The end of the year is upon us. And end is where we shall start: this tale will end with poorly described travelogue of where to find your sacred space hidden in this year’s festivities, mostly through the process of elimination.
Or maybe not. Actually you might want to stop reading now. I wouldn’t trust me if I were you. There is no narrative arc here, nor straight lines for that matter. Nothing is plumb.
That’s the problem. I have misplaced myself.
This is not the first time. For those lucky enough to avoid depression’s iron vice, here’s a fun fact: Depression warps time, space, and meaning. My judgment is less reliable than a 1988 Chrysler transmission.
So I don’t know when exactly I went AWOL, but I know when I finally recognized that I was clearly absent. My wife is brilliant, but she is mortally bewildered by my behavior. (“I have a wife” is present tense. “I will still be married next week” is future tense. “Tense” I am extremely familiar with; “future” is just theory at the end of the dial, like the 13th day of Christmas.)
A few weeks ago I asked her if my tie was straight.
“You’re standing in front of a mirror,” she said.
“I know I’m in front of a mirror,” I snapped. “Just tell me if it’s straight, ferchrissake!”
Wow. Nice. Even the Grinch might’ve taken a step back and said, “Whoa, bud. Easy.”
I had misplaced my mind while tying a necktie in front of a mirror.
This was God’s joke: It’s always the last place you look.
If there is no love greater than laying down one’s life for another, then there is no sin greater than simply laying down, laying down while still awake, and forcing those you love to tiptoe around your live corpse, only to have it suddenly arise and launch into unholy critique for no good reason, for no bad reason.
“Just tell me if it’s straight!”
So I finished lashing the tie around my neck—after lashing out at my wife, who was now decidedly elsewhere—and thought, the only difference between a necktie and a noose: one points straight down and one points straight up.
Problem is, there are no straight lines here. Nothing is plumb.
So I needed help. Actually I have help. Margaruite, for instance, my amazing therapist. She has stuck with me for almost a decade. (My insurance company has paid for a new roof on her house and at least three Pella windows.) Then there’s a passel of family and friends whom I do not deserve. (This isn’t an exaggeration. Think: Who would you like to spend time with? “Hey, I’ve been feeling unreasonably good, so let’s hang out with Mark—he’ll balance that out right quick!” It’s the inverse property of crazy: I am my own negative.)
Margaruite said she saw this coming, like the dead-body outline was already drawn and I fell right into place. “I sort of knew it would happen, but hoped it wouldn’t,” she said, not unsympathetically. It’s like grandpa’s been smoking three packs of unfiltered Luckies for 50 years, and now he’s coughs a lot and you think “maybe he caught a cold…” Yep. Sure. Check the label: how much Robitussin does it take to cure emphysema?
Margaruite knew early, maybe my wife figured it out; no one else knew. Not to brag, but I am the greatest actor of this or any generation. Like the Grinch, I, too, can fool Little Cindy Lou Who. Hell, I can get a whole roomful of Whos laughing at my self-deprecating humor…and meanwhile I’m thinking, no I’m not kidding, this is not a joke: I really am a fraud. But I smile weakly and shrug like it’s all part of the act, my opening shtick at the Improv in Whoville.
Margaruite oversaw a med change and doubled-up on therapy. (Two more windows. You’re welcome.) Unfortunately, it takes weeks for new medication to take effect. While waiting for the fog to lift, I found myself in an actual fog on a stretch of lonely blacktop in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh. Up ahead, a car was stopped, its flashers on, but still in the line of danger. I put my own flashers on and approached the car. The driver was elderly—I’d guess his age to be Shouldn’t Be Driving—and his wife was several years older than that.
“May I help?” I asked. My question was sincere, but my intention was to get them the hell off the road. (The greatest actor of this generation…)
“We’re looking for the Little Sisters of the Poor,” said the passenger.
I assumed she meant the retirement home and not the actual nuns—either way, they were lost. “I can get you there,” I said. “Follow me.”
Walking back to my truck, I heard Mrs. Antiquity say, “See? God sent us an angel.”
I almost turned around so I could tell her I’m no angel, this is not a joke: I really am a fraud, but I kept that tidbit to myself. Even the Grinch takes it easy on senior citizens.
And so I led them, at a funereal pace, through the fog to the old folks home. I turned off the Christmas music that has been playing on the radio since, oh, Valentine’s Day, and felt red-faced at the giddy lie of her description—God sent us an angel.
But something about what she said rang true, and I couldn’t place it. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore, then I realized: somehow in the fog the nouns got crossed—God had sent an angel.
Them. To me. They were the angels sent to me.
I was given the chance to help someone, and I did. I am, indeed, an actor—we all are. We act. Acts of kindness, acts of service, even acts of desperation, but acts nonetheless. I was no longer asleep while awake, but acting. Whatever my motivation, in that moment I saw something past myself, something I was supposed to do that aided someone else. I was the star in the east (well, north), as unlikely as that was (is), helping the least of us.
It’s possible my heart grew three sizes that night, or maybe the drugs finally kicked in. All I know is I didn’t deserve that gift. Turns out no one asked if I deserved it. The unasked-for gift was addressed to A. Fraud, and it arrived right on time, Amazon Prime.
Here is my unasked-for Christmas gift to you: I don’t know where you’ll find the sacred this holiday season. I can tell you where you won’t find it: in a mirror. Mirrors lie. Sure ties point down, nooses point up, but love always points outward, away from you, possibly pointing east or maybe north, or maybe through a fog…but away from you toward someone else, and that’s where your hunt for the sacred begins, for Christ’s sake.
So you might start your search at the crèche. It’s always the last place you look.