The Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, gave me the gift of time to reflect on much that has been on my mind. I hope you’ll use the dark days to do the same, remember old traditions, and find the beauty that still exists. When the nights are long and cold, we as a people have always turned inward to search, and outward to create something beautiful.
Autumn collapses into winter through low-hanging gray clouds and lands in the deep-cold. This change always causes historical cycles to be more salient to me than they might be on a summer’s day. If our lives and civilizations have four seasons, this must be the dead of winter.
I had a pizza at the old parlor in town where I used to eat every Friday night with my dad growing up. Sat at the window table, watching the cars and occasional person stroll by in the cold night. After dinner, I walked across the street to where the old video game rental store and arcade was, now a flower shop with a lovely Christmas window display. I stayed out longer than normal tonight, spent more time taking everything in, and went about it all with an unhurried measure. This little old town is still very nice. It is still mostly white. The people are friendly, they say “Merry Christmas,” many houses are decorated. The idyllic nature of my evening managed to bring about great sadness because I know that if something does not change the course we are on, nights like this will not be long for this world.
Cracks are appearing in the white walls of this citadel. Things are already changing. The first “ethnic” grocery store opened on the outskirts of town. The schools are becoming more diverse compared to when I attended. You see people who are foreign in a way that I only used to see if I was in someplace like New York City or Toronto, but not here.
I got in my car to go see a childhood friend. When we were kids, nearly every house in his neighborhood was decorated. Many kids around our age lived in his neighborhood, families would put up lights together, even volunteering to put up lights for elderly neighbors that were unable. That was twenty years ago. Now his house is one of maybe three I saw with Christmas decorations in the old neighborhood. Many Indians, Somalis, Pakistanis, and Nepalese have moved in at an accelerated pace over the past several years. I am sure most of these migrants are of the “legal” variety, but I do not care. Legal or not, this is tragic. More so assuming they are legal.
I leave and drive for a bit more, past the houses where people I knew that have passed on once lived. I thought about the last time I saw them alive, the last time I visited their graves. What family of theirs remains. Yesterday I visited graveyards. The distance I walk among the dead grows as surely as the years roll on. The trees look bigger from when I first started to visit alone when I could drive at sixteen.
This is certainly a habit I picked up from my mom, perhaps inherited. She takes my grandmother to visit graves of her dad, her childhood best friend who died very young of cancer, others in the family who have passed. Her car is filled with evergreen grave blankets shortly after Thanksgiving that are placed in front of the tombstones. A melancholic ritual that grows with each year.
The musical version of “Christmas Bells” by John Gorka, a somber poem by Longfellow written during the Civil War about the loss of his wife and the grievous injury of his son, plays on my car radio. It was one of my dad’s favorite songs. I remember listening to it with him in the truck a lot growing up around Christmas time. He said it reminded him a lot of people he lost around this time of the year, his dad, his best friend, his first wife, and he likes to remember them the best he can. In the way of family traditions, this is one that was passed on to me. I now find myself doing the same. I find myself more and more like my parents with each passing Christmas. After all, that is how all traditions are passed along in a civilization, or so I believe.
It’s starting to get late. The temperature dropped, and it’s snowing lightly. The poem and song are desperate. There is hope towards the conclusion, however faint.
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
When the sun came up I went to finish a few errands around town. I stopped at two of the local malls. Not to shop for anything, mostly to think, people watch, eat something, and to check on the condition of society at large.
One mall is older, still white, and dying. Most of the stores are gone, only one restaurant remains in the food court. It’s decorated for Christmas, but sparsely. I order a soda and some lunch. Every table is open. An elderly mall-walker shuffles by with a cane and waves. I wave back. We exchange friendly smiles.
A bit later I arrive at the next-closest mall. It’s hard to find a parking spot. There’s one not far from the Black Lives Matter mural. Making my way through the crowd of foreigners speaking in some languages I don’t even recognize, I am suddenly jolted by several large shopping bags carried by somebody from some dark continent. I don’t bother to stop or say anything; neither do they.
I cannot help but wonder if these are the only two options. An aging mall, dimly populated, or a bustling plaza, commercially strong, but alien and hostile? Neither are sustainable on a long enough timeline.
There is no peace on earth, nor any to be found in my troubled soul. All the same, I will force a smile and try to enjoy what is still left and what I still have. I hope you can do the same.
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