Christmas and presence

It’s a fascinating experience when someone famous turns out not to be who you thought they were. Where image, values and persona are carefully manufactured by the media machine, when someone acts out of what we think their ‘character’ is, we catch ourselves. We’ve seen it happen with Kevin Spacey, Casey Affleck, Brett Kavanaugh, Lena Dunham. Back at home, Tony Astle, Phil Goff and Jami-Lee Ross have let the mask slip and had to deal with the consequences.

This can have a devastating, climactic effect on celebrities when the news is something they’d like to keep hidden. In other situations, it’s a slower burn when the news isn’t so feisty or breath-taking. I have been keeping my eye on those who are gradually moving away from the manufacturing of their “fame”, purposefully, with intent. Rather than a public accusation, a journalist’s scoop or a self-imposed breakdown, the defining aspect of these celebrities’ new identities is that it’s a choice.

Photo by Arthur Osipyan on Unsplash

Whether that choice is made from exhaustion, distaste, enlightenment or something else entirely, some celebrities decide to drop the act. I have no doubt that this may all be part of the deliberate ploy to create a false sense of vulnerability and connection in order to make more money. Even so, there’s one person who has caught my eye by doing this, and from the little I can tell, he seems genuine. He has moved away from the garish spotlight of sitcoms and agonising late-night TV self-promotion, and now writes music and poetry, films independent movies, selectively acts in plays, and spends time creating what he thinks is generous and worthwhile.

I could never get into ‘How I Met Your Mother’. Growing up, I lumped it in with ‘Big Bang Theory’ or ‘Two and a Half Men’, and that just wasn’t my style of comedy or television. (Probably more accurately, it wasn’t my Mum’s style, and what she said about the TV was gospel back in those days). I had no interest in it, even with the furore about the last episode, until I heard Josh Radnor on Pete Holmes’ podcast in 2015. I knew then that I had judged a book by its cover.

From Radnor’s articulation about what bizarre, frightening things fame and money did to both him and the people he loved, to his love of words and prosaic ability to quote philosophers, scholars and authors at length, he was not just a joy but a beauty to listen to. This was a man who’d been inside the machine, who’d seen what parts he did and didn’t like, and then decided to use the freedom his sitcom success had bought him to make art that searches for truth, enlightenment and joy.

While I couldn’t attend his plays or concerts, I signed up to Radnor’s Museletter, an intermittent email that shares what he is doing and thinking about. Each time it pops into my inbox, I set aside an evening for it. Three days before Christmas last year, one landed in my inbox. Radnor wrote about Thanksgiving; what it meant to his family before he was born, how he grew up with his parent’s traditions, and what that time of celebration means now.

“I had a moment with my mom where I said “It’s amazing to watch people grow up.” She nodded with a grandmotherly twinkle in her eye. And then I said: “But it’s also kind of sad, you know. It’s bittersweet.” We both got a little teary-eyed at the word, which was really the only word that felt appropriate. Aging is equal parts bitter and sweet. You want kids to grow up, surely, for their voices to change and their clothes to get too small. It’s evidence of health, of nature following its proper course. But it’s also evidence of loss: loss of youth, loss of innocence. There’s just something undeniably sad about the passage of time.” 

As Radnor put words so beautifully around that melancholy feeling he had in early November, he got me thinking in anticipation about what Christmas looks like for my family. Not just the day, but what’s underneath the day. The feeling. The intangible things: tradition, family celebrations, presence.

It’s amazing how much time and effort and mental energy goes into pulling off Christmas. The older I get, the more respect I have for my parents who were able to manage not only the lead up with four children, but made the day so special when they probably just wanted to collapse in a heap. They are both heavily involved in church, so it often meant that the shopping and Christmas concerts and prizegivings and social engagements were peppered with extra services to organise, preach at or attend, and pastorally, it can be a really hard time for people. Mum and Dad bore the brunt of that and still made Christmas as exciting as it could possibly be for us four, every year.

Because we don’t have any extended whānau (family) in the country to celebrate with, we’ve evolved our own little way of doing things. We still go to church together before we open any presents. Santa still comes, 32 years after he first arrived. Along the way, we’ve ditched the dry turkey for beef, fish, and ratatouille, unless my brother steps up to the plate to give Mum a year off. If we can, the brave ones will pop down to the beach for a swim, and the afternoon is spent watching whatever the best new DVD is, starting a new jigsaw, having a snooze or popping out to see partners’ family. It’s predictable, safe, warm, and fun. It’s ours.

Christmas Day, 2013

And every year I forget that this is temporary. Vapour. When you’re young, they say you feel as though you can live forever. I know I’m certainly caught up in our Western, consumeristic culture of excess, primed for me to ignore my mortality. Radnor’s words struck a chord with me, because it is so rare to hear someone talk about how, “In the grand scope of universal cosmic time, eighty, ninety years is the snap of a finger”. I’d never had it shared so clearly: how important the passing of time is to celebrate, instead of to ignore or fear.

After reading his Museletter, and with our own Christmas traditions approaching another year, Radnor’s words helped me to see: The world will shift. We will grow and change and settle and pass away. Christmas will not be like this forever. Home will become a different space for each of us. How will death affect our family, our relationships, our traditions?

Later in the story, Radnor talks to his sister about how he’s feeling:

It began in earnest when my sister Melanie and I had a brief chat by the fireplace about our parent’s dying one day and us having to go through their house and sift through the minutiae of their lives. We got instantly sad and cut off the talk quickly, but right afterwards this thought descended and wouldn’t let go of me:
My parents aren’t going to be here one day. 
My parents are going to die.  

Radnor used this thought in the opposite way most humans would. Instead of descending down a spiral of despair and premature grief, getting scared of what might come, or numbing himself to push away the inevitable pain, he cultivated the mindset to be present and love what he had now.

This inspired me. I found space to mention what I had been thinking about to my Mum and sister. One quiet evening, I said the words out loud, “It will not always be like this. You will not always be here, I will not always be here, we will not always do this.” How foreign it was, to talk about not being present anymore. Then again, the chances of me being there, at that moment, were infinitesimally small. Like Radnor, it wasn’t something we could dwell on together for very long. But even just being brave enough to say it, this opened a crack to let a little light in. Radnor describes it like this:

It felt like a true gift, some sort of divine alarm blaring “This is happening. You are all together. It won’t always be this way. Be here. Drink it in. Love more courageously.”

I love that. And it was really hard to do. In amongst the chaos and the in-laws and the timing of the food and the laughter about different presents and the excess of 2018, I wasn’t as present as I could have been. But I do know that having spoken those words aloud, I was one step down the road to trying.

I’d highly recommend signing up for Josh Radnor’s Museletters. His back catalogue is here and you can sign up here.