Friday, December 7, 2012
Autumn is winding down. The sun can't seem to drag itself more than halfway up in the sky, and some days, it doesn't crawl out at all from under its downy blanket of gray clouds. The trees outside my window have closed up their photosynthesis factories for the season, and the squirrels are topping off their stores of acorns before they bed down for the winter. Slow down, Nature says.
Didn't we used to do that? After the harvest was all in the barns, didn't we put up jam and visit the neighbors and plan next year's gardens? Didn't we grab a few extra hours of sleep or stare dreamily into the fire? Didn't students have a few weeks away from their classes -- time to spend with family and friends?
That's all slipping away now, or at least it seems that way. The relentless grind of the industrial machine demands end-of-year reports. Metrics to be gathered, deadlines to be met. Conferences scheduled adjacent to holiday weekends mean more tourist dollars from attendees tacking a few vacation days onto their business trips. Smart phones and laptop computers let your far-flung team hammer out contract proposals from their seats in various hotel lobbies as they await their airport shuttles. Those few days away from the office just mean a lull in the meeting schedule so that you can finish up that extra paperwork.
Time to reconnect with friends and family, exchange gifts, and sing and dance has morphed into a two-month marathon of jam-packed schedules where every spare moment is crammed with events or commuting between events. Gift-giving requires camping out in front of stores to ensure your place at the head of the predawn stampede on Black Friday -- or foregoing your leisurely pie and coffee after Thanksgiving dinner in order to snag the prime deals available on Thursday evening. Instead of a few precious items, carefully chosen to symbolize a friendship, we fill shopping carts with piles of mass produced commodities. Why drive around delivering plates of homemade candy to your closest friends when you can send them boxes of red and green M&Ms that you ordered online?
The quiet sense of reverence inspired by a candlelight midnight Mass or a Solstice bonfire is drowned out by back-to-back concerts by every performing group in existence -- great throngs of under-rehearsed choristers who are stressed out from generating annual reports and studying for final exams. Every conductor uses the holiday season to stage his grandest effort, but the aggregate is just a cacophonous blur.
Setting aside one time of year for paying special attention to the people we love used to make sense when our communities were small. When we worked, lived, and played together all year long. When the driving force was the connection with each other, and the music and dancing was just a symbol of that connection. Now, the music and dancing have become the main focus, and people are secondary. Commerce has gotten into the act, and so now the holidays are pressed into service as a revenue-generating activity. People are tertiary. Getting together requires airline tickets and tight scheduling and dealing with flight delays and tiny airplane seats. People are quaternary.
I'm starting to wonder if maybe I'm just nostalgic. Maybe the medieval peasants didn't enjoy holidays so much as just survived day to day through the long cold winters. But didn't they dance and go wassailing now and then? I distinctly remember getting small gifts from friends and family that said, "I know what makes you smile." I remember making batches of candy in our family's small kitchen and helping my parents deliver plates of goodies to our closest friends. I remember the intimacy of candlelight church services, and singing "O Magnum Mysterium" with the choir.
This year off has allowed me to stay away from a lot of the craziness that accompanies this time of year. No annual reports to write, no metrics to gather, no conference exhibits to organize. The television screen is dark for much of the week -- I don't have to put up with the advertising mania if the set's turned off. I can take long, contemplative walks in the middle of the afternoon. I'm living off my savings, so my friends and family understand that my gift giving will be simple, and my travel budget does not include airline tickets this year.
The end-of-year mania sounds like a distant roar from my little refuge. It's like watching a street mob from the safety of an upstairs apartment. Like hearing the throb of a stadium concert from an office on the other side of the college campus. Like seeing a news report of thousands of people stranded at an airport, while sitting in a nice warm living room and enjoying a cup of tea with one friend. I'm not oblivious, I'm just not in the thick of it this year. Thank goodness.