A few days ago I struck up a conversation with a woman in line at the bank. She was friendly, though a trifle panicked.
"It's so hectic," she said. "I'm only halfway through my gifts."
I told her it was wonderful she had so much more to look forward to.
She gave me a pretty, but puzzled, smile and then the teller called for her and our conversation ended.
I fear I do this often. Leave people puzzled, that is. I wanted to explain what I meant to the friendly woman. I wanted to tell her that I was by no means mocking the extensive and no doubt thoughtful gift list I had seen in her hand, or the fact she was preparing to plunge again into the just-before-Christmas-mosh pit so that those she cares for might have tokens of her caring. I wanted to explain the moment I had just come from, and why there was salt on my lips and fatigue in my shoulders and the balm of gratitude warming my mind. But she conducted her banking, gave me a last puzzled smile (points for being nice) and was gone. I kept my conversation with the bank teller straightforward.
Almost every day now our mailbox contains a holiday card or two from friends and family; although I have never understood why the two are mentioned separately. The cards make me happy. We are graced with friends of all ages. There are pictures of babies throwing their arms wide, and toddlers holding hands, and big brothers gently nudging (under parental supervision) little sisters on scooters, and children who are no longer children stooping slightly to put their arm around their parents, and older friends, whose children now live far away and cannot be there for holiday photos, with their arms around each other. There are also dogs wearing sunglasses and cats wearing nothing, for cats are disinclined to don festive props. Everyone is smiling, even Buddy, although Labradors always appear to be smiling, perhaps because they are anticipating an imminent encounter with something that isn't supposed to be a chew toy.
Although confessing this publicly will now cheat me out of gifts forever, these holiday cards are my favorite gift. They remind me of a bigger picture and a broader season.
I am not so naïve to think all our friends are happy. Families have their problems. Nor do I believe the holiday season is a happy time for everyone. People die at Christmas. Many people are alone. Many people don't realize they will soon be alone. Life is like that.
I always look at the pictures closely.
And I try to do the same thing through the rest of the year.
I watch how my brother-in-law Tim goes about his professional life as an esteemed law professor, and stands in line at the movies holding bags of candy and beaming like a five-year-old (we all lead dual lives). I watch how my niece Meghan laughs so hard she can barely breathe. I watch how her sister Kailen disappears into a book, and those other places where teenage girls go. I watch my mother-in-law Dot's hands fuss efficiently as she does something for someone else (I have many chances to watch this). I watch my wife every chance I get: across the room at a party, falling asleep over school papers on the couch, moving about in the kitchen. I confess that, plenty more than once, I have stood outside our kitchen window watching her. I hope a marriage certificate allows for such things. I love the way she moves; how her hair drifts across her shoulders as she turns to her next task. Watching her -- at a party, in the kitchen, sleeping upright on the couch -- all of it makes me feel impossibly lucky and happy.
Today, before I stood in line at the bank, I went surfing with our two sons. They are both back from college, where hopefully they will study hard and find jobs that will allow them to surf at noon on a Wednesday. The waves were good. I drifted beneath gray skies watching my sons paddle into waves, coming to their feet in the fluid, thoughtless manner of the young and riding the wave in the same fashion. Back at the car I did not remind them how lucky they are to be able to do this -- that they are strong and healthy and everything works -- although they will be the first to tell you that I have reminded them of this plenty more than once in the past. My harping on this is something of a family joke. But it is no joke.
Standing in line at the bank I still tasted salt on my lips. Some surfers rinse their mouth out after they surf. I never do. I like the taste of salt on my lips. I love how sometimes when I kiss my wife she cocks her head and says, "You went surfing," and her smile throws its light into her eyes. Sometimes she asks for another taste.
I watch my wife. I watch my family. I watch my friends (my friend Frank has a smile that practically wraps around the back of his head; my friend Carrie warms a room). I watch young couples walk past our house pushing strollers and holding hands. Perhaps this sounds a little creepy. Perhaps you'll understand if I tell you I also watch how the white underside of a sea gull catches the last pink of evening.
All of it is like opening a gift.