Yesterday evening, I was out shopping with my mother, trying to finish up my last-minute gift buying, so as to hopefully avoid venturing out into the world of the crazies today.
We happened to be in the Crestwood area (for those of you not familiar, it's a suburb of St. Louis), and needed to stop into the Macy's at the Crestwood Mall. After getting what I needed to from Macy's, and quoting Miracle on 34th Street to a lovely young cashier who confusedly told me here name wasn't Virginia, we decided to take a stroll through the mall proper.
See, Crestwood Mall just happens to be dying. In the whole complex, which used to house a couple hundred stores at its peak, there are probably no more than two dozen storefronts still occupied. A youngish sort of man lifted his daughter, who was probably just school aged, up onto a coin operated train ride, and inserted a coin into the slot. The lights and the music started, and this little girl began laughing and screaming wildly with joy over train sounds and a midi file version of 'I've Been Working On the Railroad'. I found myself looking around the place as Mom and I walked through. The same Christmas lights that this particular mall had been using for as long as I can recall hung from the rafters, giving off a cheerful glow that illuminated the empty plazas and deserted shops. There was a Santa's Village, colourful and denying, with four people standing in line with their children, waiting to meet the man himself. The effect was that of bright red lipstick on a corpse.
As we walked, my mother and I made conversation, mostly about what a shame it was to see a place just completely dying out, but I was barely there. I found myself in the summer of 1997.
It was August, and I was at that same mall with a friend of mine named Joel and his stepsister Jamie, whom I was busy falling head over heels in love with. We had come to the mall simply because that was what one did when one was seventeen. We shopped for hours, with me convincing Jamie to try on dozens of outfits, ostensibly for her to pick out a new look for the school year we had just begun, but in reality simply because I loved looking at her and she knew it.
As we were finally leaving the mall and walking back to the car, Jamie was horrified to find that she had locked her keys in her car. They were just dangling there in the ignition, mocking us. Well, of course, being big strong men who could handle anything, Joel and I proceeded to do everything we could think of to try and get into the car, including going back into the mall and borrowing a coat hanger from a clothing store called Shifty's to try and pop the lock. I fumbled with the hanger, trying to pretend I knew what I was doing. Sadly, given that my profession at the time was not car thief, I failed to make any real progress.
After being vanquished by the door lock of a 1992 Ford Escort, Joel and I sat on a little hillside nearby while Jamie flagged down a security guard. It was sweltering hot, though certainly not out of character for August in St. Louis, and the sweat was pouring off me by the time the guard called a police officer, who dropped by and saved us from being forced to live at the mall by use of a slim jim. I never quite let Jamie live down that day, and it never failed to bring at least the ghost of a smile to her face, even toward the end of our relationship, when nothing about us seemed funny anymore. That day was perfect, to be young and in love and just discovering what it was like when someone loves you back.
I don't often take that memory out, to be honest. It's still fresh and bright in my mind, and I'm afraid that too much exposure to the light might wash it out, leave it faded. But it all came rushing back to me last night as my mother and I walked through a ghost town that had once been full of noise and light and energy.
Here was another landmark of my life that was nearly gone, like so many others before it. It's a process that we rarely notice at first, when the places and things around us start falling away, leaving us only with a vacant lot where there used to be a memory.
Life is impermanent, sadly. All of us will eventually fade away, leaving behind nothing but the faint shimmer of heat on the surface of the world. The central tragedy of human life, I believe, is that we only get one chance at it. We never learn anything early enough to put it to good use; life lessons always come too late to do anything but regret them.
Why am I taking this maudling, meandering journey down memory lane? Because it's Christmas time, and I always get this way at Christmas. I love this season more than anyone else I know, but in a wistful, lonesome sort of way that no one ever quite seems to get when I try to explain.
I'm not a religious man. But when I look at a house covered in twinkling Christmas lights, I always find myself marvelling at the wasted energy that went into that. Someone climbed up on to their roof, risking life and limb, in order to string up coloured lights that will only cost them more in electricity anyhow. And all of it is done in the name only of trying to make something, anything, a little bit better, a little bit more beautiful, a little bit special. I look at those lights, and I think of the people who live in those houses, and I feel like there's something better than this life, just slightly beyond what we can quite see, that connects all of us together. We all fight against the current, trying to impose our will on the world, trying to make something last, if only in the minds of those we love. We deny impermanence by pretending that it all matters. Then, of course, the season changes and we move on, and the world loses a little of its light all the time.
All of which is really just my roundabout way of saying Happy Christmas to all of you out there. I know that it may seem crass and commercial, but there's still something magical about it to me. It may not be perfect, but I love it anyhow.
So find the people you love, wrap your arms around them, and promise to never let go. It's a promise none of us can keep, but make it anyway. Eat too much, drink too much, then lock it all away in your mind, and use the light to keep away the dark. It may not be perfect, but it's all we really have.
I know this is supposed to be a baseball blog, and I do apologise for the lack of stat research that went into this. But I consider you all my friends, and it would have been disingenuous of me to make up some sort of post about the middle infield when I just don't care at the moment. And I hate lying to my friends.
So Happy Christmas to all of you out there. Happy Chanukah and Kwanzaa and Festivus and everything else too. Take care of yourselves, and thank you for living. I appreciate it more than you'll ever know.