In my seminary class yesterday, we were asked to call to mind and share one holiday memory.
A photo album of childhood Christmases flickered through my mind -- the Christmas in Boston when my dad was trying out his Broadway-bound musical, Darling of the Day. I was five, and that was my first Christmas away from home -- the first time I saw snow! The three Christmases we spent in London, perhaps the most glorious place to celebrate Christmas on the planet. The British LOVE their Christmases, and the lights, the caroling, the holiday parties all seemed magical to a little girl from Beverly Hills, where the annual Christmas decorations adorning their light posts were oddly interfaith plastic doves bedecked with blue tinsel that reminded me of cartoon seagulls and exuded an anemic artificial holiday cheer.
But at our house, my British mother managed to meld the best of her homeland with her designer's ability to stage an extravaganza -- creating legendary Christmases that became living proof of Oscar Wilde's maxim: "Nothing succeeds like excess." From our department-store sized trees perfectly bedecked with Italian ornaments to day-long gift unwrapping accompanied by food, food, and more food, along with choreographed waves of people who joined us for their appointed festivities, my mother's Christmases evinced her lifelong ethos that more, to a girl who grew up feeling such shame over her family's lack, more must certainly always and undeniably be better.
At the center of all of my childhood holiday memories is my father -- my own convivial Father Christmas -- a man who adored every single aspect of the holidays. The gifts (the giving and receiving), people, food, and parties lit my father up far brighter than any holiday lights. As a man who brought his "joy to the world" to the world every single day of his life, Christmas was his favorite holiday, because his innately ebullient exuberance and childlike wonder at his own glorious life made him seem like Santa to so many people with whom he shared his gifts of laughter, generosity, pleasure, curiosity and kindness every single day of the year. But this holiday was his time to bring it home to us -- his family and friends -- to hang the robes of his public persona in the closet and play in the sandbox of his personal life like the big kid he knew himself to be.
When I think of my father, I think of this smile. This smile taught me the meaning of joy.
So, when my father married my stepmother and discovered a real-life grinch who loathed Christmas, it almost broke his heart. Not only did she abhor the festivities, but she wanted to choose her own gifts. For a man with a genius for gift-giving, this was perhaps the cruelest blow of all. He found it out the hard way, when two years into their marriage he presented her with a large necklace that he had bought in Poland. Carved out of bone and the size of a Dr. Doolittle moth (my father had an almost pathological weakness for massive jewelry), Coral took one look and made it absolutely clear that she would rather wear a ball and chain for the rest of her life than ever let that benighted butterfly find its way around her neck.
My father gave in -- as he always did to Coral. The majority of the rest of their Christmases were spent on cruise ships in warm ports of call sharing a few tasteful gifts that Coral had chosen for herself. But no matter where they were in the world, for the next sixteen years, there was always one gift that Coral knew she would find under the tree -- usually hidden in some box that contained great promise (Hermes or Missoni were good red herrings for the job). Every year my father wrapped that damn butterfly necklace and re-gifted it to Coral, as if to say -- You may have won the war, but I will fire my cannon just to prove that there is some Christmas spirit in me that you will never be able to dampen. And to her credit, my stepmother adored my father's indomitable humor, and came to look forward to the annual unveiling -- as long as the thing never touched her neck!
But all of those memories of Christmases Past simply rifled through the Rolodex of my mind as context for the holiday memory I chose to share about my first Christmas with my father after my stepmother died -- when I decided it was my mission to make up for all of my father's "lost holidays". We planned a quiet Christmas -- my dad and his British caretaker, Reg; my best friend Cyn, and I -- later to be joined by other friends for dinner.
It was 1991, and the country was reeling from a recession, so when I arrived with a carload of presents that took almost fifteen minutes to unload, my left-of-liberal father very dryly remarked, "I think you may have singlehandedly revived the economy. I'm sure the Bushes will be very grateful to you."
In my mind, we were going to have a Christmas to rival the Christmases of old -- a daylong unwrapping of gifts accompanied by the waves of choreographed people with food, food, and more food. I was going to set the stage for my father to be able to be the Father Christmas I remembered from my childhood. This was the movie in my mind.
But despite the joy we all found in spending the day together, my predominant memory of that day was sadness and shame. The excess that had once seemed so glorious and festive now seemed and empty and hollow. The presents all seemed too much and too material. The whole day tired my father out. And the 29-year-old me felt bereft, confused, and more than a little bit mortified.
The object of yesterday's seminary sharing was to learn how to listen deeply to another person, and then be able to ask questions that would enable him or her to explore a story more deeply. To evoke a deeper exploration of whatever might have surfaced, an excavation that would facilitate healing.
In response to the first question my partner in this exercise asked about clarifying some of what I had shared this holiday memory, I heard myself say, "I don't think I ever thought about the feelings that my father must have had about my Christmas extravaganza. . .Did he see it as an indictment of his time with Coral? Or perhaps an uncomfortable reminder of his failed marriage? Or even a hearkening back to a time that he was old enough to know could never be recreated?" Because I suddenly saw that what I had told myself was all about him -- allowing him to have Christmas the way he loved it again -- had, of course, been all about me. And as that became clearer and clearer to me, I suddenly saw that my father had known that, and that, of course, it had made him sad. Which to the 29-year-old me had landed me up in shame. . . Which was where that memory had been filed away until yesterday morning.
So, when my listening partner asked her next question, it was not at all what I anticipated. I was sitting firmly in the S file drawer, feeling that old shame and sadness surface, and starting to call to mind all of the other shames and sadnesses filed away with it.
She asked, "What would you like to tell your father?"
My head popped up out of the S drawer for what I thought would be a brief glib answer before heading back down to wallow a bit.
But our instructions were to listen, to sit in silence -- even if uncomfortable -- and to dig deeper. So I swallowed my retort that getting to tell my father what I want to say to him is what I am already doing when I go around the world speaking about his legacy.
Instead I sat there until another memory came: My father and I were driving back to his house a few months after that Christmas, when he turned to me in the car and said, "I'm sorry I wasn't a very good father."
It's such a strange thing being young, isn't it? You know what you know but you don't know enough about life to know what to do with what you know.
I knew that he meant it.
I knew that, on some level it was true. Both for him and for me.
He had been the person who taught me unconditional love.
But he had also abandoned me.
I knew that he needed me to hear it.
And I knew that he wanted neither absolution nor forgiveness, but rather to be held by me to the same tough scrutiny to which he held himself. That only in that hard seeing could he release himself from the self-loathing he carried.
I knew all that then, but I was too young to be able to give him what he needed.
Because that too-young me still needed the fiction of her father to be possible.
And so I said, "Oh that's not true at all. You were a wonderful father. I love you."
Because, of course, that was true, too.
So, when my partner asked me what I would want to tell my dad, my first impulse was to go back to that moment in the car and have a do-over. But again I subjected myself to a severer listening (as the poet Adrienne Rich exhorts us to do), and ended up hearing myself say, "I don't know, because I see now that the conversation I have been having with my father is a conversation with his memory. It is not a living dialogue. And that is where the healing is. . ."
There's a photo that I show at the end of the talks I give about my dad and his legacy of yes.
It's one of my favorite pictures of the two of us.
In my talk, when this picture pops up on the screen, I thank all of the horror fans who have invited me to step into my father's shoes and live his legacy of joy and yes. . .and I share that one of the unexpected benefits -- aside from bringing me back to my own joy and yes -- has been getting to have my father's ear once again. . .just as I did when I was a little girl.
But until yesterday, I hadn't understood that, although I have his ear, I haven't been speaking into it. Sure I go around the world speaking about him, as well as becoming the living repository for other people's stories about him. More than most people in the world, I have the opportunity to carry my father with me in my heart and share him wherever I go. But I have not been talking to him. . .
In this blog.
This blog is my conversation with my father. This blog. This daily practice of joy. This showing up to yes. That is the living dialogue I have been having with my dad. Every day that I practice joy and show up to my yes, I am talking with my dad. But until yesterday, I didn't realize that there was something this conversation had been skirting around. . .
Lately people come up to me and say the kindest things:
"Your father would be so proud of you."
"You are just like your father."
"You have inherited all of his best qualities."
And when they say that, I think of his niceness and generosity of spirit, of his omnivorous appetite for life and genuine love of people. Of his elastic intelligence and his ability to articulate so many things to so many people -- and I feel deeply honored.
But I think the one thing I haven't let myself talk or really even think about until today is what my father was not able to heal before he died.
My dad did a wonderful recording of Charles Dickens' famous story, A Christmas Carol.
In this tale, as most of us remember from our childhoods, Ebeneezer Scrooge gets to visit Christmas Past, Present, and Future.
Yesterday's exercise took me back through many Christmases Past and brought me to the realization that my Christmases Present have been, for many years now, a reaction to the excesses of the past. I spend very monk-like Christmases now -- with little to no human contact by choice -- a time of solitary retreat for finding my way back to me. No gifts, no parties, no food food food. Just a time to go inside and retrace the threads of me that I have lost during the year. Writing, reading, journaling, hiking, birding, being still.
But this year, I feel myself on the cusp of Christmases Future, and more than Christmases. I know that next year will be a time of new beginnings, of stepping to parts of myself that I have been waiting to own and embody my whole life.
But to do that, one thing has to happen. I have to have the conversation with my father I have avoided my whole life. I have to tell him that I know that he failed over and over again. I know it because I, too, have failed. . .over and over again. I have to tell him that I know that he never lived up to his own expectations of himself, that he abandoned those he loved the most, especially himself. I know that because I, too, have never lived up to my own expectations of myself, and I, too, have abandoned those I loved the most, especially myself. I have to tell him that he was imperfect, flawed, unreliable, fearful, and sometimes even mean. I know that because I, too, am imperfect, flawed, unreliable, fearful, and sometimes even mean. And I have to tell him that I love him not just despite the fact that he was all those things, but because of them. And then, every single day, I have to tell myself the same thing.
In Dickens' story, when Scrooge meets the Ghost of the Future, he exclaims, "I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?"
As we know, Scrooge is silently shown the grim future to which his actions are leading. Shaken to his core but still hopeful that he can change the course of the future, he asks the Spirit: "Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life."
At which point the Spirit nods and leaves Scrooge to retrace his steps and create a new future for himself and everyone his life has touched.
This is what I want to say to you, Dad.
I wish I hadn't been so young when you died.
I wish I had understood what I am just beginning to understand now -- that the path to healing always takes us through the valley of the shadow of death.
I wish I had been able to love your shadows as much as I loved your light.
But I do now.
I love your shadows because I can see that they never dimmed your light, but rather as in the paintings of our beloved Caravaggio, they illuminate exactly what I need to see.
So, I get to do what you couldn't.
I get to take it from here for us both.
I get to love the shame and sadness back to joy, and practice that joy every day.
I get to forgive the no's and fears until they melt away and we find ourselves finally living the yeses of our True Selves.
Now, Dad, from this place, when I say I love you, it is finally something you can trust. Because now, when I say I love me, it is something I can trust.
You have my word on it.
So, I'll just let Dickens take it from here:
"Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"