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‘This Too Shall Pass’ And Other Christmas Miracles
Christmas ghosts complicate my time. They remind me things are not linear; time is tangled, circuitous; you can travel to any point in your life and wander a while.
I t’s nearly impossible not to think about time—the hurtling of our bodies and planet through the inky-blank cosmos across the strange continuum that demarcates our mortal coils, our very consciousness as a species—when The Holidays roll around each year.
It’s a heavy season.
Even a hard-boiled atheist like me who has managed to largely relegate Christmas to brimming glasses of Pimm’s Cup, roaring fires, velvet dresses, and too many pigs in a blanket with dijon mustard, can’t help but enter a kind of personal reckoning with the immediate year of yore.
There is an uncanny feeling that washes over me when I hear Bing Crosby start to warble. I feel my boundaries grow faint, and suddenly I am 4, 10, 15, 25; I am also 34. I am here, right now, and so too are all the ghosts of each Christmas.
Some of those ghosts are mischievous and rattle the windows and hide my jewelry. Some are lovelorn and pet my head while I sleep; I can smell their tears. They smell like old copper.
Some are rageful and like to push me around. They like to splash white wine into cut-glass goblets and howl. But each time I whip my body about to confront the shove that sent me sprawling, there is nothing there but my thumping heart and I feel foolish.
Some of my ghosts are kind and beautiful. They smell like burnt butter and fatwood and damp tweed and Virginia Slims and they love to turn the music too loud and help decorate the house. They’re partial toward anything sparkly and always want to eat beef bourguignon for Christmas dinner. They wrap all my presents with too many ribbons and always hide the tape so cleverly that it breaks your heart to tear into a parcel that perfect.
Some of the best ghosts hang my stocking on the mantle with two thumbtacks because it’s so heavy with trinkets; they lend me their scarf when they want to play bocci in the waning light of dusk on the lawn.
Christmas ghosts complicate my time. They remind me that things are not linear; time is tangled, circuitous; you can — like Meg from A Wrinkle In Time — travel to any point in your life and wander around a while.
I think some people use journals or therapy to do these kinds of travels.
Me? I use ghosts and things.
I use a kind of inverted psychometry. Whereas regular psychometry allows someone to hold an object and understand who made it, where it’s been, and all the people’s lives it’s passed through, I am able to imbue objects with meaning, with memories, with ghosts.
Some of my ghosts are kind and beautiful. They smell like burnt butter and fatwood and damp tweed.
People tease me about being a packrat — my collection of things is extraordinary and dusty and heavy and takes over a lot of surface area and is seemingly eccentric. Does someone NEED a sixth full-length black dress from this coastal thrift shop? Well, yes, I do. Because when I take it out of the closet I remember that that was Valentine’s Day two years ago and I’d gone backpacking and camping with a dear friend who rolled her ankle as she burst into, “Giants in the Sky — there are big terrible giants!” from Into The Woods and I almost shit myself laughing, but also felt terrible because she was limping pretty badly. We found that dress together when we finally got back into town, into Pescadero, and we were just in total lady-love and I was reminded, which I needed desperately, that female friendships are fucking imperative to my joy.
What people don’t understand is that with every object, I’m building a memory palace. This is more than being sentimental. I’m building a time machine.
I love the coupled foreverness and ephemerality of things. Things from antique shops, flea markets, tag sales, and second-hand shops that are filled with other people’s sweat and tears and laughter and life-dust.
And then I fill them with my own.
I am, incidentally, dating a wonderful Jewish man — Jake! — from Marblehead, Massachusetts; he says I’m teaching him to Christmas this year.
We’ve rented a small cabin-y house in Guerneville, California, for December and January. It’s in a redwood grove, so regardless of what temperature it actually is in town, it’s 35 degrees and shadowy as hell at our place; you can always see your breath. It’s a ghosty place.
Anyway. I was, as a packrat, very excited of course to decorate for Christmas and because we didn’t have any ornaments or doo-das or anything, we had to go to Goodwill to get some — obviously — so my spooky, packrat, ghost-loving being was just beside itself with the sheer possibility of the psychometry that awaited me within these fluorescently-lit walls.
I strolled the aisles tsking tsking and gasping and snatching things and holding them to the light, considering their potential for Christmas joy. “Find all the string lights you can,” I said, jabbing my finger to an adjacent aisle. “Even colored ones?” he asked suspiciously, not wanting to waste time or go too far astray from the very discernible path comprised of Christmas fervor fever-dreams.
We are nesting; we are playing house the only way I know how.
“Just how kitschy is too kitschy?” I point to a foot-tall gilded Santa. Jake eyes it warily, but he’s smiling. “It’s…pretty amazing.”
“Plus. It’s kind of an homage to Guerneville right?! He looks just like a fabulous bear!” (Guerneville is known for its very robust gay scene.)
“I don’t know…” he says and wanders off to take another lap. “Look for Christmas balls too!” I holler to his back. “And ribbon! Oh, and wrapping paper maybe!”
Some of my Christmas ghosts are traipsing behind me. They’re burning my fingers with hot glue guns as I make wreaths with my mother; they’re ripping open the orange Stouffer’s box of Welsh Rarebit with my dead grandmother so they can make the cheese fondue.
I find a box of wired gold leaves — Jake loves those — and a box of green sparkling Christmas tree candles complete with stars on top. They’re so ugly and beautiful. He doesn’t love those, but he gets it. They’re ugly-beautiful and that’s an aesthetic I’ve marked much of my life by.
Then he inquires about a…“Christmas tree skirt?”, a phrase he stammers out like a foreign vocabulary word from tenth grade. “Yes, yes! You’re right. We def-need a skirt. You pile all the presents on it!”
He’s starting to feel weary from the lights; I feel that this Christmas elf’s spirit is waning. “Let’s check the fabric section and then we can go I promise!”
He finds a red plaid blanket woven with gold threads. It’s perfect. A good-bad 1950s-esque vibe. We stuff it into our basket and make our way to check-out where even the curmudgeonly woman can’t deny my stupid joy about these stupid glass balls and tacky gem-stone stars.
We pick up champagne from the gas station and I get to decorating the minute I get home; I make a bagillion hooks from wire for all the balls and start to cry when Bing belts out, “the child, the child, sleeping in the night, he will bring us goodness and liiiiiiiiight!”
We’re headed south for actual Christmas though. My brother has just bought a house in Montecito and they’ve just moved in; we’re leaving on the 22nd to road-trip to Southern California and have a poolside Christmas after our perfectly spooky, cold, couple-cozy pre-festivities in the forest.
…and then the fires get bad in Santa Barbara and Montecito. Footage starts rolling in that is haunting, harrowing; orange flames lick trees and houses and destroy lives.
The fires have consumed more than 230,000 acres and 1,000 structures.
The air was growing blacker and as the fires drew closer, my brother grew ashen, reticent, frightened. He was desperately trying to shift his paradigm — “Things are just things ya know? It’s really putting things into perspective” — but his voice belied his heartbreak and the grindings of his mind as he imagined losing all his possessions.
He’s like me. His objects are magical to him. They conjure. They carry his boyhood and his adventures and his sense of self. His possessions, his home, are a kind of museum that he visits on the daily. He could tell you about every matchbox car, every pair of sunglasses and sneakers, every salt-shaker and Scout ad he owns. He has two back-up hard-drives of his photographs that I venture have been collected and sorted, as expected of the curator he is, for the past 20 years.
The idea of him losing his memory palace — a place also poised to be the place where his children would truly call home — broke my fucking heart.
He finally called me yesterday and said he was going to join his wife and son who had fled to Florida a week ago; he was still holding out hope that the fires would subside, the smoke would dissipate, and we could all be together.
It was not to be.
“I got the two things out of the house that were haunting me though, Katie. Mike’s guitar amp and grandpa’s World War II camera.”
Our grandpa — Russell Haviland Tandy — was my father’s father and taught us both the art of storytelling — there is, perhaps, no greater joy than a well-told yarn. There are few people on this earth that can capture the room the way he could, swilling a stinger. (That’s a lethal drink he loved made up of brandy and creme de menthe).
I doubt the camera works — although knowing my brother he’s taken it to every local shop to see if it could be fixed — but this is an Object, regardless of its functionality, that is not to be trifled with. My grandfather — Hula, his friends called him — filled that camera with photographs from the war; he filled it with tiny slivers of his life rendered in 3–1/2 by 5 prints (Kodak called this the 3R size). And now my brother has filled it with all kinds of memories and feelings that I can’t begin to glean or understand. But my ghosts see the ghosts of my brothers’ and they’re madly waving hello.
As for the guitar amp, my uncle recently died — he left behind his daughter who is just 30 years old. They were very close — exceptionally close; her loss is the most profound. I imagine it will be a kind of bifurcating life-gash; there was my life before my father died, and my life after.
Michael was a music lover and talented guitarist. He showed my brother The Wall by Pink Floyd at an utterly inappropriate age; he showed him the power and the glory that is Rock ‘n Roll. Is there any greater joy?
My Object of Michael’s is an admittedly pretty ugly tapestry woven from wool — it depicts a gathering of musicians all gathered in a circle playing together rendered in a pseudo cubist style. As long as I can remember, it hung in his music room; it is filled with the tuning of guitars, of his growling voice….“paranoia strikes deep, into your life it may creep…” as well as his more gentle croonings, “All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown…the moon rose through the nighttime till the daybreak comes around…”
It’s filled with him urging me to, sing, Katie! Man, you’ve got a great voice. (I was never going to be a guitarist.) Is there any greater joy?
This Christmas Jake and I are a couple of Christmas orphans.
So I am turning to my ghosts to help me celebrate. I am turning to the past and I am turning to the future.