Sunday, December 13, 2009

Not in the Christmas Mood

Every year, when the Commonwealth Avenue mall becomes an illuminated broccoli forest after sundown, I feel the holiday spirit descending on me with the force of a toppling Christmas tree.

Wreath-making with the Back Bay Garden Club usually puts me even more in the mood. All those bright plaid bows and shiny balls and holly sprigs.... But, so far, not this year.

By mid-December, I usually have lots of gifts to wrap for husband, friends, and family. I'd be out shopping in the neighborhoods, heading to the North End for my dad's torrone, and over to Lord & Taylor for his special socks. I'd be walking up and down Back Bay's streets admiring the trees sparkling in the windows. I'd have tickets for the Chorus Pro Musica's annual holiday concert at Old South. And this is traditionally the weekend that we'd drive out to Wilson Farm to choose a tall balsam fir and a stack of wreaths and pine boughs for mantels and doors. Not this year. I began my shopping yesterday. I have a large family and a long, long list. It's not going to be pretty.

I'm baking my mom's traditional Christmas cookies (oatmeal chocolate chip) as I'm writing this, but I do not feel jolly. Our cookie cravings span the seasons.

I'm trying. I've played our favorite seasonal CD, George Winston's "December." It made us both sad.

There are two reasons for this, and I can't fix either of them, although I try.

First, there's the cats' ringworm plague, which has made our home messy and uncomfortable, disfigured my adorable Possum, forces me to clean endlessly, and costs us hundreds of dollars weekly in treatments and cultures. This will go on for at least a few more weeks, or for months if we're unlucky (we tend to be). In lieu of nicer gifts this year, my husband and I are exchanging bills for lime-sulfur dips, cultures, and bottles of fungal medicines. Considering that I willingly received the gift of payment for our late cat Bunny's chemo treatments for my birthday present, I should be cheered by the fact that, while ringworm is even more expensive, at least it isn't fatal. But it's all too depressing. And we can't have a tree, or any decorations that can't be vacuumed or scrubbed, or even drive home to see my family while the cats are being treated.

I can't imagine Christmas without a tree and decorations, but that's how it will be.

The second reason is worse. It's the lack of hope for the future. Christmas spirit is built on hope, especially for those of us who don't relate to the Christian aspects of the holiday. I love the Druidic Mithras aspects: trees, lights, carols, food, merry-making. And I have to say, the consumer aspects aren't all bad, either. But there's nothing without hope.

As a kid you hope for Santa, and as an adult you hope for a happy celebration with the people you love most, with no bad news or big dramas. You hope for more good memories and a better New Year. You might hope for a white Christmas, and a little old-fashioned romance. And we secretly hope for that magic that makes time slow down, the way it did when we were small, so we can look at every wonderful thing and take mental pictures to remember, as the minutes slip by. And I hope that you hope that all the kids in the world are filling their hearts with good memories, too.

Bah. Humbug. We are out of hope in this house, which can't be stockpiled like sugar and chocolate chips.

Twenty-two months ago, my husband applied for the Academic Job of His Dreams. He's brilliant, accomplished, and has unique skills. He's an excellent, caring, dedicated teacher. He's published plenty and has impeccable credentials. But in his field, people have to wait for others to retire or die so jobs will finally open up. There are a couple of openings every year, somewhere in the world. This opening was brand new, in the Boston area, and seemed written for him. Best of all, it offered tenure — security! An almost unimaginable possibility, given that his future employment has been uncertain for the past 15 years. His interview for the position took place more than a year ago, and we began waiting and hoping in earnest when we heard last May that he was one of two finalists. We hoped that he would finally get the recognition he deserved. We hoped that we could relax and stop worrying about money and the future. We hoped he could finally stop working at two jobs and his freelance work, and focus on teaching and research, like any professor. We hoped and hoped.

Last week, we found out by accident that the top-secret committee was finally meeting to choose between the finalists. And we heard that the winning candidate would be notified right away. That was more than 10 days ago. The other guy is tenured at an Ivy League university, so we assume that more riches are now being heaped upon his current riches. And, day by day, life grows bleaker and sadder around here. Because as our lives changed for the worse, that job looked more and more like the Promised Land. Besides my own inability to find steady work for the last 18 months, my husband was just socked with a 50 percent pay cut at his current university. They basically said, "Yeah, you're an internationally renowned scholar and a popular teacher, but you're not tenured, you're only a lecturer, and we don't have to pay you for that." His grant at his other job ends in a year and a half.

Bah, humbug, indeed. Now we begin to wait again, to see who will die or retire next, leaving an open position. There's one in Chicago; I've never been there, but maybe I'll have to live there. Some fun. I think I'm too old to be facing this kind of upheaval, but I don't have a choice.

In the meantime, there's Christmas and a world expecting us to have days that are merry and bright. I can't wait for January. We will get over this, we'll move on, and we'll eventually feel gratitude again for our health, family and friends, cats, the roof over our heads, and all the other good things in our lives. Just not now.

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