The marker between this year and last year is how different the holiday party feels.
Still mostly the same group of people—half of whom I know and half of whom I do not; still the same day—December 21st; still the same place—except that she got rid of the piano in the living room and reoriented the stacked bookshelves on the west wall.
I am leaving tonight before midnight, last year I was here until five in the morning.
Making my goodbye rounds I run into someone vaguely familiar, and as he introduces himself to me, I feel compelled to ask:
Were you one of the ones last year who stayed all night?
Because last year—last year!—was so amazingly wonderful and perfectly different.
Oh, how it felt to be me last year on the winter solstice, four days before Christmas.
Oh, how absolutely appropriate it felt to just ride this night out with four strangers in a back yard waiting for some candles to burn down. How we sat in a pile of piñata candy, wondering why Starburst even bothers with the orange and yellow ones when those will always be eaten last (if at all).
How five people who had no concept of each other just a few short hours ago sat and warmed their hands in each others’. How we each sat and talked of heartache and heart-warm, and how the year began to wrap itself into moral conclusions, bullet points and emotionally poignant themes. How we were simply contented to just watch the wax drip drip drip, pooling into dams and collecting into vertical lanes along the candle stems, building and collapsing and building and falling.
Stillness emerged around us around three in the morning, when even the late nighters in the city were returning home, and still the five of us sat and let ourselves love each other. And our ability to love that night came simply in the form of taking deep interest in the lives of strangers and in the unbridled exposure of ourselves.
Love became us as we learned to trust that we were safe to feel connected to each other.
And this year, as I look into the eyes of someone I knew just briefly for five or six hours, my entire year begins to wrap itself up for me again.
The more new years I come into, the more surprised I am at the way life unfolds itself to me. Contrary to the logic that as the years stack on, it might be easier to see my footing before I take my steps, my addition of years only serves to show me that my footing can never be guessed–I will step left and then right and then backwards twice, with no discernible pattern. I will end up on roads that are wholly and completely unforeseen.
If you had told me last December 21st what was waiting for me in this year, I probably would have believed you, but I also would have been very surprised.
On December 21st, 2012, I had a chronology waiting, baiting me towards it.
I had seven more months of being flung through a relationship where my boyfriend was having a baby with another woman. I would survive the day when he skipped our morning breakfast date to go have that baby. I would go home and collapse to my belly on the bed of my best friend and cry, and when she asked me why I was home instead of with him, I would reply,
Why do you think I’m home right now, Baby-J? Where do you think he is?
I would know on that day—that day in April—that it was over. I would know that day that we were in the middle of collapse, but the final goodbye would still take three more months to say. And in-between April and July, I would try obsessively to make everything alright, pretending that this was still salvageable, that we could somehow make this work, that it wasn’t so difficult, and oh, how progressive we would be if we were this weird conglomerate of people tied together in a convoluted bowline.
On December 21st, 2012, I would have no idea that my already established habit of playing music with someone twice a week would turn into playing music and talking twice a week, which would turn into playing music and telling each other everything twice a week, which would turn into playing music and finding God together twice a week and sending good-night text messages along the lines of:
I am comparing tonight’s energy to that of gravitation: a gentle, invisible force that holds galaxies together.
All of this would turn into one Sunday afternoon where he would look at me and say:
So…I want you to know that I am open to discussing what is actually going on between us, and we can have that conversation now or we can have that conversation later or we can have that conversation never. And the only reason I haven’t brought this up before is because I don’t want to jeopardize our music relationship.
And this would feel so wholly remarkable and so completely obvious at the same time, as this had been the running joke in my apartment for months. When are he and I going to just get together, already? My roommates were imagining weddings for me.
And still: careful, Brentan, careful: how do we do this? How do we maintain this frequency of God? Is this even translatable? Can we merge friendship to relationship and still feel everything we feel now? Will we get quiet and passive aggressive and jealous and develop expectations for each other? Will I still feel in 10 years that this person is far and away the easiest person to have a conversation with?
Because of these questions (or maybe because of other things), it would be over a month before we shared our first kiss—before we shared our first everything. And then it would be two and a half months before we would share the full night together. And it would be another month after that to acknowledge out loud and to each other that there is no romantic space in us for other people, and let’s just call a spade a spade already.
And now here we are, two thousand miles away from the city we share our lives together in, and I am watching him in the kitchen finish his conversation with someone while I finish mine with—Andy, it appears his name is—and I have the distinct and most pleasurable feeling that this is not the last kitchen we will find ourselves finishing evening conversations in. I have the distinct and most pleasurable feeling that the last kitchen we will find ourselves finishing evening conversations in will be forty years and some odd change from now, and oh, how is it that I was gifted this particular life of mine—or, more accurately: how is it that I was gifted life at all? Or even more accurately: how is it that I am even able to call life a gift?
Because more than any detail of what has happened this past year, this year has unfurled to me the practice of acceptance: that life will forever be vacillating between glorious and dismal, and that my job is not to somehow admonish my sorrow. My job is to accept every movement of life, and to greet glory and sorrow with the same fervent discipline: to feel thankful for life as it is given, moment by moment by moment.
If sorrow begins to lessen and eventually disappears for long periods of time, that would be neither good nor bad because that is not what I am working towards. In fact, I am not working towards anything, as the word towards implies movement away from now, and I think now is really the answer.
I am here to be in the moment of now, even if the moment of now feels bone-crushing.
And since I apparently needed the heaviness of life to crush some bones, that’s exactly what happened this year, because every year I need the heaviness of life to crush some bones, because every year I need to be reminded that my bones are susceptible to crushing. First the femur with heavy goodbyes to beloved roommates; then the phalanges with breakups and get togethers and breakups and get togethers; then the humerus when unexpected health issues brought me home to think about mothers and mortality.
And although I did not know what I was really asking for on December 21st, 2012, I was given exactly what I needed:
The ability to practice living with gratitude—to be thankful for life, no matter what its contents are—that gratitude is not predicated on me getting what I want, but that it is naturally occurring when I find myself connected to myself.
We are given what we need: there will not be a spontaneous all-night ritual this year with four strangers.
Andy was indeed part of our small group candle pile last year, and it appears that he, too, has had an entire year of living magically.
Tonight I will go home and finish my meanderings of the past year and probably have some contemplations for the upcoming one, because that’s just what my brain does—it moves backwards and forwards in time when it is idle.
As I tumble into sleep, I will slip out of past and out of future, and let now present itself to me until next year’s holiday party.
It’s already forgotten and I am so thankful.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum