I recall after the September 11th attacks, probably on the 12th or 13th, going for a haircut. I was living in San Francisco at the time and, being originally from the northeast, I remember feeling disconnected, like a great shuffling underground was just out of reach. I was far from family, and California friends didn't feel the way I did. At the barber's, though, something clicked. It was crowded on a midweek afternoon, the TV was turned to CNN, and everyone was quiet and serious. Where coworkers had been chatty, the barber's was meditative.
I revisited those thoughts the other day, at a barber's here in New York. It was a far more normal midweek afternoon, and I was the only customer there until an older guy entered and took the chair beside me. The barber made conversation with him: "How was your Thanksgiving?" "Hm? Oh, Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving... hm... not bad..." He was at his sister-in-law's. She's a good cook. "But I'm not having Christmas this year."
The barber let that rattle around the room for a while, and finally gave a nonconfrontational "Okay." Another long pause. "My wife passed away, so that's why." There was the sensation of the little ties that bind human strangers growing tighter. "When did that happen?" "Oh, a long time ago, long time ago..." A bit of a loosening. "June." Tight again.
"Damn, I miss her."
My first thoughts were for the old man and the poignancy of someone lonely but proud, reaching out for human contact but not able to appear to be reaching. My second thoughts were for the other families having a first Christmas without a loved one, or afraid that they will. I thought first of one family I know whose son will be sent soon on his first trip to Iraq, and then, in the abstract, of other families split by the war, and, finally, of families like the old man's, the elderly and infirm. And so, in this little stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I'll stop a bit right now as I go through my usual stressful holiday routines to give thanks that those routines haven't changed, that everyone who is supposed to be near me still is, and I don't have to contemplate a first Christmas "without."
And I think of why others must. I wonder, between that haircut and this one, how many families have been changed by two wars, so many deaths, new economic insecurity, poorer health care, less health research. Personally, I don't have much outrage left. I once derived some comfort from politics and blog posts filled with mockery and scorn, but I feel like I've passed through that and it no longer helps, if it ever really did. What hope and comfort I find now derives from those small vestiges of community, found in odd corners like the barber's, though perhaps increasingly less often.