Like an old deer in a city park, I am beginning to pick up the scent of Christmas. When I think of shopping-- merchandise-- well, tears are all the currency I can muster; even the pounds of butter for cookies will be tough to manage this season. Thank goodness I conned my son into picking up a bargain tree on Black Friday. Having a good month with it makes me less guilty about kidnapping nature for selfish decor reasons. Yes, it's a symbol, and it certainly receives plenty of love and attention in its place by the shelves of vinyl and my double bass-- but come the New Year it gets put out on the curb for recycling, stripped of its finery, and I feel like a cruel step-parent. Anyway, it is in its domestic adolescence, still drinking up water and I love the smell. It is my companion, my forest. I wake mornings to the banging radiator and the piney ghost-aura of Christmases past.
I am closing in on another lifeline benchmark; it is also the first holiday without my mother. She would not have believed my age; during our last visits, she refused to believe the woman before her was truly me. My daughter, she laughed quizzically with those famous eyebrows roof-high? My daughter is young and so beautiful. You-- you're not my daughter! I had to agree, in the end. I am no longer that girl; I am quite someone else, becoming, every year, still another version of this woman in whose skin I feel not quite myself ('Mice elf', as Sly with cleverness observed).
On Saturday afternoons I often gallery-sit. It provides a little extra income and keeps my finger in the art pie where all of them once wallowed and explored. I take the train to Union Square and walking west I can't help observing there is a blossoming colony of homeless or hapless people-- most of them young, with signs, blankets, home goods, possessions, wares for sale. There are couples and small groups. Many of them have pets-- dogs, cats on leads, animals wearing sweaters and T-shirts, bandanas and hats, reminding me of the old Tompkins Square population from the 1970's. There is money in their cups and bowls; tourists and locals chat and pet the animals who are the pimps, in a way, for donations. People are uncomfortable with poverty and homelessness, but the animals seem to be an ice-breaker. Many of the young people are reading; they might be students living on the edge, relying on charity to make room and board. These days I have so little extra; a few dollars each month and my own skill at thrift keeps me from the street. I pass, I empathize, I apologize silently, and I say a prayer thanking God for another month of eking by.
There is coffee at the gallery. The space is luxe and white and the reverb is perfect for recording vocals. The objects are expensive and beautiful. I am comfortable with these; I understand their history and their context. The irony of my life is that I was brought up in museums, among cultural institutions-- I studied art and history and architecture and despite the extreme financial circumstances which ally me with the culture of homelessness, I am steeped in the love and lore of art and at home in this place. During the week salespeople and stylists and media-experts bring clients in and out; on Saturdays it is church-like; no one calls, and celebrities and billionaires come in to shop low-profile-style. We are connected by affection and understanding of these things despite the fact that I cannot even afford to buy lunch. I also encourage students and passersby to browse; I am instructed not to let anyone use the bathrooms but find this kind of rule difficult to enforce. I am a populist and also know, from years of gallery work, all visitors deserve the same hospitality.
This week there was a plumbing issue and the bathrooms were off limits. Mid-afternoon, in the first snow of the year, a young woman came in-- wet and snow-dusted, wide-eyed and sweet-faced, and asked to use the washroom. I had to explain-- felt a tiny pang of awkwardness, knowing the policy of places like this one… but she was cordial and spent some time looking around. I was speaking on the phone to a relative, admitting my dark mood and still coming to terms with the sad week I'd had-- the loss of another close friend and musician. I'd been not just on the verge of tears all week… in fact, since the fall leaves began to turn, I haven't been the same, as my Mom might have pointed out, had she lived another season. The girl left; I apologized again.
Maybe it was the weather-- the beautiful quiet snow, the dark afternoon, the Christmas lights through the window, the hangover from yet another funeral, the sense of the dying year… but I was feeling bleak and isolated. Gigs are getting sparse-- book sales are slow, my holiday calendar is quite blank. I will see my son-- he will have a brief rest from his work; maybe it is his missing father-- his slightly handicapped childhood, but he rarely expresses much emotion. He seems so 'normal'-- I do not often expose him to my 'shadow'. His father-- my husband-- was a happy-go-lucky boyish sort of person who embraced love and marriage with great alacrity, but not so much the 'to the exclusion of all others' clause. I never nagged or complained; I left. It didn't bother me that he never sent a penny; only when he complained to the next crop of spouses that he was crippled from child support payments.
At the end of the afternoon a girl came in again--- left something on the desk-- I was about to call after her, when I saw it was the same girl-- and she'd left a lovely wrapped cookie… with a note, saying I seemed to need some cheer-- and whatever it was, she could tell I was a strong woman and would overcome the darkness. I burst into tears-- like the touch of angel. It wasn't just that in this culture of phone-addiction and shallow human interaction it's so rare someone actually reaches out to a human (as opposed to a sad dog), but also that I remembered being that person-- the one who felt things, whose daily empathy called for these gestures and this sort of gift-giving and random affection to strangers. It isn't just that I look different as I age, but that my limited lifestyle has also limited my generosity of soul. I cried for my lost heart, for the girl I was and now suddenly missed so terribly, realizing my mother was maybe more astute than I knew.
I locked up and went back uptown in a cloud of quiet tears camouflaged by the falling snowflakes, mourning not just my friends but my old self… trying hard to absorb the Christmas message. After my solitary spartan supper at home, I found her cookie-- realizing with a bit of horror it had been so long since I'd treated myself to anything-- and I loved every bit; it was healthy and handmade and filled with festive ingredients and just so good. While I was busy worrying, struggling to maintain my minimal post-parental life in the 21st-century city which is not kind to the poor and the non-spending population, I had neglected more important things-- my soul, my heart, my own kindness not just to others but to myself. Thanking you, Kayleigh (she signed the note) for reminding me; maybe you are truly an angel, the ghost of my Christmas past, come to bring me not just a gift, but-- like the old story, an awakening.