Friday, December 7, 2018

The Longest Night

In my last post, I wrote briefly about the holiday classic, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Today I would like to discuss another film, "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Watching Christmas movies has always been a particular type of pleasure for me - as a child, I was permitted to view them either in Advent or on days I stayed home sick from school. These films provided comfort and inspired a sense of anticipation; through their imagery and music I felt the pull of ritual, both secular and religious.

Charlie Brown was, and still is, one of my favorites. But with this film comes a certain complexity, a troubling vulnerability, because I can't separate it from its Christian overtones.

And that makes me uncomfortable, because I've left the church behind.

Right now, I'm wrapped up in a fuzzy bathrobe, a thick blanket, and I've plugged in the tiny colored lights on the Christmas tree, and I've got choral music playing on the radio. Antique glass ornaments are scattered, resting in silver dishes, and I've placed gold leaves and pine cones on every surface. The trappings of Christmas are evident, evoking that familiar comfort and anticipation. In a few weeks, I'll be heading up north to spend the holiday with my in-laws, and I can't wait to laugh with them, to read books to my niece and nephews, to share conversation with my wonderful sister in law. After that, it's back home to celebrate Christmas with my family - a fire in the fireplace, good food, spending precious time with my sister.

So I have plenty of secular pleasures, and I am incredibly grateful for them. But I can't help but feel that something is missing, even as I reject it. Now that I have fully separated myself from the church, I feel a longing for that simplicity - that foundation of faith.

In "A Charlie Brown Christmas," the conflicted Charlie feels that same longing for something bigger, and he finds it in Linus's monologue, a reading from the Bible. Through that passage, Charlie can center himself in the mystery of Christmas, his mundane and shallow worries falling away.

But what is there for us - for we who have left the church? Is there room for us in that mystery?

I haven't figured that out, yet. And it pains me.

Last year, on Christmas eve, I felt the sorrow that came from my first Christmas without my father. I didn't know how to mourn him, not at all, but my desire for the sacred was wrapped up in the fact that I missed him. My father, the organist and choir director, the gateway to the divine. As I wanted him back in my life, I wanted that childlike faith - I wanted to be little again. I wanted to be Charlie Brown, re-initiated in ritual, finding joy despite an existential depression. That night, after a pleasant gathering of board games and desserts, I went back to my room and played choral music and longed for the stillness of my youth.

I was missing my father, but I felt I was missing, even more, my belief.

But I don't believe any more. Or maybe I do, and I just don't know how.

I have many good memories of the church, but I have just as many bad ones. I can't deny the hypocrisy, the ugliness hidden behind gold-stitched vestments, the gossip and cattiness, the misogyny. I cannot cover up the sins of an institution which values secrecy, which covers up abuses. And you might ask, what do these things have to do with God, but if we are taught that God comes only to the faithful - if our faith demands complicity - then we are encouraged to believe in our priests, not just our deity. And I can't do that. I've known too many priests.

But where does that leave me? I long for the church; I revile it.

So I must go dig down into a new truth. What is it about my belief that I miss?

Maybe Charlie Brown found contentment through a recitation of verse, but I think it was his community which brought him joy. It was the joining together of disparate voices, the outpouring of acceptance and affection. A shallow reading of the film places Christianity as the center of a vulnerable heart; maybe the true message is about something simpler and something deeper.

In recovery, we learn that isolation is a key element in addiction. That we need community and support. Churches can provide that, and maybe that's what I long for - not scripture, not dogma, but togetherness. It was the loneliness, last Christmas eve, which shook me. It was the fact that so much of my family was gone. And in that loneliness I found it difficult to enjoy the community of my new family - I was Charlie Brown, putting quarters in an old tin can, asking for answers when they were, after all, right in front of him.

I don't know if it will ever be easy for me, an orphan in my disbelief. My loneliness is a habit. I learned it very young, and the church filled that hole for a while - when I served on the altar I was a part of a ritualistic whole. Sacred music, still an intrinsic part of my life, operates in the interplay of different voices, striving together to make something bigger than they can alone.

When it comes to the story of Christ's birth, I'm not entirely sure how I fit in. I neither believe or disbelieve. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't - the myth is a good jumping off point, perhaps, for an exploration of the divine within each of us. The possibility of the impossible. And maybe it's a story about being alone and then being supported by a community, shepherds and angels and kings. The innocence of animals and the smell of sweet hay. Maybe it's about an inherent human need, sparked by the miraculous, for unity in our longest and darkest nights.

Maybe that miracle is available to all of us, whether or not we believe. Maybe we can have faith not in God but in ourselves.

Charlie found his happiness in his community, with or without God.  And I hope, now, in some of our darkest times, that we can all discover the humanity in each of us, that we can recognize in others that spark, a life force and a longing.

I don't need the church, but I do need togetherness.

Maybe we are all lonely, deep inside, buried in the broken places. But maybe we don't have to be alone.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Perhaps our greatest gifts are the ones which scare us the most.

I've just returned from therapy. My homework from last session was to write out an account of the things which were worrying me; my therapist, J, was quite surprised to hear I had forty pages of narrative prose and poetry. What can I say? Give a writer an assignment with a due date and you may get more than you bargained for.

I read J a few lines of the index - yes, my therapy document is indexed. And to my delight, he actually seemed interested. Quite a few passages detailed how no one could possibly be intrigued by my ramblings, so it was a bit of a shock to learn that someone might want to hear what I have to say.

I have a complex relationship with my writing. J would call that an excuse, and it is - my lack of confidence serves as a barrier between me and my work, and far too often I let my fear of failure get in the way of the activity about which I am passionate. There are many moments when I want to write, but many more moments when I refrain from writing because I'm scared of producing something sub-par. And so I get away with procrastination because I blame my insecurities.

In my school years, I garnered some positive attention for my writing, and yet at home there was a voice which always had something negative to say. I learned I was a good writer, but not good enough. I wanted approval from the powerful people in my life, but any approval came with a price. The more successful I became the more I was criticized.

And writing is a vulnerable act. In typing out my thoughts, I expose the shadows inside my brain. Certainly on this blog I tend not to shy away from difficult topics, from the illnesses which some might not want to face. I keep coming back to the thought that it's ugly - the noise in my head, the way I speak honestly, my flaws, my anxieties. To be sick in public is an almost radical act.

J suggested that I might use my writing to help others. That by writing out the challenges I live with, detailing a complicated childhood, exposing my fears, I enter into a dialogue with my readers. That dialectic - defining and discussing intimate truths - might both assist readers in their journeys and unearth further truths for my own evolution.

As a child I felt that so much of me was in service to others. I remember learning how to mix cocktails, how to fire off bitter witticisms, how to flatter, how to cajole. Coming to terms with a new kind of service - water in a waterwheel, a self-sustaining act - may be the key to undoing my trauma.

Service can be a large part of recovery; service is only possible if we understand how to serve ourselves.

And the best way to serve myself, the ultimate renewable resource, is to write. Sometimes what I come up with ends up on the rubbish heap, phrases and allusions broken into shards and scattered like glass in the road. And that has to be okay, because I think that sometimes, if I'm lucky, my words might do someone else some good. The bitterness and gall of portions of my past, as hard as it can be to live with, can inform my cherished medium of communication. How many adults can remember being unwanted? How many still struggle? How many need someone to talk to, or need someone to speak for them if they cannot?

I'm not going to publish my gigantic therapy document of doom any time soon. But in it, the seeds of a greater calling germinate, the beginnings of something larger. My passion, purpose, and profession might be borne of my ability to be ugly in honesty. To be open, to be occasionally raw.

I'll close this (deeply navel-gazing) post with a poem. Its topic is both neglect and a resulting anorexia, but I'm beginning to think that there's a positive message, too - it's a poem about hunger, but maybe it's also a poem about the need within all of us to find a sustaining mission. To find what fuels us. It's really hard, I can't deny that. But I'm beginning to think it's worth doing.


The old hunger never goes away.
The ravenous self-beast
Is there, always, tempting
You with mouth-watering
Hatred, with the clawing
Of the belly, with headaches
And foul breath, hooves
Scratching at the dirt
And ready to charge.
The beast will be fed -
On starvation, on excesses,
On rich food, on sunlight.
It will feast with its gaping
Maw, masticating the deprivation
Of youth, of poverty, of need.
You feed yourself.

The hunger remains.  

This poem lives in ugliness, in a space we want to escape, and yet today it makes me ask -

How can we quell the hunger in others? 
And in so doing, how might we feed ourselves?