When Marley visits Scrooge in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” he is dragging a ponderous chain. “It is the chain I forged in life,” he tells his former business partner. “I made it link by link and yard by yard. I girded it on and of my own free will I wore it.”
Each December, before I turn my thoughts completely to holiday shopping, I pull out my ponderous mailing list and prepare my holiday letter. This year’s was the 22nd edition.
I’ve seen funnier letters and some that are far more creative, but I work hard on mine, putting it through several drafts.
I devote page one to a review of the year’s current events with some pointed political commentary. Page two summarizes my year and my son’s. On page three, I indulge in a short holiday homily, wringing meaning from the season, attempting to capture some of its essence. No punches are pulled in the political wrap-up, so the conservatives on my list (of which there are more than a few) have to grit their teeth to get through page one. One of my brothers says he skims down until he finds the first mention of my son, then reads from there.
My “Christmissive” involves a lot of folding, addressing, stuffing, stamping and sealing. I put on my favorite seasonal music, sink into early December’s deep darkness, and push through this painstaking process.
The names on the list reflect the chapters of my life. I have little or no contact with more than half of them. I don’t know how many recipients actually read it. December is a busy month, after all.
So why do I do it?
First and foremost, as the U.S. Cellular ad says, to “maintain the connection” – or in some cases, to honor a connection that once was and no longer is – with people who are/were important to me or those I simply admire. A few changed my life.
As I address the envelopes by hand, I think about each name, and that segment of my life comes briefly alive. Memory is jogged, and I am reminded of who I was, what we did together and how I felt about life then. Suddenly, I’m back in Ft. Collins, Colo., where my son was born, studying for my master’s degree in creative writing at Colorado State University, or in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., where I spent three years as housespouse and primary caretaker of my son – three of the best years of my life.
I remember past commitments like Project Unity, which attempted to increase interaction between black and white Oak Parkers. Others I met back in the ’90s on the “parent circuit,” standing on the sidelines of soccer games or sitting in bleachers watching youth baseball. Some I know through church or the stories I’ve written for this newspaper the past two decades. Some names on my list go back to college and high school. A few go all the way back to childhood.
The list is incomplete, a work in progress. Some I’ve inadvertently left off and need to include. Some I’ve lost track of. The names represent the long chain of my life, which I have forged link by link, decade by decade, wearing it of my own free will. We all wear such a chain, and mine is anything but a burden.
From time to time I’ve thought of streamlining the list, but I’d lose track of an important part of myself, the person who struggled mightily, with the best of intentions, to create a good life and become a better person.
The person I am still struggles. But if my path hadn’t crossed all these other paths, I’d be the worse for it.
More than maintaining connections, I’m sustaining continuity, the thread that runs through my past to the present and helps direct the future. I am giving myself the gift of reflection and an opportunity for forgiveness – loving my life instead of merely judging it.
The holiday season forces us to face ourselves and the life we’ve led. Past, present and future haunt us like spirits following in Marley’s wake. Each December, we are “visited,” which is to say we visit our own lives – our past and the people to whom we were, and in many cases still are, inexplicably and inextricably bound.
Marley’s chain was his curse. Mine, however ponderous, is a blessing.