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I just spent my first Christmas alone.

and it was really really lovely.

before i sound like a total Scrooge, i should explain that my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law-to-be all had a family Christmas celebration hard on the heels of Thanksgiving. My parents, who live in Iowa, came out to philly to be with us kids, and we had our Christmas in November. my bro. and sis-in-law spent the actual holiday at their parents, and i flew solo.

sort of.

moving out to the east coast, away from family (especially for the first two years, before my brother joined me), has deepened and expanded my ken of “family.” i never realized, before, how important people are – how much more important they are than place. i moved here and thought i didn’t really need to have a travelling band of friends – that i could be enough on my own, for myself. when i moved, i was ready to be rid of some people – one in particular who had broken my heart in ways i didn’t understand – and flying solo sounded pretty great.

but solo is never really so.

i had no money when i came, and only a small stipend on which to survive grad school, so i boarded with a lovely woman, a widow who had worked for years at my museum, named Esther. my dad drove out with me, settled me into my little room, and flew back to Iowa. immediately, Esther invited me to her family’s backyard barbeque – the first of many family gatherings in which i was unquestioningly included. of course i should come – why not? her family was used to having her students join in to grandchildren’s birthday parties, soup potlucks, and card-players’ gatherings. come, and welcome.

but still – no family needed, thought i. the next summer, i packed a suitcase and headed for new york, to research my thesis and work at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. i’m a girl of the world, thought i, i’ll do new york on my own and i’ll do it with style. but even to get up to the city, my idea of solo was kindly tempered by Jim, husband of pauline, one of my professors. i was their default house-sitter, and they were my default holiday plans. jim offered to drive me up to new york, bought me lunch along the way, and wouldn’t let me give him a penny for gas. pay it forward, he insisted, but don’t pay me. i chafed at this, but began to ponder…

as i lived in new york that summer on my own, i tried even to hack my faith solo — i stopped in at a good church most Sundays, and tried to read my Bible. but i didn’t try to hold on to anyone for help and encouragement — didn’t tell anyone how i was doing or ask anyone for prayer. i ended the summer in a state of spiritual exhaustion and came back to my church in glen mills that fall begging God to make it home for me – to knit me in so i would not be solo. another semester passed, and soon i was panning for jobs up and down the east coast. in a near panic, i realized that solo would no longer work – it had never really. even when i had sought life alone, God had shored me up with family in my house, my program, and my church. people who had never clapped eyes on me twenty-four months earlier were suddenly among my dearest relatives.

in the two.5 years since, my sense of solo has been challenged repeatedly: i sold my car and relied, grudgingly at first, on friends’ kindness and wheels. i dated a boy and learned what it means to show someone even your ugly parts (and then watch him stay anyway). i hosted a book club and saw it morph into the tightest group of friends i’ve ever had. when moved, i watched them carry every stick of my furniture down from a third floor walkup, across town in a philadelphia july, and up to another third-floor walkup (three days after they trooped up the same stairs to slog paint on the walls where they now spend at least one long evening every week).

this Christmas, i got to share a meal with some of them, playing cards into the wee sma’s on the night of the 23rd, attending church with them on Christmas Eve before going out for lunch and then coffee, conversing, laughing, and sharing silence by turns. on Christmas Day, i shared dinner with a couple in my new church and four other “Christmas orphans,” watching my family get a little bigger still.

i came home last night to reflect in front of my wee lit tree on my first solo holiday. solo, i think, may be a fallacy in my mind. by God’s grace, even the times when i have felt most alone, He has surrounded me with people, dear ones who show in their lives that He has not forgotten me. He knows me intimately and has placed these in my path to help me remember that He sent His Son, His Immanuel, to be “God with us.” that has made this holiday the sweetest of all.

The city is a discourse,
and this discourse is truly a language:
the city speaks to its inhabitants;
we speak our city,
the city where we are,
simply by living in it,
by wandering through it,
by looking at it.

- R o l a n d B a r t h e s


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