Since my mother died and especially since my brother and his wife died, Christmas has never been the greatest time of the year for me.
The insistent Christmas carols piped into shopping malls, the glitter and party atmosphere, the increased barrage of BUYBUYBUY…I get cranky, resentful, impatient of the crowds. Deep down, I know that part of this Scroogelike attitude is because of the ache left behind by personal losses, bittersweet memories of past holiday seasons, but this knowledge doesn’t help.
A few days ago, I was overcome by a particular bad Scrooge attack. I was rushing around in the subway system, loaded down with bags, overheated in my coat, tired of being pushed around by other equally impatient and overloaded holiday shoppers.
I almost lost it while trying to leave a packed subway car at Yonge-Bloor, one of the busiest subway stations in the Toronto system; instead of standing aside and letting passengers off, people were crowded around the doors, jostling to be the first to get on. I had to squeeze my way out and nearly had one of my bags ripped in the process. I was furious, tired, impatient, crabby, and I could feel a tension headache building up.
So I decided to take a time-out.
Dumping my bags beside a bench against the wall on the platform, I sat down, took off my coat, took some long, deep breaths. As my headache eased off, I watched each train roar into the station, screech to a halt, belch its seething mass of humanity onto the platform, ingest new passengers, leave.
Between trains and after each load of passengers had left the platform, there was a remarkable silence that lasted about thirty seconds before the next train pulled in. And in that silence, I could hear someone playing Christmas carols on what sounded like a bamboo flute.
The performer was good, the clear tone of his or her music echoing in the station, a small island of tranquility in the holiday season chaos. I felt myself relaxing, forgetting about my sore feet and stresses.
And when the next load of passengers exploded onto the platform, I began noticing other things. Like the happy couple holding hands who could barely take their eyes off one another. Like the tired-looking woman with circles under her eyes, clutching a damp tissue; she had obviously been crying. Like the elderly man who walked like someone much younger, holding a bouquet of flowers, a twinkle in his eye. Like the gaunt-eyed man with his hands shoved deep in his pockets and head down, barely aware of his surroundings.
Every one of these people had a story, people they cared about, and (I hoped) people who cared about them. I suddenly felt a rush of affection for these strangers, most of whom I would never see again, and found myself hoping for each one’s safety and happiness, and that they would each find a measure of peace.
Yes, I know I’ll probably go back to feeling crabby and impatient in the hot and noisy crowds again, and that Christmas will likely never be my favourite time of year.
But next time I have a Scrooge moment, I’d like to think I’ll remember that flute player and those people on the subway platform, and make my way to a better place.
Art: The Red Balloon.