Wandering around Chicago with thirteen junior high kids and keeping them alive all day has a funny way of inviting reasonable facsimiles of epiphanies. Approaching Water Tower Place on Saturday I was gripped by something I’ve known all along: the city crystallizes my sense of Christmas. It’s not like it’s any less the Advent season back home on 19th Street, it just tastes like a less concentrated dose sometimes, as though my neighborhood is doing all it can to siphon off pure Christmas cheer. The hustle and bustle of the city never fails to resuscitate those halcyon, Christmas carol feelings Rockford does its dangdest to extinguish.
As I write this and examine my feelings from that day, I laugh as I reflect upon how simply remembering something can have almost the same power to transform your feelings and outlook as the actual thing you’re remembering, even if (perhaps especially if) that thing isn’t available to you as you remember it. I don’t know if that march down Michigan Avenue on Saturday temporarily transported me into the past or if it summoned the joyful quiddity of that past into my present, but in the time it took to cross the street I was flooded by a torrent of pure fantasticity as a month of image-memories swept past me like a bullet train. Sure, I remember the madness of shopping and navigating through an ocean of pedestrians and perpetually angry cab drivers, but what I remember most of all is my many misadventures in the city with Salvation Army friends: freezing cold neighborhood outreach (always in my shorts, for some reason); community dodgeball nights with kids who don’t know what “No head shots!” means; constant battles between factions who would die before they ate at Qdoba and those would die before they ate at Chipotle (but all parties agreeing that being late to the music workshop was a small price to pay for winning another skirmish in the eternal war between the burrito joints); the heartbreaking beauty of street lights reflected in the snow stained blacktop, the panoply of colors swirling brilliantly in the sea of melted flakes as Dave Shay, Mike Steinsland, Justin Rose and I drove the Corps’ van all over creation collecting kettles and giving folks rides home; visits to my own personal Hogwarts, North Park University, the locus of my escapist fantasies, where I could study with cool Christians and pretend all the sadness of Janesville was a galaxy away. So many different kinds of stellar all revolving around the hub of the city. Every shard of falling snow since then is imprinted with the grooves of a thousand times a thousand picture perfect memories in the city.
The insanity of the city was always an unstoppable countermeasure for the soul-blunting narcolepsy of home. These were friends who demonstrated an alternative to the languid emptiness of “real life,” who showed me with their lives what following Jesus is really like. These are some of the things that make me feel the most like Christmas. They’re not all, though- add to them that first Christmas with Kristin’s family when I knew I was desperately in love with her and with nervously geeky enthusiasm told her mom, “Mrs. Heesen, this is some bumpin‘ good ham!”; add our first Christmas with Mr. and Mrs. attached to the beginning of our names, where this newlywed alchemy made everything spectacularly numinous; add our little holiday ham Owen, the triple toothed prince of plump baby boys who shrieks like a pterodactyl whenever he gets pumped, and holy cow- suddenly I’m having myself a merry little Christmas.
Already and not yet, of course.