With brightly-lighted trees and beribboned packages, the holiday season is a time of wonder. But as with life itself, that sense of wonder can soon turn to melancholy.
My first inkling that it isn't all Currier & Ives came when I was 12 and only got a pair of sneakers for Christmas. My mother had stacked gift-wrapped boxes for my siblings and me on the back porch, labeling each with the penciled shorthand she learned in secretarial school. I thought that I'd cracked the code and a dozen presents were headed my way.
After I opened my first gift that Christmas morning and realized it was my last, I burst into tears.
Then there was the Christmas my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. We tried to cherish our time with him, knowing that the clock was ticking, but we were desolate.
A year later he was gone, and so was my brother Michael, who was killed in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center. A gray pall seemed to cloak our New Jersey community as dozens of victims' families grieved losses.
Still, life went on. In a new documentary, Terror on a Train, my friend and former colleague Mi Won Kim talks about finding meaning in life after a traumatic loss. Her sister Mi Kyung was murdered 20 years ago this month when a deranged man pulled out a gun on the Long Island Rail Road.
Six people were killed and 19 injured.
Watching the documentary, I remembered how we waited to hear from Mi Won the day after the massacre. For several hours, there was a slim chance that her sister would pull through. Then we got the phone call.
As the documentary shows, no matter how many years elapse, even the memory of trauma can make you cry in an instant.
Life is unalterably different, especially around the holidays. But eventually your heart stops hurting. In cases like Mi Won's and mine, it is a literal hurt, one that makes you think you should go to the emergency room.
Too many Americans know the effects of trauma firsthand, including the families in Newtown who mark a somber anniversary this month—in peace, one hopes.
I have no antidote. So I look to humor. This season it comes in a Fran Lebowitz interview in The Paris Review. I remember devouring the Q&A back in 1993 when it appeared in print.
It's even better the second time around. The Paris Review has posted several interviews from the archives—with Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin and Edna O'Brien, among others—each writer more miserable than the last.
At the risk of making Lebowitz, a notorious sufferer of writer's block, sound like Henny Youngman, here are some of her best lines:
"I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself."
"I've always liked people who are older. Of course, every year it gets harder to find them."
"Now that I realize I don't hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier."
"I look at my dictionary, a Webster's Second Unabridged with nine million words in it and think, All the words I need are in there; they're just in the wrong order."
"I like a person who is embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you're young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness."
"I smoke so much while I'm writing that it's hard for me to make out what few words I've actually gotten down on paper."
I hope you find wonder this holiday season, if only in a Lebowitz turn of phrase. But please don't smoke.