I spent Christmas at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, CA. .
I’m used to going places by myself and finding a way to feel at home and was all excited by the time I got there December 24, thinking, Well I will just be friendly and I’m sure things will be fine. So I alit from my car, breathed deeply of the bracing high desert air, and stuck my head into the Guestmaster’s Office. The guestmaster was behind her desk and another gal in a large pink sweatshirt was sitting in a nearby chair.
Thinking to befriend the very first person I met, I gazed lovingly into this woman’s face, smiled warmly, and was quite taken aback when her eyes drilled back at me with a look of pure unadulterated hatred! She didn’t even know me yet!
Really, it was fine listening in as people talked about their RVs, guard dogs, and jobs at Edwards Air Force Base. There was a huge common room with a fireplace with real logs in it and a Christmas tree and many snacks and every few hours it seemed a generous meal, lovingly prepared and served by the monks.
I hung around on the fringes with a look meant to telegraph, Hi, I’m a 60-year old divorcee alone in the world and my mother just died, but nobody much noticed–most of the folks seemed to have made coming to St. Andrew’s a yearly ritual and knew (if not were related to and/or lived with) each other, But as my friend Tensie had reminded me a few days earlier (after the Richard Rohr book of the same name), Everything Belongs.
My difficulty in fitting into a crowd unless the crowd is specifically about me belonged. The lifelong gap between my expectations and reality belonged. The lady with the pink sweatshirt belonged, the geese in the pond belonged, the instant coffee I got to start swilling when I woke at 3:30 (my circadian rhythm is wacked at the moment) belonged.
Plus there was tons of candy. And I got to read a good part of Ralph C. Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.
I also got to spend many hours of solitude and silence gazing out the window at the snow-draped mountains and formulating my ‘Life Plan’ (right) for 2013
Of course the real heart of the place was the chapel, with Morning Prayer, Vespers, and Christmas Mass.
“Life is a night spent at an uncomfortable inn,” Teresa of Avila observed.
And then there was the mother of God, who had no inn.
I left at sun-up December 26 and drove back through the mountains in the rain and fog with a big sign every two feet saying “ICY” and every other two feet a black and yellow pictogram of a gigantic load of rocks falling on a hapless car and the road strewn with actual rocks of a size that could handily break an axle and the mist billowing over the mountains and up from the valleys, listening to Coltrane‘s Ballads and hoping to God a tire didn’t blow.
I’d gone away so as to not to feel sad for Christmas and yet coming back into town, a huge wave of sadness washed over me anyway.
Just as an alcoholic spends ten, twenty, thirty years trying to re-create the transcendent sense of well-being that comes with that first drunk, some of us spend our whole lives hoping Christmas will feel, just once, the way it did when we were kids. It never happens. That’s okay, and the hills were washed clean by rain and everything looked extra green and fresh and gilded by a new morning sun at 8 a.m. when I rolled into Silver Lake.
I cried as I unpacked. Christmas never feels the same as when we were kids, and yet we’re still sad when it’s over.