This Christmas is defined by absence. No work parties, no glances out my office window at a lit-up Bentleyville. No hockey games for collective celebration. No explosion of family exuberance on the far south side of Chicago; no wine tasting, no off-key caroling, no vats of meat or Brandy Alexanders. No meet-ups with old friends who are also in the Windy City. No train ride north to Milwaukee, no venture into my dad’s family’s roots, no quiet Christmas Eve among the cats at my grandma’s place in rural Wisconsin.
Until the week of Christmas, no snow, either. A bleak, grey Duluth December, a steely lake beneath ominous clouds, my 2020 running regimen steady to the bitter end. A dash through Irving and Fairmount out west feels like a run through a Rust Belt coffee table book, the drab conditions drawing my eyes to the drabber houses, the color that can light up the west side washed out in a winter rain. I head home to sit and stare at Zoom for a few more hours, more restless than ever, ever so exhausted of staring at my own face yet again. I summon various friends on walks; I dive back into the meme-filled text strings that have passed as my social life for much of this year. My stir-craziness hatches an impulsive plot. (More on that in a week or so.)
When winter finally hits, life arises anew. Backyard rinks pop up all over Duluth. I ski Lester Park after a dump of snow on the Solstice. It is neither lit nor groomed, and after the first partial circuit I shut off my headlamp and plow along by moonlight. I know this course well enough to ski it blindfolded, and in darkness I can catch more anyway, my eyes free to see beyond a few lit feet in front of me. The moon pierces through and glints in the trees’ snowy sheen, brings its beauty down to earth, freshens this year of toil. A good, old-fashioned blizzard hits the night of the 23rd, and I watch the snow cake on to the windows of my house and listen to my furnace chug away as it tries to keep up with the plummeting temperature, and think, yes, this is home.
I dig myself out the next morning, head to Hartley for an afternoon ski. It’s frigid, barely above zero, and at times here I’m breaking fresh snow, but no gust of wind can ruin the moment. A few quick kicks and I’m cruising in comfort, zipping down the hills, a course to myself. If a Christmas must be solitary, let it be beautiful. For once, social media becomes not a political cesspool but a collection of people I’m fond of finding paths to goodness, to little joys, to some panache amid the ruins. Christmas Eve with my dad, Christmas Day with my mom, two constants grounded in reality instead of virtuality. If I had to be anywhere for a pandemic, I’m glad it is here.
Home each night, I go back to the well that keeps me going, night after night. Some Christmas fiction from my college days, for my eyes only; old essays on my own journeys this time of year. Finally, two stream-of-consciousness accounts, one of my usual Christmas circuit some years back, one of a trip to Minneapolis during this season the year after I finished grad school. We were all just striking out on our own, gathering amid a snowstorm in a farewell party for one of our number, the night ending at Liquor Lyle’s as they always did in those days. A few people I visited on that trip were expecting or had just had first children; now, some of those same families’ Christmas cards hang from my walls with second children on display.
My tour through wisdom from Christmases past ends with The Human Condition, a return to those words on birth and renewal, on beginning anew and making good on hope. And so we pause now, acknowledge the past and make peace in the present, and turn our eyes toward what comes next. “Action is, in fact, the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth…must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.”