December 26, 2008

Fresh and New

I don't remember how old I was, but probably not any older than ten. I had received a "snorkel parka" for Christmas... and while clothes are generally not at the top of the list of things that a ten-year-old kid wants for Christmas, this parka was very cool, and I loved it.

The parka was navy blue, and had an orange liner. It had a hood with a drawstring, and a fur ruff. When you put the hood up and tied the string, the hood and ruff made a short tube in front of your face - hence the name, "snorkel parka".

We always exchanged gifts on Christmas eve, and on Christmas day, it was dress-up, go to church, come home for Christmas dinner, but not too much playing with the new toys. The first day where us kids had the day to plan as we liked was December 26.

This particular December 26th was a typical winter day in Washington, DC - It was cold and the wind was howling at about 30 miles per hour. It was perfect "Snorkel Parka" weather. I loved cold weather, and I loved the idea of bundling up and going outside, for no other reason than to brave the elements. The only thing that might have made it more perfect would have been to have some snow.

I bundled myself up. I put on long "thermal" underwear. I put on two pairs of socks. I had some hiking boots that offered a bit of insulation. I had a nice warm sweater, and then bundled myself up with my parka and a ski cap, and some gloves. I pulled the hood over my head and tied the strings. It was as if I had put on a space suit. I was wrapped in a 98.6 degree cocoon.

My mother was not so keen on me going out in such weather. I don't remember specifically, but I am sure that there were warnings on the news about going out in the "bitter cold". It might also have been that she didn't want me going in and out and letting the cold air in the house.

I stepped outside. The front door and storm door shut behind me. I was left with the sound of the wind howling through the branches of the crabapple tree in the front yard, though it was muffled as I heard it through the ski cap and insulated hood that covered my ears. November's leaves blew here and there across the brown grass. I could feel the cold on my face, but it seemed tempered by my attempts at insulating myself from the elements.

I stepped down the concrete steps of my parent's front porch, and surveyed the frozen landscape. It certainly wasn't still, but it was also not filled with life. There was movement, but it was the sterile, lifeless motions of a blustery winter day. If there were birds around, they were certainly perched safely in some evergreen tree, avoiding the winds and cold.

And then I noticed it. The sun was shining. It seemed brighter and cleaner than I had ever seen before. Of course, the sky was cloudless and blue, but that wasn't what left the impression on me. It was the brilliant, heatless white of the sun. The day seemed brighter. It seemed fresh and new.

I don't think that a ten year old can really appreciate all of the implications of this perception, but I am sure I was aware of them, and they seem crystal clear to me today - This day was different than the days that came before. Left behind were the obligations and expectations of Christmas. For a ten year old kid, the obligations had to do with participating in the Family stuff and going to church. Not that these things were terrible, but my brothers and I would have been much happier with a football and a couple of friends. And that was another thing... being a family day, you were left without your friends - they were off doing family things with their families. So here it was, December 26th, and we could return to 'normal time'. And it wasn't just that the sun was shining, but that the sun was shining, and everything was starting new. Our lives as kids had been restored to its best possible state - a week off from school, days to do with as we liked, new toys and Christmas gifts to play with.

I was walking into work this morning, and I caught a whiff of that experience again. There was new snow on the ground, most people had the day off. The weight of obligation and commitment that burdens the Scrooges of this world - myself included - had been lifted from my shoulders.

Perhaps others feel this way too, and it was this feeling of newness that caused them to choose this time of year to move from one calendar year to the next. Thinking back about previous December 26ths, I think I always feel this way in some form. It isn't always as vivid as that winter day back in Washington, DC when I was ten, but it is a real and visceral feeling. And of course, the feelings are much more complex when you're an adult - it isn't just about pursuing an afternoon football game with friends, but about bills and going to work and new projects and paying the rent. But now, those things that we consider 'End of the Year' things are behind us, and what lies ahead are 'Beginning of the Year' things.

It didn't matter that there was eight inches of new snow in my driveway this morning. In fact, I wouldn't have it any other way.

It was fresh and new.

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