For some it’s tearing open wrapping paper on Christmas morning. Others, it might be downing turkey with friends and family or hunting for some eggs on Easter Sunday. For others, it might be dressing up in costumes on Halloween, or knocking back a few pints with friends on St. Patrick’s Day.
But for me, the most wonderful time of the year isn’t a single day. It’s that time between mid-November leading right up to about December 23. Holiday music is once again on the radio, if we’re lucky the snow starts to fall, decorations begin to line the streets and there’s just this…certain spirit in the air.
It’s intangible, even hard to accurately put into writing here. But it’s that underlying theme to many a Christmas special that you just…feel.
It’s the feeling you get deep inside when the cast of Sesame Street sings about keeping Christmas with you all through the year, or Jack Skellington’s frustration when he’s not able to fully describe the idea of Christmas to his peers in Halloweentown, but it’s there. It’s felt inside.
And that’s why I love everything leading up to Christmas so much more than the holiday itself, because that lead-up is when that feeling is at its peak.
It’s when, depending on where you live and if we’re lucky, the first flakes of snow begin to descend and cover the ground in a blanket of white, ushering in a beautiful visual transition from one season to the next. It’s the excitement and the real-life magic that comes from watching children excitedly write letters to Santa, asking how he’s been, tossing out questions about life up north and his amazing abilities in ways only children can.
It can be found in our favorite media traditions and routines – whether it’s the way Dickens classic is brought to life in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the revelation in It’s a Wonderful Life that even when life seems quite uneventful and miniscule that we do in fact make a difference. Or maybe it’s one of the many other holiday movies and specials that warm their way into our hearts and become as familiar to us as a close friend or the hug of a relative. Or it can be the voices singing “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” or any number of carols that have entertained for generations playing in the background while you decorate a tree, or even during a mundane car ride, elevating otherwise moments of monotony into something joyful, full of heart.
It’s in all of it. Those memories are made well before the calendar falls upon the 24th or 25th of December.
By the time Christmas Day rolls around, and the wrapping comes off the gifts, well…it’s all done. The holiday is already on its way out the door. In the past, I’ve referred to as The Christmas Letdown. The store aisles will soon be filled with festive memories now at clearance prices, while candies and hearts fill the shelves for the next big gift giving bonanza almost two months later.
Maybe if we could find a way to bottle that feeling from mid-November to mid-December, if we could find a way to carry it with us through the months ahead, the world might be a bit more merry year-round.
Or, as Santa says in the classic Miracle on 34th Street – “Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind.”
“You really have built yourself a wonderful life.”
For a lot of folks, the end of a year is a bit of a refresher, closing out the bad of the previous 365 days while welcoming the good and the potential of the year ahead. But it can also be quite a time of reflection, looking back at the year that’s coming to an end and seeing how far our lives have come from the year before, the year before that, the decade before that, and so on.
Relatively recently, as a friend and I were catching up on life, and what was going on, including the birth of my daughter this past Fall, the incredible growth of my son, now 3, and what both my wife and I had been up this past year (from family outings and projects, to fixing up our little home, her increased freelance writing gigs, my baby steps into some publishing), my friend looked at me and said, very casually “you really have built a wonderful life for yourself.”
And he’s right.
It’s the kind of thing that I don’t take stock of as often as I really should. I’ve admitted in the past to what a list-maker I am – constantly setting multiple goals each day and mentally flogging myself for not accomplishing all of them. Always looking to what the next project or accomplishment can be. Whether it’s another attempt at trying to sell a script, a job pursuit, a house hunt. It’s always something. Some, next attainable goal, leaving little to no time to reflect on how much I really do already have.
When I met this friend roughly ten years ago, I was in my mid-20s. I was fresh off a delayed graduation from college, living at home, trying to cut it art-wise as a low-budget indie filmmaker, and working a quality control job at a factory with my eyes set on journalism.
Needless to say, my life’s changed quite a bit in those past ten years. I left the Quality Control Job at the factory, landing an entry-level reporter job at a weekly paper. That led to a full-fledged reporter job at the daily paper soon after, leading into a foot-in-the-door job doing digital media/web content for a local television news station. That in itself then led to various positions over the years, from assignment editor, assistant news director, a reporter, and a new anchor. It was a long journey over almost a decade, but the experiences along the way were, despite the struggles within, what was dreamed off as I sat doing quality control forms back in the day. And during my tenure in news, I re-sparked my love of the theatre by getting involved in community theatre productions, meeting the woman who’d become my wife, bought a house, got married, and had our first child.
I’d leave news for a job on the professional side of academia, keeping my feet in the creative pool through pieces for this blog, various websites, and the occasional TV appearance on Mass Appeal, one of my favorite stops in New England, to pal around with hosts Ashley and Seth and some mid-morning Dorky Daddy life tips.
I’d see the publication of my first comic book series, which, as a fan of comics most of my life, is still an incredible feeling, to hold one’s own work, tangibly, in their hands.
This year we welcomed our second child, our daughter, to the world, and nothing beats coming home to see her crack a smile and the open arms of my son, who can make you feel like you’ve been gone an eternity with the welcoming hug upon arrival.
In those 10+ years, I went from drowning in credit card debt to not owning a single credit card. Sure, the student loan debt is still there, but it’s paid on, steadily, and more than the minimum amount, every month, chipping away as best I can.
The day job isn’t always perfect. But then, very few jobs are, am I right? Neither was my career in news, no matter how much I miss the work at times.
Yes, there are bills. There will always be bills. Yes, the small house that was perfect for the two of us seems a bit cramped with us, two kids and three cats. But that too will eventually change over time.
You catch my drift, I think.
So much time can be spent focusing on what we feel has to be accomplished next, that we don’t step back and see just how far we’ve come.
And man, I feel I’ve come a damn long way.
Thanks for the reminder, Clarence. My friend’s name isn’t Clarence, but it seems appropriate in name-changing to protect the innocent.
Maybe with a new year beginning, I need to make it a point to still maintain goals, but not to allow them to make me lose sight of what wonderful things I already have in this life. Because it will (and already has) go by pretty quick. If you don’t realize, respect, and appreciate what you have while you have it, it’s going to go by even quicker.
It has taken me many years to fully come to terms with this, and it is something I often have to remind myself of to this day. But it’s important. And, as I have since childhood, I’m going to frame it in the context of something that is easier for me to understand and explain – film.
You don’t need to be Sam Wainwright to matter.
In the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s friend Sam is a successful businessman who has gone out into the world and made a lot of money while George has stayed in Bedford Falls and reluctantly carried on the family business of the Savings and Loan.
George Bailey had big plans for his life. He was going to see the world. He was going to have adventures across the globe. But he didn’t. He stayed in his hometown, married, fixed up a drafty old house, had a few kids, and did what he could to help his friends. There were times, though, when life got tough, overwhelming, and it drove George to really question his place in the world amid his friends who went off and did big things.
When I was younger, I used to think I was so important to the universe. That I was meant for great things, which led to massive bouts of sadness, frustration and disappointment when I would feel that I wasn’t living up to those expectations, especially as I got older and life changed, took off in various directions, etc.
But what I’ve come to realize is that we all are important to this universe, for different reasons. Sometimes those great things are on a smaller scale and not as grandiose as you may think.
I’ve sat and wallowed in disappointment that I’m not doing the big things. Not writing the great American novel. Not writing sought-after screenplays, television shows, mainstream comic books and cartoons. Not making big budget movies and kidding around with stars.
And that is all okay. You know why?
Because none of it matters.
The people I spend my time with, be they my wife, my son, or our friends and family, are genuinely invested in us and our lives, as we are theirs.
Someone famous or well-known may follow you on Twitter and hey, that’s cool. But unless they’re coming over to the house for dinner or helping you out when that flat tire comes on your car, the real-life relationships on your journey are what will matter in the bigger picture.
I’m not bashing those who get excited because someone with a blue check mark on social media gave them a shout out or a follow. What I’m saying is, don’t make it your world. Make those around you, really around you, physically and emotionally your world. That will count for more than any number of online followers, fans or likes. Trust me.
I’ll say it again because I can’t say it enough. Because I have to remind myself of it on those days when I wonder what happened, how did I get here, and wonder about my place in the world – You don’t have to be Sam Wainwright.
You don’t have to be the major success of your town, of your work, of your friends. Just be a George Bailey. Be a good friend. Be a good person.
Be the person who has been intertwined in people’s lives in a way that has hopefully made them for the better. Maybe it was introducing them to new people they would have never met without you who went on to become even better friends, maybe it was being the person who writes that great recommendation letter that helps get someone else a job, or maybe it’s just being a source of support when someone asks if you’ve got the time to talk or have a cup of coffee.
Judge yourself not on how many people know your name, or the names you can drop, but by the kind of person you are.
Looking back on my life, I was constantly looking to be a Sam Wainwright when I was younger. And yes, sometimes it still hits me and I wonder ‘did I head down the wrong path?’ ‘was there more to my destiny than this?’
And then I realize that being a George Bailey is pretty damn good. Because the quality of the life lived and the lives touched, will mean so much more in the end than any award on the wall, social media brag, or product sold.
With a five month old now added to the mix, I admit that our movie viewing habits have drastically reduced, or have become divided into segments. After all, any time we get where he is napping is usually spent taking care of more pressing matters around the house rather than watching the boob tube.
Somehow, whether it was his being infatuated with his mother’s face, or the ceiling fan up above, my little monkey was pretty calm while the wife and I took in all the Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed goodness.
You don’t need me to say that it still holds up to this day – the story of the average joe who’s sacrificed so much of his dreams to help out those around him, only to fall knee deep into it himself and hit rock bottom and wish he were never born.
When I watched it this year, though, something was slightly different. Perhaps it was the frustration George Bailey felt at home with the “drafty old house” or the constant noise of the kids after an absolute day from hell. Suddenly, I was not only enjoying this film as I have for years, I was suddenly relating to it.
We all have the things we wanted to do with out lives, and in George’s case, it was seeing the world and living a life of adventure. He gave it up, though, time and again – when his father passed and he had to take over the Building and Loan, when he fell in love with Mary and they bought that old, run-down Victorian house and decided to fix it up, when he realized that the ever flirtatious Violet was not interested in his wacky dreams, or when he stayed at the Building and Loan so that his brother, Harry, could have the life and dreams HE wanted.
In the end, of course, that’s what brings all those friends and acquaintances rallying around George when he needs it, but it took some getting there for George to realize how good he had it when the chips were down.
Earlier this month, I came across this great introspective article over at “The Art of Manliness,” a phenomenal website definitely worth subscribing to. From teaching/reminding useful skills that often get lost in our fast-paced, technological society, to an appreciation for the things of the past, this website is really something.
Anyway, the article can be found right here: http://artofmanliness.com/2012/12/03/the-george-bailey-technique/
What it does is propose the exercise of doing a “George Bailey” on your own life. Sit down, and write out what your life would be like without a particular person, place or event in your life that brings you happiness.
It may seem like a simple thing to do, but once you start delving in to the paths that might not have crossed, you can hit upon some dark places in your mind, my friend. At times, it can be downright scary.
I think of just some of the seemingly random events that have led me to where I am today.
- “What if I never took that phone call asking if I was interested in a job at my current workplace?”
- “What if I never took that job?”
- “What if I never went out for drinks that time and made some new friends?”
- “What if I hadn’t, through those friends, found out about a play at a local theatre needing an extra actor or two and been coerced into trying out?”
- “What if I hadn’t been at this new job that had the flexibility to be in a play?”
- “What if I hadn’t agreed to go back months later and tryout again?”
You get my point. I could go on forever, and that’s just for one particular event in my life – meeting my wife. If those particular sequences of events had not taken place, I would never have met the woman I’m married to today. We would never have become friends, later begun dating, and eventually gotten married. The three cherished cats that have become like our first children, would never have been rescued, and been left to fates I don’t even dare think about without getting upset. And we would have, of course, never had our newborn son, the little man whose mere smirk or smile is enough to make me want to race home each and every day to see.
What I’m saying is that, while watching George Bailey torture himself to discover why he’s important, I realized that we all have those kind of days. Those days when it seems like we’re taking the falls for the absent-minded Uncle Billies in our lives, when our finances seem in trouble or drained, when the kids just won’t give you a moment to yourself, and when the Mr. Potters of the world just won’t let up and give us a break, trying to crush our spirits.
There’s countless times where I’ve been frustrated with work, or a co-worker, or a lack of space or function in our old house, or a surprise bill in the mail. “If we only had more money, if we only had different careers, if we only had a bigger, better home…”
It’s so easy to think about the obstacles we come across, what we don’t have, or to think the grass would be greener someplace or someway else. However, when we realize what we have an how such chance moments in life led us to it, how easily that could have all slipped by if we had made a different decision, it really puts things in perspective.
It’s easy to let the world crash down around us when this happens, to wonder “what if.” But instead of wanting to throw ourselves off our personal Bedford Falls bridge, maybe we need to listen to that little Clarence Oddbody (AS2 – ‘Angel, Second Class’) in the back of our minds and remember what it is that we have around us in our lives.
If we did that more often, we might all see that life isn’t so bad and those obstacles don’t outweigh what we have, who we have, and what lives we have touched.
We might just see that it really is a Wonderful Life.