Holiday Madness

I’m in the tiny town of Dunsmuir California, a few miles south of majestic Mt. Shasta. I can’t see it today because of the low hanging fog, a lovely white mist clinging to the tree line. I’m in a B&B that started life at the turn of the 20th century as a general store, then became a bus station, and then an ice cream parlor before being abandoned and falling into disrepair. The new owners, a retired husband and wife, he a cabinet maker she a nurse, have slowly begun to bring it back to its former stateliness and charm. There are half a dozen rooms with high ceilings, wood plank floors, tall wooden wardrobes and antique chests of drawers, and the bathrooms are adorned with deep claw foot bathtubs, painted the same eye-catching color as one of its walls. Each room is given a name; mine is the Swan Room, and my bathtub is gold. I have windows on two sides; facing the main street, I look out to see a wall of green, pine and fir trees behind the houses directly across from us, as far as the eye can see up and up, becoming tinged then coated with snow.

A few deciduous trees on the side street in front of the other window hold on to the last of their red and orange leaves, while some hold roses or apples, stragglers frozen in growth, and others are completely bare, hunkered down until spring.

I too am hunkered down, at least for a few days. The lawsuits I’ve been caught up in since Jackson was killed are over at last, concluded in the form of a settlement. The fact that they are resolved is of course a good thing, but I had hoped to go to court rather than settle because I wanted the parties involved to be exposed and thus held accountable for their actions in a public forum. I felt that was as close to justice as it was possible to get, and settling feels very far from justice to me. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. 

Christmas, too, is hard – many people who have lost a loved one, particularly a young person, know this – as is any holiday, whether it’s religious or secular, and whatever religion or none at all you adhere to, that loudly and boisterously celebrates the intimacy of family and the importance of children. These days serve as acute reminders of what we’ve lost or in some cases never had, and if you haven’t managed to bridge the gap, to transition from “had” to “have” to “will have”, it can be a day of very sharp edges. Last year at this time I was in Nepal, a place not unscathed by the western world and its holiday traditions, but removed to a large extent, and this day passed almost like any other day. It was the least painful Christmas I’ve had since Jackson died, because I didn’t have external seasonal noise to compound that coming from within. 

This year Dunsmuir is as removed as I can get, given my resources, from mainstream USA and the hoopla that surrounds this day. It’s a 13 hour (or thereabouts) train ride from the central coast, and the B&B a mere five minute walk from the train station. I know nobody, and there is no cell phone reception. Everything is closed today. If I’d stayed home, I know one or more of my friends would have invited me to join them for the day, but that’s precisely what I want to avoid. It’s just easier to be alone, where I don’t have to explain why I’m not happy, or pretend to be happy, or feel guilty when I don’t get caught up in the happiness of others; where I don’t have to listen to that small voice inside of me that still screams What’s the matter with you? How can you be happy, don’t you understand what’s happened? Not today, when I can’t be more glad that Jackson lived than I am sorrowful that he died. I’m just not there yet.

I get dressed in preparation to walking along the river and up to the botanical gardens on the edge of town. I don’t expect to see anything blooming, but I’m sure it will be lovely nonetheless. I look out my window onto the street, where the only sound to meet my ears except for the occasional passing car is incoherent but very loud shouting. Walking along the sidewalk about a block away is a man with a shaggy grey beard, wearing a sweatshirt jacket, jeans and a thick cap. He stops every few steps to turn around and yell and kick at an invisible companion. A dog, perhaps. I can’t make out a word he says, except for the occasional expletive. He’s very angry, and he’s confused. As he comes opposite my window he brushes something off of his head and his neck, again and again, but he can’t get rid of it. He stops and turns back again to face his unwanted pursuer, gesticulating wildly and fiercely at them to leave him alone. He’s screaming, then he is silent. He wipes his hands across his face, then begins walking again. I wonder where he is going, and if the police will come and question him, or even pick him up. If he has a home, or a shelter where he can go. If his hallucinations are brought on by drugs or mental illness or age, or because of some trauma that he experienced and can’t get out of. I wonder if he lives always in that place.

I stay at the window and watch him till he’s out of sight, though I can still hear his spontaneous bursts of fury, then I return to the bed and open my laptop. There’s something I’ve been meaning to do, and this feels like the right time to do it. I go into my email and click on a link to an organization my dear friend Neysa told me about, called The Children’s Trust, comprised of 21 children who are suing the US government for their lack of action in the face of climate change. They are the climate justice warriors we all should be, courageously and hopefully fighting this battle their elders have led them into. It’s the kind of mission that Jackson would have taken up, so I make a substantial donation in his name. It’s a way for me to take some of the taint out of the settlement money, and at the same time pay tribute to my son in a meaningful way. Jackson loved Christmas, not for the gifts (which of course he enjoyed) but for the spirit of the season. As I close my laptop I wonder if I’ve started a new tradition for myself, making a donation in Jackson’s name to some organization I think he would have supported either with money, time or even just heart, each year on this day.

Outside the air is crisp and the sun is trying to shine. It’s above freezing, but just, and I walk quickly to warm up. I follow the railroad tracks to the river where I pick up a trail. There are few people about as I move farther away from the town. Eventually I stop when I see a large heron perched on a rock in the middle of the river, patiently waiting for a flash of silver skin. I breathe deeply, the smell of wet wood, decaying leaves, fresh water, and as I gaze up at the snow covered trees I’m gently reminded of why I’m still here. Not in Dunsmuir, but on this earth. So far my life has not been claimed by disease or accident or an act of violence. I’m here because of books, because of my travels, because I’ve allowed myself to write about my experience, and because of moments like this, when I’m immersed in and soothed by the beauty that is our natural world. While the care and love of a few key people kept me alive in the year or two after Jackson died, these things have been my salvation, and salvation, different for every one of us, is what sustains us when we think we will never know joy again. It is what we stumble upon in moments of solitude that fill us with peace and thus we keep with us, constants in a transient world, that give us courage to keep going. It is what’s enough until it is no longer enough. I feel it now, and I am grateful for it.

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