Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Story - Chris Hart

A few words before I begin in earnest, friends. 

First, an apology.  I have not posted much poetry in 2016, and I feel my life has been worse for it.  This has been a trying year, and I have not weathered it with the grace and serenity I strive to provide with this blog.  I let the difficulties of daily life take up the majority of my mental energies, leaving little room for much else.  I heard many wonderful words of support from many of you during the year, and for that, I am truly thankful.  I hope to serve you all better in 2017.

Secondly, this is not a poem that I share today.  Rather, it's a story of mine, one that I have not told to very many people.  As the title implies, it is a Christmas story.  I've held off on telling it because I was unsure if I could reach anyone with it.  Today, though, I have decided to cast off my doubts and write with the bravery of the season in mind, in hopes that you can feel something essential: warmth, love, and value.  Merry Christmas, friends.

This is a story about how one tiny thing can mean the whole world.  It is about the transformative power of Christmas, and how you have more value than you think.

A little over three years ago, I felt, for the first time in my life, truly lonely.  At the time, I was living in South Korea, working as an English teacher.  It was a marvelous experience, and overall one of the best decisions I feel I have ever made in my life.  It was, however, not without its difficulties.

When I got the job, I was placed into the countryside province of Gyeongsangbuk-do.  Climate-wise, it is similar to my native Connecticut: cold, snowy winters, rainy spring, complete with flowers, sweltering summer, and beautiful, bountiful fall.  Topographically, the land is channels of flat land around rivers surrounded by dramatic, sharply rising mountains.  The hills are sudden, and create a wonderful zig-zag skyline.  Population-wise, the county where I lived, Uiseong, is home to about 70,000 people.  My town, Tamni, is a quiet farming town of about 4,000 people.  I came to love it very much, and I miss it very much now.

Three years ago, though, it was December, and bitterly cold.  I had just disembarked from the train station in my town, and had just passed through the station doors to begin my walk home.  I lived no more than half a mile from the station, so it was never a long walk.  The station itself was a cute little building.  It consisted of little more than a ticket counter, lobby, and bathroom, and had one platform for both tracks.  The building was shaped like a little castle, which I always found charming. 

That night, I was returning from a nearby city, having done some Christmas shopping.  I had gone into the Western style supermarket a town over to buy baking supplies for the oven I had recently purchased, and to pick up more Christmas cards.  You see, this being my first Christmas away from home, I was making a real effort to make my life feel Christmas-y.  I had begun writing cards to friends and family back home overseas at the start of the month, and was looking forward to baking cookies for the friends I had made since arriving.

It is worth mentioning now that Christmas in Korea is quite different to it in the USA, or to most European nations.  Whereas Christmas here has come to be a large commercial holiday, and also a general season of goodwill towards others, in Korea, it is two distinct holidays.  One of those is for couples, for whom Christmas is like another Valentine's Day.  It's a day to spend in the arms of a lover, with a gift meant to show affection.  The other is the religious holiday, in which Christ's Nativity is celebrated, quietly.  There is no long break from work or cultural celebration, just one day off in December.  Knowing this, I was trying my best to feel the goodwill and love that I personally associate with Christmas, though in all honesty, I was struggling. 

Emotions are fickle things by nature.  I do not know why, but as I stepped outside of that proud little castle-shaped train station, I felt completely isolated.  The town was, as always, quiet.  It was about 10:30pm, and there wasn't another person in sight, not even in the station.  Maybe it was the piercing cold, or the strident whistle of the winter wind through the bare tree branches, but my mind turned inward on itself.  Feelings of alone-ness turned into feelings of loneliness, into which crept doubt and self-loathing.

I suspect I am not alone in this, but the night can turn my own worst thoughts back inward.  I began to meditate on loneliness as I began my solitary walk back to my solitary apartment.  Under normal circumstances, when I feel lonely, I can easily remind myself that I am not alone, and that there are people who value me for nothing apart from my own self.  Maybe it was the unusual cold that pierced right through me, despite my thick woolen jacket, but I could conjure no such thoughts of reassurance.

The cold and dark seemed to tell me that not only was I alone, but I deserved to be alone.  My worst fears about myself as a person seemed in that moment to be Gospel truth.  Of course I was lonely!  I didn't know how to fall in love, and when I did, I never knew how to show it.  It was right for me to be cold and alone on Christmas.  My mind was racing with every time I had somehow perceived myself to fail, too be too much of one thing, not enough of another.  It was as if the cold was confirming to me every doubt I had ever held, ratifying every fear I had.  Surely I was unlovable!  You fled from your failures at home and look at you, still alone, still sad, the wind shrieked.

Here you are, alone in a cold, dark down on the opposite side of the world, desperately trying to convince yourself that it's Christmas.  A season of goodwill among men, and love?  Hah!  There is no such thing, the cold pressed.  There is only me, and you, and no one for you here or anywhere.  It was an unbearable moment.  I felt further away from any person on the planet than I ever have.  I simultaneously missed my family, friends from home, and anything on which I could anchor a feeling of belonging, or self-validation.  Some confluence of environment, weather, and my own emotional state had conspired to convince me briefly that I was deservedly alone, nothing more than a list of things I could do for other people.

No more than four minutes could have passed, but I felt all of these things as deeply as I have ever felt anything before in my life.  Then, something wonderful happened.  I looked up.  Above a local church's door, lining the jetty, was a single string of white Christmas lights.  They meant everything to me.  It was a familiar sight when I needed it most, and had not been there earlier in the day when I took the train into the city.  A single string of Christmas lights made me feel, no, believe, that I belonged.

All of the feelings of the season flooded into me, and I was suffused with incredible warmth.  All the fears of loneliness I had were dispelled by those lights.  They let me know that I was not alone, but that the essential goodness of Christmas transcends any cultural trappings.  It lives in knowing that you are loved, and you are, no matter how you think or feel about it.  You matter as much as anyone else and should never deny yourself that knowledge. 

I know it sounds silly, but in that moment, that one string of Christmas lights meant the world to me.  I knew in that moment that my fears were unfounded.  They represented a bright world of possibility, a world redeemed by love, the true meaning of Christmas.  It is the bravery to see yourself as someone worthy of love.

Having looked up at those wondrous, beautiful, ordinary lights, I continued my walk home, unaware of the bitter cold.  I went into my apartment, put Christmas music on, and began baking cookies, singing along with the music as I went.  From an outside appearance, all I did that day was walk from the train station to my house, maybe slightly slower than normal.  It was a mundane journey, over a short distance, and for no remarkable purpose.  To me though, it has stood these past three years as a realization of what the Christmas spirit means to me.  It is giving unselfishly with the knowledge that everyone is as human as you, and as deserving of love and goodwill as you, and that you are as deserving as anyone else.

I went on to have an absolutely wonderful Christmas that year.  I woke before dawn to Skype with my family, celebrating Christmas.  After that, I took the bus into the neighboring town, where I volunteered at an orphanage with friends, giving gifts to the children and singing songs with them.  That evening, I went to a friend's house, where we all prepared a delicious Christmas dinner, and celebrated one another's company late into the night with food, wine, laughter, and endless goodwill.  I will never forget that experience, and I hope to hold those feelings in my heart's memory for the rest of my life.

Something so small as a string of lights in the dark, cold, foreign night unlocked for me the goodness of the season.  It is the eternal Christmas triumph of a light in the dark, a Hope for a hopeless world.  Of course, I knew that those horrible emotions I felt were not grounded in reality.  But we do not live only in a world of facts.

I do not know if my story can speak to you, reader.  Maybe it is too personal, or too general.  I did say I was unsure about sharing it.  But when I felt some bitterly cold weather the other night, this memory came back to me.  It is a story I have only told to a few people, because I was not sure if I could explain it properly.  I hope I have, reader, and I hope that you know that you have value, and are loved.  Look up, and look for light.  It is Christmas, after all.

Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas.  I hope to talk to you all much more in the new year.