The Christmas story is full of haves and have-nots, those who are empty and those who are full, those who have shelter and those who lack. As with other biblical stories, it invites us to think about our inner poverties and riches, and how they lead us. Earlier, in the book of Genesis, humans choose their own individual will over sacred order and suffer the consequence of being forever separated from the garden. Exile and suffering mark the course of humanity until the gospels cast a star in the sky that hovers over a scene of miraculous humility, reconciling us to the divine.
Other religions also emphasize emptiness as a human affliction; Jews wander the desert in search of a promised land, Buddhists recognize craving as the main pillar of our suffering, and the Hindu path says something to the effect of if a man wants drink, random sex, material wealth, give it to him. Fine! When it fails to fill him, he’ll look elsewhere. Whatever you make of various spiritual angles, it’s clear that people share a common malady of the sense that something is missing, something we can’t fill on our own.
I remember nursing in the hospital over many Christmases, how families would bring plates of sweet potato casserole to a patient with no capacity to eat, and gifts the former self would have loved, filling a purely metaphorical vacuum as best they could. And I remember how even the sickest patients looked forward to their housekeepers and food-servers because as one dying man put it: Honest to God, the most sympathetic people in this place are the cooks and cleaners. Those who had the least somehow knew the most about how to enter the abyss of illness.
Now that I am retired from nursing, I work a few hours weekly in a department store over the holidays. I work among bank execs and teachers who, like me, decided to chuck their careers and work a plain job again. Our reward—we all have a bird’s eye view of the Christmas season as it unfolds. Shoppers tear the store apart, spend ragged hours testing their stamina on desire and worth. Do you think a sixteen year old would like this? Should I get two? Will this fit? Is this one better? Do you have . . . asking about an elusive item someone placed on a list. Mothers, husbands, friends and cousins, looking to choose right, wrap tight, somehow fit shiny paper and tape around the unspoken question: On Christmas morning, will my loved one want what I have to give?
In Search of the Mythical Eagle
My neighbor says he saw
thirty eagles at once
in Virginia, by a salmon pond
near the place three rivers
trade fortunes, the harbor’s waves
sloshing in bored renewal.
They’ve grown wise I suppose,
to the stocked waters,
shopping for fish from currents
high over the yule sparkle
of December. The marshes may
stay unfrozen for weeks,
all through the holy days
to hard winter. It’s beautiful
and kind of sad when you think
of how they light down
and fill up at this table in times
of collapse as close by, people step
from stores in the snow,
flushed and shivering
like tall birds on a shore.
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