Waking from her sleep, she spied the bright downtown lights. I doubt she could yet focus on them visually, but her facial expression already reflected interest and intellectual fascination. And this is who she is to this day: interested in almost everything, so much so that she almost can't narrow her interests to a few subjects or hobbies. Through school, there was almost no extracurricular she didn't want to try, and few she didn't become pretty good at. A renaissance personality, then and now.
|How good Scotch whiskey impacts a Geezer|
Now grown, my kids are great young adults, and there aren't many people I'd rather be around. I'm genuinely looking forward to being a really old coot, hanging out with middle-aged kids.
Place in history: one of the Geezer affiliates shares this opinion with me: we are genuinely and mysteriously blessed to have dropped onto this place on the planet at this time. America in the 21st century isn't perfect, but we have the enormous fortune of enjoying good health and an affluent lifestyle in a place largely free of war and strife. Even lower income Americans really enjoy lifestyles that might rightly be envied by 80% of the world's population, and those of us in higher income brackets are obscenely lucky, frankly. A few hundreds years in the past, or a few thousand miles in geographic distance, and life would be far, far different for us. If that's not good fortune, I don't know what is.