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The Christmas Lesson


She walked out of the big house and headed toward the river.  She felt heavy and sad, and disgusted.  It was Christmas, and she had just watched a jolly classic Santa breakdancing on TV, spinning on his back with a Target logo on the screen.  She had vowed to herself to buy nothing from Target this year, not because she didn't like breakdancing - she thought those athletic kids were great. She was just disgusted by the crass commercial pitch.

The big house was decorated from the driveway to the backyard gazebo.  A company had come a week ago to install the lights.  Her son and daughter-in-law got home late every night, and the kids weren't here yet from college.

The old woman sighed as she walked.  The tree no longer had strung popcorn and cranberries.  The beautiful old ornaments, collected over many years, were hung by strangers. It was no longer fun shopping for presents, and she knew the grandkids would stay only a couple days before heading off to ski.  It wasn't that she was tired, she was just unspeakably sad.  Everything was about money, and hiring others to do the things around the holidays that used to be joyful tasks.  She sighed again.

As she walked toward the river she became aware of the new snow that had fallen last night, glistening in the sun from the deep blue sky.  "How beautiful" she thought, and felt a little better.  A couple of rabbits bounded past, rolling and running, snowflakes flying and clinging to the tips of their fur.  She smiled. She made her way along the edge of the hedge maze and stopped just this side of the footbridge that crossed the river into Twybyl Woods. She had found an old wooden bench at a garage sale last summer and the men who delivered it had placed it there for her.  She brushed the snow off and sat down.  A light wind stirred the branches of the trees, and snowflakes floated slowly to the ground.  As she watched them fall she felt her shoulders relax.  She sighed again.

"That's a lot of sighing"  said Churchill.

He was standing on his hind legs with his front paws on the end of the bench seat, looking up at her.  She slid down and swung him up on the bench.  She gave him a big smile.

"Yes, I suppose it is" she said.  "How did you know?".

"I was up on the tower smelling the air and I saw you, so I thought I'd come over and see what was troubling you"  She looked at him, tipping her head slightly.

"I'm afraid that what is wrong may be past fixing, and that makes me very sad."

"Nothing is past fixing"  Churchill replied levelly. "It often is simply a matter of changing the way you experience the thing, by changing your expectations".

"How do you teach yourself not to want tradition and family closeness, especially at this time of the year?"

That's not the lesson," Churchill smiled.

"You are being very mysterious today," the old woman smiled back.

"Not at all," he grinned.  "Describe the sadness".

"Well," she replied, "I feel like it is all getting away from us, that core feeling of well-being that makes the bumps and curves of daily life manageable.  No one cares if you are a "good" person or have a compassionate nature, or have intelligent and interesting ideas. They care about what you do for money, how fancy or exotic your vacations are, how you look."

"Who are they?" Churchill asked, furrowing his brows slightly.

"Everyone you see on T.V., everyone you read about, everyone who is apparently successful.  If you believe the news services everyone else is on anti-depressants.  My son had this house decorated because the other families up the valley do, and because on one evening he is having a big party and wants not to seem lacking.  He works so hard he deserves the help and approval, but it never seems to give him much pleasure. It will be full of people who think buying and selling stuff to each other is the measure of happiness. I won't be home that evening. 

"And your friends, are they involved in this buying and selling?"

"Not really.  We have lovely times together. During the holidays, however, they are so busy with their families that we don't get much time to just sit and relax.  I miss them," she said, looking down.

"So when your friends are not around this commercial clutter intrudes, from TV to magazines to that spider on your desk you told me about?"

"Not spider," she smiled "Web.  A way of communicating over wires."

"Ah yes, I remember now.  I still prefer the birds.  Much simplier."  Churchill gazed up at the sky and smiled.  "To continue the thought, you are happiest when your family is nearby, and your friends are accessible.   You feel sad and tired when you pay attention to the news, and your culture of relentless marketing.  You allow it inside, and offer it a comfy overstuffed chair.  Every voice pretends to know you, what you need, what will make you happy.  The voice purports to know you better than you know yourself."

The old woman blinked a couple times.

"You are allowing stuff in that you know is false, is manipulative, and has no value for you."

"Every magazine, every newspaper, every newscast, every T.V. show," she sighed.

"So what!"  he replied.

"So what?" she said, her voice slightly rising quizically.

"Yup - so what!" he said flatly. "You aren't going to stop watching T.V. or reading, since you like to be informed, so you must adjust to background noise all the stuff that tells you you are somehow out of step and mysteriously deficient in a culture where everything appears to be for sale.  It is all, in fact, irrelevant."
"irrelevant?" she repeated

"Irrelevant, because it is all transitory, in flux, blown on the wind of a fantasy about power, how it is acquired, and how it is held.

It is nothing more than the illusion of a memory, and it is addictive to those without imagination, because they have only the memory of the illusion by which to gauge their success.  It is therefore irrelevant to anything that matters.  What makes you happy this time of year?"

"Stringing cranberries for the tree and holding all the old ornaments and remembering their stories.  The house full of the smell of cooking turkey. Dinner with everyone. Carols. Giving the kids a little cash for their ski trip.  Watching the rabbits charge across my path walking down here.  Watching the wind knock the snowflakes loose from the trees before you came." she said wistfully.

"So the things that make you happy either have happened or are goin to happen?" he asked.

"Everything except the tree" she answered.

"And what is keeping you from adding a few strings of cranberries to the tree?" he asked.

"Why, nothing" she smiled, "Nothing at all".

"So the only other missing piece of your happiness is not being able to share more of this season with your friends?" he asked.

"Well, yes, that is true" she replied.

"And if you eliminate all of the irrelevant stuff, this season will be a joyous one?" he asked.

"True again" she was now grining broadly, the hint of a powder blue snowflake landing on her head.

"Thursday is December 24th" Churchill remarked from the silence.  "Are you busy?"

"No" she replied. "The family is going to a big party up the valley, and I didn't really want to go."

"Will you meet me here at 4:00 pm on the 24th?" Churchill asked.

Sure. Why?" she inquired.

"Just dress warm.  We will be outside for a while."  His eyes were twinkling as he jumped into a huge pile of fresh powder and scurried off.

On December 24th the Old Woman arrived at the bench to find Churchill waiting for her. Edgar was there too, and it was pretty clear that many other critters were close by. Churchill led, and they crossed the footbridge and followed the river up a winding path that began steadily to climb up to Mt. Twybyl.  She hadn't been up here for many years, and had forgotten how beautiful it was.  The snow was still clumped, but the path was clear and easy to navigate.  After about 1/2 hour they arrived at a meadow close to the top, and the Old Woman was astonished to see the meadow full of all kinds of animals getting along quite famously, despite their natures. They were not frightened of her, but were cautious.  Churchill sat on a log, and the old woman pulled out her waterproof blanket and put it down. 

The sky was so full of stars that it took your breath away.  Suddenly a star shot across the sky, and the strangest sound she had ever heard emerged from the watchers - it was a cheer and applause, but a cheer like no other, that included growls and chirps and hoots and squeaks mixed with furry paws and stomping hoofs.  For about an hour this joyous noise floated out of the meadow, until slowly the sounds died away and everyone just watched the sky.

Churchill turned to the Old Woman. "We come up here during Winter to remind ourselves who we are, and to watch the universe sing."

The old woman shivered a bit and pulled her coat up to her ears, partially hiding a big smile and moist eyes.  Three wolves sitting to the side and above her saw her shiver, and crept down to curl up around her.  She pulled her hands from her coat pockets, pulled off her gloves, and buried her fingers in their warm fur.  She was filled with a sense of belonging and community. And wonder.

"AH" she thought, "So this is a Three Dog Night!".

The shooting stars continued their dance across the sky, and each star seemed to be trailing a tail of powder blue dust.


The End

end of story written in 2005

finished in 2006


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