The ache of this memory is etched in time, reignited today in this cold December afternoon.
It is of another cold winter afternoon in a long-ago December that I speak.
I am twelve years old and I sit alone on the city bus in the fading light, heading up to the Hill Section and my home, leaving my monogamous friend, Gladys, our matinee, and our focused connection behind me. Light snow is falling, making this December memory even more vivid. We pass throngs of Christmas shoppers on the streets below, bundled in their overcoats and goulashes, everyone busily hurrying somewhere. There are gifts to buy and stores to visit, a last-minute urgency in the air. The bus trudges slowly by the Scranton Globe Store, our town’s biggest department store. I look out the window, breath foggy on the glass. The decorations in Globe’s windows illustrate the story of the Little Drummer Boy. Little marionettes pantomime the narrative and endlessly sing in an infinite loop of frantic devotion:
“The finest gifts we give to him pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum…….”
The words of this song, which I both adore and detest, release a flood of heartache in me. I am a little Jewish girl with no gifts to give or to receive, a little Jewish girl with no king to honor, as far as I can tell. Nobody in my family is buying any Christmas presents or preparing any sort of a holiday meal. My parents are working, always working, in their neighborhood grocery store, serving other people who are preparing holiday meals, adding an even more complicated emotional twist for me. There will be no holiday lights in my house tonight, only the yahrtzeit candle, memorializing the death of my mother’s father many Christmas Eve’s ago. There will be no festivity in our house—only silent overwork, unspoken grief, and hushed exhaustion.
Deep within the memory of this child-moment, my twelve year old self is broken-hearted. Life itself is so bizarrely unfair. Why does everyone get something as massive as Christmas? Why do I get nothing, recalling our Chanukah celebration which held a weak candle to the bright, universal lights of Christmas? How can this time of holiday cheer be available to so many, but not to me? Why is being me such a lonely and a separate thing?
Fast-forward decades to present time.
I hang our new holiday wreath on our front door. Its evergreen is beautifully interwoven with delicate blueberries and sprigs of lusty red berries. I stand back, appreciative and happy.
Time has given me full permission to have it all. The Jewish holidays, the Christmas holidays, and everything in between—the only thing blocking me from full enjoyment of life, full enjoyment of the moment, is myself. My parents and their generation’s need to insulate from the Other, from Christians, holds little stead over me today. Surely marrying a gentile woman has facilitated the process of inclusionary holidays. We sing our Chanukah blessings each of the eight nights, making up our own relevant and spontaneous translations. We trim a little holiday tree, safe above the eyes and bellies of our ever-hungry (go figure) canine companions. We exchange Easter baskets, go to Temple on the holidays, to Quaker meeting on Sundays, and to church on Christmas Eve. We take what we need. We leave the rest.
Yet the exclusion I felt as a little Jewish girl growing up in the fifties was real. Our Pennsylvania town was organized around religious lines. My parents’ need to keep our “Jewishness” separate and subtly under wraps was driven by their understanding of safety and their fearing the potential of anti-Semitism, along with a real concern for their business. We were apart from others, by seeming necessity and design.
But not today. As I practice living the great inquiry of yoga, I am invited into observing my relationship with the moment without judgment. I am constantly offered opportunities to see the ways I continue to separate myself from others. Living yoga gives me the techniques and strategies to accept this ancient pull toward separating, and without judgment, ways to return to wholeness and unity. Just like on the yoga mat, breath and relaxation are major tools in the realignment of my actions with my intentions.
Of course there are plenty of moments in which I am stuck in my terminal uniqueness, unwilling and seemingly unable to get out. And so it is, the human dilemma, wanting to connect, being terrified of others, needing to be alone, longing for relationship.
I do my best to relax into the moment, no matter what I am noticing about myself.
I think of my Grandmother Sonia. I no longer imagine her rolling over in her grave while I trim our Christmas tree. I now see her smiling shyly at me, blessing me and my life from afar. Surely my healing is her healing, too. Surely we are all, one, in this together.