We decorate for Christmas. Lights. Tinsel. Wreaths. A Santa here and there. A vintage nativity scene. A tree—a really special tree.
The holidays can be a painful time. Those daily losses and griefs and angers and regrets haunt us, rising up to confront us with what we have lost, what we have broken, and how we have ourselves been wounded. Those wounds which don’t ever quite seem to heal tend to fester this time of year, reminding us in pinpricking pain that they are still there, itching for healing—some relief, please, just some relief. The holidays can bring us face to face with the promises we have dropped, the vigils we could not keep, the desires which never came to fruition, the dreams which dropping were shattered into unrecognizable pieces.
I always ask around the Commons if we should decorate for the holidays. It’s a shared space—our communal home and those twinkling lights can sometimes feel like a strobe light illuminating our most painful losses. “It is hard” a friend tells me, “it is hard and can make it worse, but it might be worse to not decorate, to ignore the crappy feelings, to pretend its not happening. So yeah, lets put some lights up”.
So yeah, the lights go up and Santa comes out and we look for the lost baby Jesus from the nativity for a very long time. And the tree—we get a really special tree.
Our volunteer John comes every Tuesday. He comes to sit and talk, mostly, to the old-timers as he calls them, an old-timer himself he would say. His enthusiasm and joy and energy in all the things we shudder away from: plunging toilets and sinks and sweeping and mopping, makes him seem like the youngest person in the room, and yet also the wisest—as he leads with listening, always placing himself as a student before all those whom he encounters. John comes and he sweeps and then he mops and these floors which bear a lot of weight and bags and heavy footsteps and rain water and dirt are bathed in loving care and attention. He attends to the floors like to a person needing someone to sit up with them through the night. He gets the corners and under the rugs. He is also the only one in our space who waters the plants, and during this time of the year, he goes out and he gets us a tree.
He goes out, family in tow, and wrangles us a tree. It’s almost enough to give us the hope required to make it to the next day, and the next, and the next, and even maybe the next one after that.
These acts of giving, small and steady, are the gifts of putting oxygen back in the room. These gifts allow for the moment to actually breathe, a moment of space enough to finally allow the room for the ribs to expand. We were made to expand, growing outward, and yet the daily disappointments, traumas, illness, and wounds wrap us up tightly within ourselves, clenching the fists in on themselves, arms wrapping around in protection. A tree is just a tree and yet gratitude and the work of gratitude, which is the work of giving, makes the tree more than just a tree—it puts some oxygen back in the lungs and we can breathe for a moment, daring maybe to let the lungs and voice and mind and body sing for a moment.
Since we put our tree up, since we dressed it in lights and bobbles and tinsel and care—people have been singing more, you might not even believe it, but it’s true. I hear it, softly and under the breath, those little tunes of jingles and joy and childhood memories and fond tunes.
A tree all dressed up for a party — it’s so silly isn’t it? So grand and excessive and without it how would we survive? Of course we don’t need a Christmas tree to survive. But, also, in a way we do, for as we look past that long pitch across the void of survival these silly items of beauty and excess and grace in twinkling lights are what allow for our humanity to remain intact, allow for us to retain ourselves after we have survived, storing up the beauty we desire deep within, like rations we nibble on to sustain the long trek of survival.
John gets us a tree.
Picks it out just for us.
It’s the beautiful excess of this love that undoes us.
It’s the extravagant love of this attention to us and for us which gives us more than a tree, gives us the gift of beauty, which is the gift of the hope and radical courage to survive.
Right now, we got some oxygen back in the room and we find a bit of space to let our ribs expand.
Right now, at least for a few moments,
that little bit of room means
we start to hum,
start to reach our hand out,
start to grieve our losses,
we start to look for ways to help,
and miracle of miracles,
for a couple seconds
we might even find ourselves singing
—such beautiful excess,
such needed grace
—oxygen and hope and a dressed up tree.