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Thu December 18, 2003
Ghosts of Christmas Past
For Paul, the Holiday season is a chance to reflect on the pathway from the past to the present.
By Paul Wilkes
Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Paul's commentary.]
Christmas -- that exquisitely bittersweet time of the year. And, amidst all the hubbub and happiness, I'll wager that many of you, in the quietness of a morning walk or a lonesome car ride, are visited by ghosts of Christmas past. I know I am.
For as I scan back over the years, Christmas is one of those sure and regular markers. Yes, a case of where I was. But, more importantly, who I was.
So many years ago, a boy on the East Side of Cleveland, singing Christmas carols -- in Slovak, mind you -- in a church and world I thought would never change. To be a saint, that was all this boy wanted to be. Yet, also a boy with a sense that there was more outside this comfortable ethnic and religious enclave that was all he knew.
It changed quickly. Off to college, the first of my family to do so, and then returning home for those Christmases to a strange place that was suddenly so alien.
In not too many years, a Navy officer standing on the bridge of a destroyer, defending his country in the warm waters off the coast of Cuba, then an officer ducking below an arch of swords as he was married in a Florida Navy town whose name escapes me, in a church not the one into which I was born and swore my eternal allegiance.
That marriage. No children at Christmas. No children in fact. But, excellent vacations. A second house to escape to. Having it all. Seemingly.
And then, the Christmas seared into my brain like no other. Sleeping on a dank sofa offered by two young friends. The marriage over. A virtually homeless man, so disoriented, so sad.
The following Christmas was spent trying to be the saint I still had the illusions of being. Living with three other mentally disturbed and homeless men. Trying so hard, but it wasn't working. It was not the mold for which I was made. At all.
Then, a blur of Christmases in New York. The single man. Greenwich Village apartment. Maybe now. Having it all. Seemingly. But he knew the hollowness of it all. The Christmas midnight masses with liquor on his breath and French-cut blazer on his shoulders. The grand -- but achingly lonely -- apartment.
And now, for the past twenty years, my Christmases are no longer a blur, but distinctly chronicled in a series of pictures in my hallway. Our annual Christmas cards. Tracy and I, at first so young and a dot of a first child in a sled. Noah. Daniel comes along and they grow from toddlers to school kids to teenagers, going through so many seasons of changing hormones and hairstyles.
Nothing overtly saintly about those Christmas pictures at all. Portraits of a failed saint, really. But a man with a smile, year after year. The ghosts of Christmas past still haunt me and visit me from time to time. And behind the smiles on those pictures each year are tears, anxiety, mourning. God is distant. God is present.
But it is no longer a case of having it all. Seemingly. Rather, having this. Gratefully.
Paul Wilkes teaches at UNCW, and is the creator of New Beginnings, a church renewal program.