“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”
Christmas has just happened, leaving behind the traditional American month-long mad dash for presents. Christmas has happened, but we are still counting its days, on our way to the Epiphany, to tell the story of the Magi bearing gifts to the newborn King. And for us Soviet Russians the holiday of gift-giving is still ahead – the New Year’s. It’s our family holiday, our festival of lights with a New Year’s tree, decorated and sparkling and with Grandpa Frost and Snowgirl underneath, and the best meal and inviolable traditions and unwrapping of presents after midnight. It’s no wonder I’ve been thinking more lately than usual about giving and receiving, about our attachments to things.
And then, there is another reason: I am moving soon. My family and I are leaving the place I’ve come to love and call “home” over the last 20 years and going to join our bigger family across several state lines. I am leaving jobs and dear friends and a small American town that, much like my home of birth, I never chose for myself but that took me in and made me its own. I’ve been thinking a lot about itinerancy – and I might write more about it yet – but in the last few weeks my thoughts about letting go and holding on have converged around the holidays. Christmas. New Year. End of my last semester as a professor for the foreseeable future. Endings of the things I know. Uncertainty of the new beginnings. Holiday parties. Good-bye parties. And gifts.
The tradition of exchanging presents is neither new nor unique to this culture, though every culture has its own slant on it. A few of my students, during our chats between classes, complained about the oppressive consumerism of the season in early December – and their weary sentiment is not unique either. We tend to feel this oppression when we come in touch with the mechanistic and mandatory aspects of the culture of industrial “mass gifting.” Mass promotion of items we must buy because our loved ones must want them. Faking the pleasure at seeing the gift because, want it or not, we must like getting the gifts. Not knowing if our loved ones are faking their pleasure. Because the getting of gifts happens on a deadline – it must happen at a certain time, in a certain way, and it must live up to the hype. We feel this oppression when we sense the spirit that gave rise to the tradition suffocating and dying under the tradition’s weight.
Yet most people can call to mind one way or another the joy of what we call “gift-giving.” Notice that, while the concept embraces the whole phenomenon, we don’t call it “gift-getting.” Most adults and some children – all who have devoted to it any thought at all – know that there can be real joy in giving a gift. The most joy. Giving tends to bring more joy to the giver, perhaps, because it takes longer: the inventing, the guessing, the planning, the making or getting and wrapping or setting up, the anticipation of surprise and happiness, the not-always-conscious hope that the present will provoke a closeness – or a hug, or gratitude, or a connection that lasts much longer than the present itself.
Of course, there can also be real joy in receiving a gift. I think it just has to be the right gift. The right way. And the right time. In the last few weeks I got a stack of cards and a couple of letters from my students – more than I ever expected, some of them bringing me to literal and unashamed tears. Every word in those messages is a gift that will last me a lifetime. I look at the cards and think of my guys choosing the images on the covers. That too is a gift. The thought. One of the most precious gifts I received this year was an apple. You all know the facetious tradition of giving apples to a teacher. I hesitated to eat it for so long that, when I finally did, it was almost too late.
To some, traditional times of gift-giving seem overwhelming because they impose a deadline and remove the whimsy of surprise – which is why an odd “just because” gesture can be so touching. But on the other hand, traditional times carry the wonder of anticipation, of others around us sharing the same quests and sentiments, the grounding feeling of an ordered universe proceeding through its assuring cycle of life. Tradition is predictability. The closer we come to the appointed time, the greater our excitement grows. I consider one of the greatest losses of my life to be the cycle of holidays with which I grew up. Of all of them, only the New Year’s is something people around me now celebrate, and even that not the way we used to. I have other holidays now and love each of them in different ways, for different reasons: American holidays, Christian holidays. And yet, in a very special sense, New Year’s is my absolute favorite. It comes from my childhood. It’s tradition. It grounds one leg of my universe.
That’s why as long as we can, my family will gather on New Year’s eve and so will many Russians all over the globe, and we will fill our homes with the same old aromas that mean to us one thing: “holiday.” And we will bake pies and mix salads and clean our houses because it’s bad luck to have a dirty house on New Year’s. And we will make sure we put on something never worn before — a new thing for the new year, even if it’s a sock. And we’ll put on something of the color of the coming year, so it knows it is welcome and is kind to us. When midnight comes in Leningrad, we will clink our glasses here, in the daylight, and drink with our people over the ocean, to fill half of our hearts. We will sit down to watch the same movie we watch every year, once a year: an old Soviet New Year’s comedy, a romantic story and a satire, as most best things are — and it is indeed the best thing. “The Irony of Fate” it’s called, a story that could only happen on New Year’s eve. Then we will fill our plates and our glasses and remember the old year and say good bye to it. And we will fill our plates again before midnight because greeting the coming year with empty plates is very bad luck. And, far away from the radio and television that transmit the live sound of the Kremlin Chimes, we will instead queue the recording so that the last chime of the clock on the Spasskaya Tower rings in our ears at the stroke of midnight, and then we will put our glasses together again and greet the New Year and hug. We’ll sit a bit longer, perhaps, at the table and talk about our hopes and other things. We’ll open our presents — the youngest family member crawls under the tree and hands out the gifts. I am forty years old, and still most years I end up under the tree. This should be my last year, thank God. I look forward to the next year’s tree, with a giggling child under it. Then we will go to sleep and wake up to leftovers, more holiday movies about sad and wonderful magic, and New Year’s day guests.
This is New Year’s. No fireworks over the Neva. No giant ice castle at the Kazansky Square. No Blue Light New Year’s Night special on TV. But we will hold on to every portable tradition and rest a little more assured in the knowledge that the same movie is playing in other homes, the same food is cooked, the same rituals observed. Even away, no one is alone.
Last Sunday I went to a Christmas party hosted and attended by a group of my good friends, all working together at a place where I go when I have good news to share, when I’m tired or upset and need to vent, when I am scared and need support, when I am hungry, or just because. They were exchanging presents that night, but I am leaving them soon, so I was bringing with me what I felt to be my go-away presents. My tangible good-byes.
I suffer from natural human greed. I’ve always known this about myself, and with greater or lesser success I’ve always been fighting it by trying to follow the basic rules of communal living: always take the smaller piece, never choose money over meaning, give when you are asked, offer when you’re not. But this day-to-day struggle became a lot easier when it dawned on me why we are greedy in the first place – why we hold on to things, why we want to hold on to more. The things we have are extensions of us: the things we use, the things we love, the things we think we might need… The way we are with the objects in our lives is the way we are within ourselves.
It’s not exactly a discovery in psychological theory. But this came to me as part of my realization of just how connected everything is – everything and everyone. When I knew this, I knew also that by holding on to the little treasures I’d collected over the course of my life I was trying to hold on to myself. Afraid to let go of the last shreds of my past. Afraid of more loss. And only when I realized that I was no longer afraid did I know what to do with those treasures of my life and how I wanted to give gifts.
This was almost three years ago. I have bought gifts for people since then, but not often. I can’t afford to buy many, but that’s not even the main reason. From time to time, especially saying “good-bye” or saying “thank you,” I give my friends pieces of myself. The objects in my apartment come from all over the world: Russia, Africa, China, California, Pennsylvania, Italy, Ireland… Mugs, pieces of art, stuffed animals, little accessories, books – they’ve been earned or bought by me, created by me, or given to me from someone else’s heart. They are imprinted with places and people I love, and they carry good memories – and most importantly, after the years I’ve lived with them and loved them, they carry bits of my heart in them. These are the things I give away to my friends. Perhaps, they’ll keep them for many years and bequeath them to their children. More likely, a friend will use it for a while and pass this gift to another one day, infused with more life and more heart.
This is the balance that I’ve found, for now, between letting go and holding on. There are still a few items I keep with me always, whose special meaning helps my heart go on beating. But I let go of these other things I love that connect me to my past so I can hold on to the people I love that connect me to my future, in the hope that they will connect my friends yet further to those out in the universe. This way, whatever happens to us and wherever we go, to whomever we hand over our gifts, a great thread of affection and good memories will travel from person to person in the world, weaving the fabric of existence. Until it all is one.