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Domestic Bliss

No escape at Christmas

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I dreamed I was in Hawaii, on an island that resembled Oahu at first, and then it became someplace else. Peddling out of the city on a bicycle trail skirting the ocean, I entered one small neighborhood after another where I saw familiar sights -- a classroom I once attended where the walls were painted by the students; a garden of giant ginkgo trees, their limbs spread low to the ground; philodendron leaves overhead as big as windows, obscuring the sky from sight.

As I peddled farther away from the city, my bicycle began to disassemble. The toe clips fell away from the pedals, the handlebars began to shake, the gear assembly rattled. I reached the high point of a hill and was faced with a valley of water, the blue Pacific spilling over. I pushed through it, the wheel of my bike adhering to the trail though I was buried in water up to my waist.

By the time I reached my destination, my bike collapsed, and the expanses of water behind me made the thought of return impossible. So I stretched out on the top of a bare hill and watched the stars come out, warmed by their light and the fecund air that surrounded me.

For the first time in my life, I understand the desire to escape at Christmas. Much as I want to be in my house, surrounded by my children and our homely Christmas decorations, as each day of the season passes, I am more and more paralyzed by the schizophrenic mess we have made of it, and more disposed to running away.

News of the global warming conference in Kyoto, of future threats to the existence of parts of the planet and to all its people, play in the background behind screaming headlines announcing how much and for what we are shopping this Christmas season. As if our lives depended on it.

Standing in the checkout line in Target, a tiny boy who barely reaches his mother's thigh reaches up and tugs on her sweater. She jerks around and quickly slaps him in the face, telling him to leave her alone. He throws himself around his father's knees, crying. Their cart is loaded with the brightly colored boxes of Fisher-Price toys.

I spy on a couple having lunch in a downtown restaurant. She is pink with excitement, dying to tell him something. He nervously shifts in his chair. She wants to take out one of those no-interest, no-down-payment, no payment-due-'til-February loans at Circuit City. She wants them to have a stereo system for Christmas. He turns red, then finally explodes, demanding to know how she could possibly even think of such a thing. She stares at her lap, hiding tears from onlookers like me. They eat their salads in tense silence.

This year, it seems all I can respond to are the lights. I get a little thrill driving toward home past glittering households, and last night's full moon took my breath away. It was cold, but I sat on the bench in the backyard for a long while, looking at the stars and thinking of the shepherds outside of Bethlehem, the angel offering them words of comfort: Fear not.

-- This essay was written in 1997, the year of the Kyoto Conference where the Kyoto Protocol designed to decrease greenhouse gases was introduced. Seven years later, scientists across the world unanimously agree, for the first time, that humans have altered the global climate and that the consequences will be devastating. At the same time, the president of the United States has rejected the Protocol, leading this country and the world into an advanced state of apathy over global warming. It is a dark December indeed, but not a time to hide. May all of you find joy and peace in the holiday season.

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