Holiday Circles

The December holidays in North Carolina—where I’ve been spending them since I was born—are often marked by intense fluctuations in temperature and precipitation that is not frozen. (It don’t snow here/ it stays pretty green). This year fits the pattern. I’ve been driving in circles around the Triangle in its of-late foggy attire, running errands, noting gaps in Christmas lights, buying onions and celery for stuffing. I drive a mile from my family’s home to a coffee shop where I’m meeting a high-school friend, and I see, once inside, that a handful of others from my high school fill the handful of tables. I suspect that we all discuss, basically, the varying degrees to which we are happy with our lives.

The December holidays provide, even demand, a space for returning—to family, to a hometown, to a singular coffee shop. Likewise there is a return to familiar questions: what have you been working on lately? How is such-and-such and so-and-so? These times are primed for story-gathering, and this is what I like to do. I glean windows into other lives and some of the furniture and movement that occupy them. I listen closely to get a tableau and in exchange I provide my own: shaky, at times enthusiastic and contradictory, and, of course, necessarily incomplete. But it feels less convoluted when voiced aloud—and so there’s some back-patting, too, in relaying the story of a year, or the story of a “lately.”

Lately I’ve been rereading Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations. Back in May and June, I used it to think through how I was approaching Ireland on my third visit there, about to undertake an independent documentary project. Solnit researched for and wrote her book as she reapproached Ireland, newly a citizen of the island country, albeit a native of California. She returned to walk Ireland’s west coast, alone; seven years prior, she had visited the country with a prior lover. She writes in some remembrances of that time, but mostly her book considers the nature of time itself—and memory, geography, and history. Now I’m rereading A Book of Migrations to return to the mindset of my approach, which I like to think will help my writing.

Solnit talks about one particular exchange, in Cork, where she was staying with archaeologists, about to begin her walking journey:

All through the meal and into the night, they told me stories, and the conversation rolled forward in a series of anecdotes that brought forth other anecdotes. American conversations tend to be dialectical, a give and take of short statements, or even more laconic, the kind of monosyllabic exchanges so popular in tough-guy texts and television. In the West and even more particularly in the Western, silence is a sign of strength. Ireland has a different conversational economy, one in which the ability to talk well is a gift and perhaps even a weapon…(Solnit, 62).

As someone quite interested in Ireland, I’m interested in the charge of its having a “different conversational economy.” But that’s another blog post. Right now I’m thinking about storytelling, especially as I’m now with family and will soon be with more family who will elicit stories from me, and with whom I’ll reciprocate. I’m also thinking about storytelling as the “old” year folds into the “new.” I’m thinking about it between dueling sensations: that the stories I tell around this time of year are often winding and contradictory, but also that they’re resolution-building. Balanced between de-centering and re-centering, these stories are all, after all, evocations of the self.

I wrote about listening a few weeks ago, especially in the context of recent protests, political action (and inaction), and conversations about race. I’m carrying that piece, and that thrust, with me into the new year. I’m curious to see if my conversations can more resemble a rolling of anecdotes rather than a predictable back-and-forth that charges toward a palatable summary of the “lately.” I’d like to hear about others’ windows but not immediately project myself into them, eager to think that I’d be there, too, in that living room, or in a plane flying home, had I chosen differently that one time. I am, after all, here now, in 60-degree Southern weather, in the rain, during the holidays that compel me towards those I keep returning to.