Aimless: Evensong

This story was written for the December 2017 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month.

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Winter nights, I sit at the piano to play the carols. I have a favorite collection by Melody Bober which weaves a minor interlude through the old tunes, carrying the undercurrent of memory, solace’s shadow.

Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king!

My mother plays, my sister sings, while we craft confection snowmen and soldiers to guard the Christmas table.

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I pop a marshmallow into my mouth, and the sweetness melds with my father’s words as he reads the end of A Christmas Carol:

“…It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

–Charles Dickens

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We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy New Year!

We rose early, in the chill before dawn, and piled into the old VW van, stacked to the brim with presents and luggage and tins of cookies, so that there was barely room for the five of us. My father wore his heavy hiking boots, the better to press down on the old vehicle’s accelerator, and we all willed the van up the steep mountain passes, whispering earnest prayers as the trucks heaved past us, and singing as Old Trusty left her wheezes behind when we crested the pass and sailed down into the long, rain-splattered valley. After growing weary of travel-bingo, and “I spy,” and after singing Rudolf with every variation we could imagine, and after daydreams of riding each and every reindeer, long after the setting sun, we pulled, wearily into the driveway of my aunt and uncle’s house and the cousins piled out to wrap us in hugs and there was hot chili, hot chocolate, cold oranges, sweet, fresh Seattle water, and kisses, and laughter, and jokes, and then more songs, and stories, and it was time for bed and in three days it would be Christmas.

My sister, nearly a grown-up already, herded us kids on a caroling expedition.

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She sang the lead, we sang the chorus, my brother clapped the percussion, and while we performed, my cousins didn’t fight, my brother didn’t tease, and we joined our voices into one song.

“That was lovely, dears! Charles, come hear this! You must have some cookies!”

We sang and ate our way through the neighborhood, and when we finished at Grandma Earthy’s house, everyone said how clever we were, and wasn’t it fine to keep the old traditions alive! My sister’s eyes shone, lit up with song.

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I wonder as I wander out under the sky 
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die 
For poor on’ry people like you and like I 
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

I fell in love with Jesus when I was a teen. If I’d been born Catholic, surely I would have wanted to be a nun. As it was, I pledged my soul in the only way I knew: Stay true. Keep seeking. Find what is real. Don’t lose the spark. Give it all over, to all that is.

The year before I came to know Christmas blues, Joe, my brother-in-law’s father, driving me home from babysitting his youngest children, said, in reply to my seasonal cheer, “When you’re young, Christmas brings nothing but joy. When you’re my age, it’s the most depressing time of year.”

I couldn’t comprehend his gloom. “But you were a minister!” I exclaimed.

“All the commercialism,” he said. “It’s a capitalist’s feast, void of meaning. Another reminder of how far we are from anything real.”

The next winter, I snuck out of my sister’s house, where family was gathered, and wandered through the city neighborhood, under the colored lights that dimmed the stars. Old Joe’s words came back to me. The trees, the lights, the roasting chicken, the carols, the cheer–for just this few weeks a year–what relation did they have to the long road, traveled for thirty-three years by foot or donkey, that led from a stable in Bethlehem to a cross?

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That year, I was old enough to know that people would still hang a rebel, even those who, this night, sang of peace and goodwill.

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Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye, who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

When blessings abound, cheer can’t be kept down. A steady train of years passed, with Christmas dinners at my aunt’s, and all of us, even the old grandparents, gathering around, and family, still, was family, and home was home. To sit with my grandfather, to listen to his stories of long walks and long nights reading poetry and wondering, the reminder to savor these times, when we were together, kept winter blues away.

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Each year was like the next, until they weren’t.

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern laßt uns angenehmere anstimmen,
und freudenvollere.
Freude!
Freude!
Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!

I have spent one Christmas alone. J ventured south to prepare for our move here. I stayed up north to finish out the year of teaching. Our old station wagon wasn’t up to driving across the pass to Seattle, where my family celebrated. So I remained in our small town, nestled in the Channeled Scablands between three rivers. Sunday before Christmas, friends invited me to dinner, and the snow fell and we built a snowman and threw snowballs under the crystal moon.

The snow melted by Christmas, and the sun warmed the sagebrush, though nights brought frost. After my solitary holiday feast of cranberries, baked potato, butternut squash, and a veggie burger, I started the old Plymouth and drove along the Yakima River.

Beethoven’s Ninth played on the radio, and I turned the volume as loud as it could go.

Beside me rolled the deep river, traveling through the soft hills and broad fields. The sky sparkled as tiny ice crystals caught the sun.

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In solitude, my spirit soared and stretched: “Even the worm can feel contentment, And the cherub stands before God!”

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Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

We had no Christmas the year my dad passed. He left the night before Thanksgiving. On Boxing Day, I flew up to spend time with my mom. This was the first time I’d seen her home during the season without a Christmas tree.

We took a long walk along the cold lake shore. We couldn’t talk, but the physical warmth of our bodies radiated between us as we walked side by side.

We spent a night in an old, run-down cabin on the Puget Sound with my sister and her husband. We walked all evening, sharing few words, seeking comfort in the stillness of the cold water and the distance of the wide horizon.

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Oatmeal cookies with cinnamon, hot tea, and a fire in the Franklin stove couldn’t thaw the chill.

In the dark of the empty night, I woke to hear my mother weeping behind a locked door.

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O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

We live in a desert town where the sun shines three hundred days a year. On Christmas Day, my garden smells of petunias and rosemary, and thrashers sing and finches dart among the dried stalks of Mexican sunflowers, feasting on seed. 

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We don’t need a festival of lights when the sun wakes us at seven-fifteen and bids goodnight at five-fifteen, for we’ve spent the day beneath its rays, and our hearts are as warm as the afternoon.

We leave the trees growing in the forests. We feast, we sip coffee and tea, we watch the old movies, we look back on thirty-seven winters we’ve spent together, we share our blessings, we remember it all with gratitude.

I play carols on our piano, and I remember.

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I step outside beneath the stars. In me, the spark that I am jumps to the light, joining, in that continuous moment, all the sparks of light that ever are. It is Christmas, and I can hear my father’s voice as he reads the old story, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

We remember and, in memory, connect with the eternal moment. The light that shines through my father’s eyes, through my sister’s, through mine, it’s the light that keeps us bright the whole year through. May it shine, and keep on shining, in your eyes, too!

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Shift 34: Invent-a-bration

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“It looks like the United Nations of Holidays threw up,” Luiza said.

We all laughed except Karim.

“It looks nice,” he said. “Very pretty. We should keep it like this always. For inspiration!”

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It was Aadhya’s idea. She said at one of our Sunday dinners, which have sort of evolved into our YOTO meeting time, that she was thinking we should have some sort of winter celebration.

“Not Christmas, exactly,” she said, “for how many of us celebrate–or celebrated–Christmas?”

Donnie, Madeline, Luiza, Xavier, and I said we did.

“I had Christmas once or twice,” Marquise said.

“Our holidays fall whenever,” said Nadja. “They’re not seasonal.”

Aadhya said that she and some of the other staff members grew up Jewish. “But I guess if I’m anything now,” she said, “I’m Buddhist.”

“We should invent our own celebration,” said Xavier.

“Yeah! An invent-a-bration!” said Donnie.

So we decided we’d combine everything, put them all together, and that’s how we got the United Nations of Holidays in our foyer.

We started the day with yoga. Aadhya said that the end of the year is the time for letting go of everything we no longer need as we move into the new year. So as she led us through the practice, she kept saying things like, “Let your attention settle in your heart space. Feel all the blocks there dissolve as you let go of anything that no longer serves you.”

It’s the stuff she always says in yoga practice, but this time, for me at least, it felt like there was more energy behind her words. I felt space open up inside me, and it felt really sweet.

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We made French toast, fruit salad, tofu sausage, and hot spiced cider for breakfast, and then we went out and played basketball for a few hours.

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I came in early to make tacos for lunch. I really liked being inside alone, with music playing and all the decorations around.

Aadhya and everybody else connected with YOTO have really given us something. I can tell it makes Aadhya happy to do this work, too. I was thinking about giving and receiving. It’s kind of like flow. For example, I felt really happy making the tacos. I knew when everybody came in hungry and cold from playing basketball, the hot tacos would taste really good. So making them, knowing that they’d make other people happy, that made me happy.

And I bet that Aadhya feels like that, whenever she thinks about how she and YOTO are making a difference for us.

And in a weird way, if we weren’t here for her to help, she wouldn’t have that happiness, just like if the other kids weren’t around for me to make tacos for, I wouldn’t have this happiness.

But of course somebody would always be around. That’s just the way the universe works. Energy flows. So if it’s not me who’s being helped, somebody else would step in who needed help.

What I don’t know is if someone always steps up to help. It took all of us a long time to finally find Aadhya and make it to YOTO.

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Everybody was still outside when I ate my meal, except for the DJ who’d volunteered to come do our Massive Inventabration Celebration Dance Party that evening.

Before I ate, I sent out a thanks and a promise to the universe.

The thanks was for everybody that had every helped me in my whole long life.

And the promise was that whenever the universe needed me to help somebody or something else, I would step up.

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When the others came inside for supper, Luiza and Donnie looked sad. Neither wanted to talk. They were both inside their memories.

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I might know what they were feeling. Christmas has this whole myth around it about family and sharing times together. Like if you’re not with your family, it’s not even Christmas. From what they’d told me, I know that, like me, they’ve both had times when they were with family. And the times weren’t always bad.

I remembered Christmas back when Mom and Dad were still alive. One year, we went on safari–that’s what my dad called it. We really just packed up everything and traveled across country in our old VW camper for the two weeks around the holidays. We spent that Christmas on the beach, roasting hot dogs over the fire and watching the waves.

But we had some years, and they all run together, where Gran would come and we’d hang the stockings and sing the carols and all of that.

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After I ate, I went upstairs to take a long shower. I was feeling kind of melancholy, and I was hoping that maybe the water might wash it away.

When I got back downstairs, Sofia’s dad, Mr. Bjergsen, was there.

“I just dropped off a bunch of presents for you all,” he said. “Everybody at my office chipped in.”

I said something snarky about being charity cases.

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It was like I had forgotten everything I’d figured out over lunch. And all the gratitude and understanding my role of being the helpee had disappeared.

I apologized. I’m getting too old for moodiness.

Then Deon called to wish me a happy day, and Mr. Bjergsen started telling me about a western snowy plover that he sighted on the beach near their home, and all my moodiness was forgotten.

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When I hung up, I thanked Mr. Bjergsen for the gifts.

We had a great dance party.

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And there were so many presents!

Aadhya had gone around to collect donations from the local retailers, so we got new shoes, new clothes, i-pods, tablets, school supplies. You name it.

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Luiza stayed pretty down the whole time. But Maddy and Nadja and everybody else got into the party and the dancing.

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Late that night, when the rest of the kids were in bed or upstairs playing video games, I found a forgotten Christmas cracker on the table.

I felt excited opening it. You never know what will be inside. All the feelings of the day: the letting go, the gratitude, the sadness and anger, the resolution, the happiness–they all balled up into something that felt like joy.

In spite of it all, we’ve got so much.

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