I used to have trouble differentiating between afterward and afterword. When I wrote books, I would have to think about what, exactly, it meant to write the afterword. I had this problem even though the meaning is right there in the word: after word. It is the word that comes after the other word, all the other words.
This week I’ve been listening to some Jungian teaching about the American unconscious. Something I heard that interested me was that it is a peculiarily American trait to be forward-looking more than backward-looking, and that by being so future oriented, Americans often miss out on the lessons of the past. We are not a wise people, this teacher said. We are a lot of things, but we are not very wise. We are outwardly and consciously sophisticated and advanced, but unconsciously bestial.
This teaching came from the 1960s or 1970s or so, based on some thoughts of Jung’s about the American temperament. I think that the products of our collective American unconscious do bear out the truth of what Jung and others have said about Americans: we appear to be advanced and sophisticated, but underlying it all is a deep, abiding violent, feral, unattached quality. We see this through our media and cinema, where we splash violence, wanton and irresponsible sexual behavior, and other symbols and myths of our hidden collective life.
The ability to learn from one’s past behaviors is possessed by labaratory rats and by human beings. However, wisdom is the sole possession of human beings, if they choose to cultivate and use it. I’ve written about this distinction before, commenting on why we are called homo sapiens; sapient meaning “wisdom,” from the Latin.
The big holidays are mostly over, and I learned a lot this year because this year we changed the way we did Christmas. We gathered on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day, and we went to an earlier mass rather than the midnight mass. We played “Dirty Santa” rather than exchanging real gifts among the adults in the family. And we ate a different meal than we would normally eat.
By the end of Christmas Day, I had an Afterword for the holidays this year. My word was “interesting.” I was interested to learn that I am as predictable as the next girl, and like receiving certain types of gifts at Christmas. Though this year we told everyone not to buy us gifts, and they didn’t, I discovered through receiving little that I do like shiny things and baubles. I like small gifts like bookmarks and notebooks, colored pens and new gloves. I also like big, extravagant gifts of jewelry. I like things that smell and feel good, too. My son gave me perfume even though I told him not to buy me anything, and I’ve worn that perfume every day since, and I love it (Notorious, by Ralph Lauren).
I learned that my husband will not only give me what I ask for, but he can do a better job shopping than I would have done for myself. You’d laugh if you knew what we gave one another this year, and you’d probably think, “Wow, what a couple of rednecks!” I’d laugh, too, and I’d say you were right! But he did a thoughtful job while shopping for me this year, and I perceived his love through the gifts he gave me. His backwoods girl.
I learned that I liked doing Christmas Day the way we did it in the past, the way it evolved naturally rather than the experimental other-family way I arranged it this year. I like getting up in the morning, early, and coming to the fireplace with our hair all messy and our jammies on, and the smell of coffee and firewood mingling. I like the kids tearing into their gifts, and their squeals of happiness, and how everything is informal and come-as-you-are. I like it when my daughter Violet and her husband, my son-in-law, come over and he opens the bacon and sausage and starts cooking, and how we stand companionably and side-by-side and cook and smile about it. My first son-in-law. He’s like a son to me.
There is wrapping paper from one end of the house to the other, and dogs rustling through the paper hunting for dropped candy and chocolate, and everything’s a mess. But I really love that. Ivy and her husband arrive, and the testosterone in the house quadruples when my next son arrives about the same time, looking like he just rolled out of bed. His voice booms through the house, and he is wearing a hat and he doesn’t take it off at all. He looks like a big ole lumberjack about half the time, and we don’t have so many trees around here for him to pull off that look, but he manages to pull it off. And he and his younger brother start bantering and insulting one another, and they laugh a lot. And then all the boys–and there are a lot of them–go off and play Halo or poker or some other competitive thing that has them hollering and laughing at one another, after we finish opening gifts and eating.
I didn’t like shopping late this year, starting after December 1 and ending only a few days before Christmas, without any cookie-baking time. I don’t like the rudeness people exhibit in their rush, especially in traffic or in long lines at the stores. You can really see who people are, for better or worse, at times like that.
I didn’t like putting up with family members who don’t act like family members any other time of the year. I wonder what’s the expiration date on family membership? I wonder why a person feels obligated over the holidays to be polite and even kind and welcoming to family who are absent the rest of the year? I wonder how many years your drunk relative can spend in recovery or can be sober, as compared with all the years they caused so much pain and chaos, before he or she ever feels like family again. If ever? I wonder why I still say “yes, come on over” when what I feel is, “I don’t want to see you.”
I wonder why I do that? And whether I will continue.
On Christmas Day, my son Reed was repeating lines about Jesus from various South Park episodes. One of them was, “Every day before I go out, I ask Jesus, ‘Jesus, if you don’t want me to do what I’m about to go do, please stop me,’ but He never does.” We laughed about this, although it also bothered me on another level, this truth from South Park, because the sobering truth is that the Bible teaches that a person can grieve the Holy Spirit of God to such an extent that he can no longer hear God’s voice, and God’s counsel and whispered love are closed to that person. It is as if a person has been rendered spiritually deaf and completely insensate. The possibility of relationship, communication, and communion are blocked. The Spirit flees, and the person may end like the man Jesus healed in the gospels, who had been naked, hiding among the tombstones, violently crazy. Metaphorically speaking.
So, after the holidays were over, I wondered how long is too long. How many years does it take before a door in your heart is closed, and how many more before it is locked? It isn’t a lack of forgiveness, for forgiveness is easier (if you ask me) than continuing along one’s own way with wholeness and discovering that sometimes, one has to leave others behind because their poison may well render us immobile. There’s something about being whole that makes a person not want or need to be around certain kinds of other people. And yet there is also charity and compassion, service and tending to the wounds, hunger, and nakedness of others.
It isn’t easy to figure out. In fact, I don’t try too much to figure it out. I feel my way through it intuitively, and do what the moment requires. Sometimes the requirement of the moment is easier to bear than others, though, because sometimes the Afterword is “The End.” Other times it is “Not Now,” and sometimes it is, “Come back in five years, and be sober.”
What was your holiday Afterword this year?