Sometimes when I want to remember who I am, I think about where I am, and to think about where I am, I sometimes think about a place where I am not, a place foreign to me.
Historian and memoirist Don Waldie remembers Christmas Day, 1956, in the southern California suburb where he lived as one of sweltering heat. “All the Christmas cards that year had snowmen and sleigh rides and carolers bundled up against the frost, but outside my house, midwinter meant that our lawn had turned brown, leaves on the neighbor’s tree had fallen, and the light of a low, southern sun glared through the smog.” By 1958, nothing much had changed in Lakewood, with temperatures above 80, morning fog, and then heavy smog later in the day. “I rode my Schwinn bike through hot, laden air that forecast wildfires while car radios played the holiday songs of an alien America where Jack Frost nipped at the noses of walkers in a winter wonderland and folks dressed up like Eskimos to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
In my North Carolina suburb, unlike sunny if smoggy southern California, Christmas usually came with cooler temperatures, but not snow—until Christmas, 1966, when there was a dusting of snow. That year I received a red Schwinn bike from Santa, and when I took it out for a ride, that snow began falling, wet on my face as I pedaled down the street. I remember smiling, haling my friend, thinking, “This is the best day ever,” with all the confidence my eight-year old mind could muster. Red bicycle, smiling boy, frenetic pedaling, winter wonderland—it could have been a postcard, Thomas Kincaid painting, or advertisement.
“A sense of place is as necessary to a whole human being as is a sense of self,” Waldie said in an online interview earlier this fall in which he discussed his new collection of essays, Becoming Los Angeles: Myth, Memory, and a Sense of Place. He said the past is not just nostalgia or irony (both of which moderns and postmoderns have a penchant for) but an important clue as to who we are. A walker (he doesn’t drive), he speaks of a “tactile intimacy,” of walking as a “haptic practice.” Walking as knowing, footfalls as touch points for reality, suburbia not as dystopia or promised land but holy land nonetheless, as a sacred, ordinary place where “redemptive lives can be lived.”
In my interview with Waldie in Lakewood’s City Hall early last year, he connected person and place. “[O]ne has to begin to think about the place as a body,” he said. “How do you come to know that body? It is—and I'm reaching for a sexual metaphor here—by all the ways that human equipment permits. One needs to learn how to fall in love with the place where you are.”
Insomnia dispossessed me of the Santa Claus myth early on. My parents shuttled us off to bed, sat in the kitchen drinking coffee for a respectable length of time to allow us to fall asleep, and then began fetching presents from where they were secreted, wrapping them if necessary, their low voices incomprehensible yet suggestive. I lay awake. I seemed always to be awake. Once, when I thought my parents were just helping the real Santa Claus, I even thought I heard reindeer on the roof. I went to the window, the pane cold to the touch, pressing my nose against it, just hoping for a glimpse of Rudolph’s red nose.
“I’ll be hoping for an old-fashion Christmas this year—enough chill in the air to require a sweater, a quiet walk before an early dinner, kids on skateboards in the street, and colored lights strung in palm trees,” says Waldie. Yet there’s quite a bit more I know he leaves unsaid, the empty page of the poet. There are the gift-giving parents that have gone before us and yet still inhabit the places through which we move, the carols we sang, the Christmas homilies we heard, the live nativities we pondered.
And he knows it’s not simply where we are that defines who we are but, even more so, it’s whose we are. The angelic announcement to shepherds withering in fright was about One who would bring “good news of great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10, ESV). To a backwater planet, to a minor people, to a poor couple without even a room, He came. He made our places important because He came, taking on flesh and all the earthiness of an embodied life. We are not just molecules but spiritual beings, and places are not just dirt and brick and mortar but memories, personal and communal, material and spiritual, inhabited by a Spirit that broods over all things.
That Christmas of old is gone, yet it still inhabits the one my wife and children and I have made here in this home—in a lit tree and aged ornaments, window candles, manger scene, and angel tree. Yet pull one thread of the traditions that bind us to this place and time and and you’ll find your way back to the center, to Love that came down, to the Incarnate One who will one day answer all our longings as to who we are and where we belong, to the One who said not to be troubled as He was going to “prepare a place” for us, only to come again and take us there (Jn. 14:2-3).
“I’m prepared to understand what I'm talking about as the humiliation of being human,” Waldie told me that unseasonably cold California day. “But once one understands that, then there is for you and me an answer. There is someone who takes and transforms our humiliation. The most humiliated, man, Jesus. He bears with us our humiliation, which makes it a burden that you can carry.” Yet he was emphatic that he wasn’t advocating stoicism. “I want to emphasize that it's not just resignation in the carrying of the burden. It's not just because, okay, that's what human beings are, and I understand my fallen state, and I get the theology of redemption, and now, grim faced, I trudge forward, yearning for the end of all of this. No, it's a burden I want to carry.” I want to say to him now, across the continent, that for you and me it’s a burden we carry together, as we bear each other up, communally (Gal. 6:2). For you and me.
One childhood Christmas my parents told my sisters and I that Santa wouldn’t bring as much as usual that year. I forget the explanation, but looking back from an age older than they were now, I realize they must have suffered a financial setback. They had bit off an oversize bit of suburbia, a house that seemed enormous then, and were likely struggling with a mortgage payment, taxes, and the needs of four children. Still, Santa came. He always came.
“I'm always looking for not just the right word, but the right rhythm of words,” Waldie told me. I understand.
I have the rhythm of those Christmases past—the rustle of paper, the heavy footsteps on the stairs, the faintest sound of sleigh bells. Whispers and wind whipping round the eaves, and the soft and regular breathing of my sister in the next room. The coffee cups tinkling on saucers, and the murmuring myth that rises in my heart—Will he come? How much longer? And what gifts will He bring?—the questions hanging there until finally, the house settling in for a long winter’s night, I fall asleep to the sound of my own beating heart.