This time of year you don't see the cracks in the mortar. They're still there. They jag their way from above the cast iron fireplace insert to under the pine board mantel. Whoever laid the bricks didn't count on the extra weight to make the floor sag, the mortar crack. It did. Actions have consequences. Not that you'll notice, however. Not this time of year.
Step into our living room and your eye is drawn to the holiday decorations atop the mantel. Two green wreaths on either side, an angel in the middle. Shiny red balls, little white lights, bright yellow lemons, pine garland, reindeer, glistening glass. Beautiful—and fraught with meaning. Have a look.
Two evergreen wreaths adorn the wall, apt symbols of two men whose lives have circled 'round though joy and heartbreak to a sense of wholeness and love. My husband Dave and I marked our eleventh anniversary as a couple this year. Coming out and living as gay men in rural America is a sweet-sour enterprise; lemons nestle with frosted red berries and ribbons amongst the pine bough wreaths.
Loss and gain, fullness and emptiness. The tension between these poles recurs as a theme in our lives, and is reflected in the antique cut glass bowl propped on edge at the center of the display. Behind it, small white lights cord a pine garland that runs the length of the mantel. Extra lights gathered behind the bowl illuminate it, cause it to shine. Were the bowl full the effect would be lost. Out of the emptiness shines the light.
Peer long enough into the bowl and you may see faces of the dead peering back: my father, Dave's mother, his firstborn son, friends and relatives. And the living: our former wives, my teenaged sons, Dave’s two siblings and one of mine—brothers by blood who severed ties with their gay kin—and a host of people we once called friends. The refracted light serves notice that even in their absence these persons are present to us; bearers of light all.
To the right of the bowl stand three hurricane globes graduated in size. A ruby-red heart-red glass ball appears to float in the center of each. Look closely and you'll see the ornaments are suspended from nylon fishing line. It is not always easy to see the threads that tie us one to another. These glass globes represent Dave's three adult children and their spouses.
On the left, three red balls represent my estranged sons. Twin reindeer each carry a rose-red ornament in honor of my twin sons; a crystal vase cradles the third red globe. Making of loss, beauty. Perhaps an answer to poet Stanley Kunitz, "how shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?"
Against the wall between the wreaths lean seven long cinnamon sticks. Squint your eyes and you might be looking at the oaken slats on the side of a crib. A crib that has been the focus of Dave's attention for hours on end this year. That has come into being through his effort. That represents the first realization of his desire to build fine furniture.
A crib that will cradle our first grandson, born halfway around the world this past July. He should arrive home to his parents next month. He was named Angel Gabriel at birth, re-christened Noah Andrew Gabriel long-distance from Ohio. We've been cooing over photographs of him. What a bundle of hope and promise swaths any infant! As a reminder of this, above the mantel, above the cut glass bowl, above the red balls, the lemons, the wreaths hovers a carved wooden angel with wings widespread.
There. Did you notice the crack in the masonry? Probably not. But it's there nonetheless. We live in a world that feels flawed, in which there is pain, loss, cracking up. But at the same time there is hope, there is color, there is light. Isn't this the message implicit in Hanukkah, Christmas and Winter Solstice celebrations? In the time of great darkness comes the light.
In this new year may we all be sustained by such hope. And light.
This essay appeared in The Letter, December 2007