The period between Christmas and New Year’s is always a time for reflection as we relegate what was to the past, anticipate what might be in the future, and struggle for a clearer perspective in the present. We may not have the benefit of ghosts to guide us as Scrooge does in A Christmas Carol, nor do our transformations generally happen in only one night, but we all have visions and memories and nightmares to inform us just the same, if only we will pay attention.
This is especially true this year. 2020 will go down not as one long night, but as one long year of visions, memories, and nightmares living under the specter of death. That constant reminder of our own mortality, every day on the news and in our own communities, prompts more than a fleeting moment of reflection on what really matters — even among those who persist in the belief that Covid is a hoax (“…until they get it,” as one ER doctor quipped on TV).
So, okay, we can all agree that 2020 has been a horrible year. Between the Covid pandemic, the political divisiveness and ugliness, the racial strife and violence, the economic woes and catastrophic effects on individual families and businesses, not to mention the fires and hurricanes and other natural disasters, it seems as though all the worst ghosts of Christmases past, present and future have visited us all at once. And we struggle to make sense of it all, to gain some personal insights about ourselves, and to find some positive lessons going forward into the new post-Covid normal, whatever and whenever that may be.
Back in March, my initial response to the sudden upending our lifestyle was one of extreme busyness around the house. Let me at least tackle these over-stuffed drawers and clothes closets while I have the time, I figured, as I unpacked my luggage from our suddenly cancelled Australia trip. Thus began a furious streak of cleaning out, clearing out, and giving away. In a matter of weeks, I had gone through the whole house, even through storage bins out in the garage. I felt lighter and primly efficient by letting sensible answers to basic questions guide my purge: Will I ever wear high heels again, or need china place settings for 24, or use old lesson plans? Will I ever press flowers, make tassels, weave ribbons, decorate birthday cakes, paint in oils or acrylics, do decoupage, make draperies or upholster furniture again? Gradually, the answers to those questions revealed more than just a no-nonsense verdict for disposal.
It occurred to me that being at home during a pandemic — with limited mobility, little social interaction, few unnecessary outings, no travel, no shopping, no dining out, no theatre or concerts or crowded events — is exactly what old age is like. It is life reduced and restricted. In culling my possessions, I had to come to terms with my age and stage in life, with what I can’t, and probably won’t, do ever again. As it turns out, that may be okay. Growing old is a privilege after all, not a curse — especially when considered in a year of so much untimely death.
From evaluating the whens, wheres, and hows of my personal possessions day after day, a vision emerged of a life well lived and deep gratitude grew for all I have experienced and all those whom I have known. Odd how the simple, but deliberate act of cleaning out material possessions can move one to spiritual insights, but that is exactly what happened. I realized that I have no regrets whatsoever about how I’ve lived my life, and that were I to die tomorrow (which I certainly hope won’t be the case), I could only be profoundly thankful for the wonderful life I’ve had.
Now I have never been what you could even remotely call a peaceful person, neither on the inside or the outside. A Type A to the nth degree, I have always been animated and busy, my mind wandering in a thousand different directions, my attention focused on “what’s next” rather than what is now or what was then. My Mother’s life-long, and ultimately dying, wish for me was that I might find a sense of peace one day. I always dismissed that as impossible, saying “I just wasn’t born a peaceful soul.”
Isn’t it ironic, then, that in this year of such universal chaos and fear, death and destruction, anger and violence, I have become more calm and collected than I have ever been— dare I even say “peaceful?” I have been able to focus intellectually and to produced some satisfying creative work. I have stepped back from the passions of divisive politics and come to accept that which I alone cannot change. Rather than causing resentment and depression, the Covid-induced time-out has actually given me a quiet space in which to reevaluate not just my possessions, but also my activities, my faith, and my relationships going forward. I have learned what I can do without; more importantly, I have learned that everything I really need is right here at home.
Scrooge’s overnight transformation made him into a person who no longer feared death because he had learned from the spirits how to live. “His own heart laughed,” Dickens writes, “and that was quite enough for him.” My encounter with the ghosts of 2020 has not been as dramatic as Ebenezer’s perhaps, but it has produced a very real change in attitude toward acceptance and appreciation of the present without undue fear and dread of the future. Do I miss my friends and family members and hope to be able to visit them again in person sometime soon? Certainly. Do I dream of another fabulous trip and hope to wear my Outback hat in the Outback one day? Absolutely. Am I over the nightmares about what might happen next and anxiety attacks over what I can’t control? I can’t be sure, but I have to trust in a peaceful heart.
And if I can do that, maybe I have not the ghosts of 2020, but the spirit of my Mother to thank.