Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Little Drummer Boy and the Carol of the Coyotes

This cold, wet night is better suited for October than December; Halloween instead of Christmas.
But there can be no doubt. This is Christmas Eve, incontrovertibly the night when Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the foundation stone of their entire belief system.

Perhaps that is why people like me find ourselves so baffled on December 24th. Christmas is a holiday rooted deeply in belief, both individual and cultural.

As a child, I believed. 

Christmas was a time of magic and wonder, and Christmas Eve was the night when all the small magics of childhood come together in a breathless kind of anticipation. Will Santa come? Will I get that doll/game/book/toy I asked for? Or does he know about the time I locked my three-year-old brother in the bathroom with the tub running. I’m sure Mom told him about that. She never forgets anything. As a result, Santa Claus doesn’t either.

Was there anything ever so delicious as slipping in between cool sheets with the heaviness of blankets and comforter, determined to stay awake so you could hear the hooves of the reindeer as Santa landed on the roof? How one moment, you were straining to hear Santa’s arrival and the next you were opening your eyes and finding that somehow, incredibly, it was Christmas morning?

But those are the happenings of childhood, when everything was possible.

As adults, that magic is lost.

For a decade, I didn’t have Christmases with my family. Any of my family. I created Christmas for my friends whose families had disowned them. The gay community was at its craziest, most frenzied pace during the 1990s. Especially around the holidays. We drank and danced and dared each other to think longingly of the Christmases of our childhood, and tried to create our own magic without the fallacy of Santa Claus and the unforgiving families we'd left behind. I wasn’t gay, but they didn’t care. I invited them all to my table—young and old, well and sick, forgotten and forbidden, and we created our own family.

A family for a day.

But that family, like the first, has fallen into the past.

Now I stand alone on the back deck, while behind me my family sleeps. My husband, secure in the home of his parents, sleeps soundly in our bed. But I can’t. My father is eight hours to the south; my oldest daughter eight hours to the east; my youngest daughter half an hour and a world of anger away. My children now have children, and they already sleep—seven little souls worn out with their own effort to stay awake for Santa. Seven little souls secure in the belief that on Christmas Eve, magic happens. My daughters are busily being Santa, arranging gifts under the tree and anticipating the morning madness.

The simple drama of Christmas, enacted by players who know their roles in the world of that personal and distinctly unique thrill of the holiday. 

And yet...

I once again find myself alone on Christmas Eve, but I don’t mind this aloneness as once I did.

The night is wild and wet, the wind whistling through branches stripped bare from a sudden and violent slide into autumn, and now face the winter with stoic desperation. The air stings against my skin, softly singing a susurrus of sovereign solitude. But I hear another song, a song I've rarely witnessed. I hurry to the rail of the deck in the corner nearest the forest, and I wait in silence for the song to begin once more. 

And it does.

Not too far from here, in the ravine near the spring, coyotes are singing as well. Their song isn’t lonely, but proud and autonomous. Not the Christmas carols we all sing, but just as sacred and far more rare.

You know, even as an adult I find that some Christmas carols bring tears to my eyes. The Little Drummer Boy always gets me. The imagery on its own is so perfectly expressed.

Little baby
I am a poor boy too
I have no gift to bring
That's fit to give our King
Shall I play for you
On my drum

Mary nodded
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for Him
I played my best for Him
Then He smiled at me
Me and my drum

Think of a child who has nothing but a drum—no parents, no friends, no school. His drum is the only thing that stands between him and starvation, and his ability to play that drum is the only company the child has. So when he finds himself standing beside the manger where the newborn Christ lies on his bedding of straw, he feels compelled to give the infant a gift. He can’t compete with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh the three wise men bring. He gives the baby the only thing he can—he shares his talent. Playing the drum is his gift, and the Christ child smiled.

I’ve never been able to sing the whole song through. Every Christmas I try, and every Christmas I fail. For anyone who is both blessed and burdened with a creative talent, the imagery hits too close to home. Anytime you share your talent, it’s a breathless, terrifying sort of gift. Not everyone can understand what you’re giving them. Not everyone values it. But then you reach that one person, a total stranger, who experiences your gift and is grateful that you gave it.

And for that one, paralyzing moment, you are no longer alone.

Like me, now, standing in the dark, cold corner of the back deck. It no longer matters that my family is scattered over four states. It no longer matters that I, alone, am awake and welcoming the midnight’s ominous silence. For I am not alone. Instead, I listen to the coyotes caroling deep in the ravine, and as their voices rise into the heavens the clouds break apart and reveal an arctic
night’s sky. The stars are icy, their light static and brittle. The moon is still hiding her argent face from the field and woods beneath her.
And I? I am breathless with the wonder of the moment. This moment is a gift. I don’t know who gives such a thing to me. Maybe I’m fool enough to think it something significant instead of just a completely random jumble of occurrences. But for now, it’s mine and mine alone. No one else is experiencing this, so it must be meant for me.
A gift…and a lesson. I am not alone. I have never been alone. I have chosen before to keep myself aloof—apart—and therefore safe in my isolation. I have been the coyote singing a wild song to the aurora borealis…not because I saw the northern lights, but because I believed they was there.
Now the clock chimes midnight, and it is Christmas Day. The coyotes have fallen silent, and the skies have clouded back over. A rain that’s more solid than liquid has driven me back into the warm silence of the house. The kittens are curled up in their basket, and my husband still sleeps.
Leaving me to ponder the gift of knowledge Christmas gave me, and the strange gratitude I have for the perfect serendipity that led me outside, hurting and alone, so that some providence could remind me of the true miracle of Christmas.

I am never alone.
Merry Christmas.