Music vibrates from my phone speakers as I dash around our small kitchen, serving lunch while making dinner.
Dashing. There are moments, these days, when I wonder if I remember another pace. Home with two young, very active children, with my entire “professional life” squeezed into a handful of hours each week and with limited daylight similarly squeezing our time for outside play, I’m always trying to do too much at once.
Suddenly, my phone switches to a recording of the Boston Christmas Revels, music particularly beloved from my childhood. Music that defined every Christmas season and the many traditions my family celebrated annually.
It’s as if a great hand suddenly grasps my whole body and says: “Stop”. An ache spreads from my heart up through my throat and into my eyes, which flood with tears. I’m transported from our kitchen to the expansive hall of the great theater at Harvard to which my family traveled each year to watch the Revels. I’m holding my Granny’s hand and we are dancing.
Every intermission at the Revels began in this way. As Act One drew to a close, the performers would link hands to dance out of the hall singing “The Lord of the Dance.” And the last performer would take the hand of the first audience member and audience and performers alike would make one giant, seemingly endless chain that slowly curved its way out of the theater and into the entry hall. Under the arching ceilings and tremendous chandeliers, we all danced and sang. Together.
The memory gripping my being as I stand in my kitchen in Maine, miles from my family of birth, is of the last year I attended the Revels. Before my grandfather’s death. Before my own marriage or the birth of my two children. And Granny and I danced together. I remember watching her, eyes alight with joy as she kicked up her heels, thinking she looked like she might take flight, expecting her to let out one of her great, room-shaking “Whoopee’s!” at any moment.
And as I remember my Granny’s joy, and how the sight of it filled me to bursting, I stand in my kitchen in the afternoon light and cry. My children do not notice. They are hungry and devouring their lunches. As I return to the present, I watch their little heads bend over their food and my ache spreads and deepens.
This Christmas season, we are not joining hands to dance and sing together. We are not pouring towards each other in delight, celebration and love. We are careful and so very distanced.
And while I long for my work and community and moments where I don’t have to accomplish five things at once, the majority of my ache around this time often settles on those two little beings eagerly enjoying their lunch. I want something so very different for them. I want joyous, carefree moments with other children. I want their father and I not to be so consistently tired and overwhelmed. I want dancing together with many others, holding hands, singing our joy to the ceiling and beyond.
My son is still fairly oblivious. He is 18 months old, after all. He’s pretty focused on himself and his endless love affair with exploration and discovery (and, thank goodness, with his sister).
But I know this time has impacted my daughter. She watches me too closely, tries to help lift the burden of this moment too much. And as I notice her shoulder responsibility, I ache even more. We talk about it, of course. It is okay for Mom and Dad to be overwhelmed sometimes, or sad, or frustrated, or stressed. It is not her fault. But she feels what she feels. She wants to help. We humans tend, after all, towards compassion.
And as I watch her and ache, I think so often about innocence. It’s as if we’ve all lost a lot of innocence this year. And I think that loss is a good thing.
So much has been exposed. The extent of our connection to each other and, therefore, our responsibility. The depth of inequality, prejudice, selfishness and greed. The way we have neglected systems of care. The heroic spirit of many who have risen to meet this moment. The utter failure of many others.
And as we draw close to the threshold between this year and the next, and as Christmas music fills my home, I realize I’m not feeling much joy. Sure, there are moments of celebration. Yes, I still experience the thread that ties me to all I love about this wildly imperfect world.
But often, these days, a lump sits in my throat very close to the surface and I realize it is grief riding along with me as I change diapers, set up paints and paper, hold little hands as we walk through the woods, and serve lunch while I make dinner.
I’m not grieving for the innocence lost. Good riddance. The time to wake up and smell our responsibility has been long overdue. Within that responsibility lies so much potential. Potential for a world shaped by care and equity, reparation and justice, learning and leaning in, again and again.
I’m grieving because this is not my daughter’s work or the work of the countless other young people who are feeling this deeply. It is mine, and the work of many of us in older generations. My daughter already reflexes to compassion and care. But too many of us have dissociated from our more tender tendencies. Too many of us have met this kicking and screaming. Too many continue to kick and scream.
I have not hugged my Granny since last Christmas. She lives alone now, in the old farmhouse that my great-great-grandfather (her grandfather in-law) purchased in the early 1900’s to transform into a family summer home. What was once a sprawling summer playground is now a creaky old house. My uncle, one of the many heroes of 2020, has moved in with Granny and serves as her primary caregiver. We visit her outside or from her doorway. We do not hug. She is 92. The virus would probably kill her.
My Granny moved across an ocean when she fell in love with and married my Grandad. I’ve watched over the years as she has let go of that old world, bit by bit, as her Scottish family and friends die. I can’t imagine how painful it is to be so far, especially now. She tells me that when she is lonely, she thinks about her home in Scotland.
We are all letting go of an old world. We must assemble something new. Maybe it won’t happen through the pandemic. But it will happen, whether we consciously participate or go kicking and screaming. I feel the most grief when I think about the opportunity we might miss, the opportunity to make something really beautiful, to take the pain of this time and lean right into it, right through it, to the heart of what is possible. To create something together where no one is lonely—whether because they are physically isolated or because their rights or needs or existence have been discarded—not ever again.