On a more personal note, this is the first Christmas I'll spend without my father, and there's a bubble of dread inside my chest that I'm worried will explode sometime around December 25. Given the authority, I would happily just cancel the remainder of 2015 and dig into the new year without lingering on festivities.
And yet. Something about grief and ominous headlines makes me want more than ever to seek out the good in things. I find myself savoring kind encounters with strangers, and trying to connect meaningfully with the people I'm around every day. It has dawned on me that I'm actively searching for cheer — the smallest, sparkling scraps of it — wherever it might be hiding. Most recently, I traced it to a West Village cinema, during a showing of the 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.
Somehow, this award-winning movie has never come up in my various streaming queues. (In my family, Gone With the Wind is our holiday film of choice.) But with 28 winters behind me, I decided that this was the year I would finally watch Jimmy Stewart discover the meaning of Christmas. In case you're as unfamiliar as I was, It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a man beset by existential crisis. George embodies the definition of righteousness: He's just good, in a heartwarming and oftentimes self-defeating way. He's the sort of person you root for — as well as the kind you ache for when he's down.
The best we can hope for is a guardian — like George, or Clarence — to save us from forces we could never see hurtling our way.
When — by no fault of his own — the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan is suspected of lying about its finances, George takes the blame. Devastated and humiliated, he considers trading his own life to fix the error. "I'm worth more dead than alive," he laments before attempting suicide. Then an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) steps in to show him what the world really would have been like had George never been born.
The alternative reality is unbearably bleak. Early on in the film, we watch George save his little brother from drowning in an icy pond; without him, Harry, who grows up to become a war hero, wouldn't have lived past the age of 9. There are many moments like this one: times when an absence of George yields a turn for the worse. I watched them play on the screen of a small, nearly empty theater, a box of Raisinettes in one hand and disintegrating tissues clutched in the other.
Friends and fellow film lovers warned me that this movie was going to be a tearjerker. And while it takes little to push me over the brink lately, even I was surprised at the amount of sobbing I did before 11:30 a.m. An early scene, in which a very young George stops the town druggist from accidentally delivering poison pills to a sick child, left me completely beside myself.
The gift of watchful goodness is one that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. But it may be the the most precious one we could ever give or receive.
I hiccuped through this scene, moved by the tenderness and fragility. It is frightening to consider the ways in which minor edits reroute the trajectory of tragedy; it is equally unnerving to be reminded of how very vulnerable we all are, and in whose hands our fates rest. The best we can hope for is a guardian — like George, or Clarence — to save us from forces we could never see hurtling our way. The gift of watchful goodness is one that often goes unnoticed and unthanked. But it may be the the most precious one we could ever give or receive.
Hours later, I stepped out into the bright sunshine of early afternoon. As I walked a few blocks to the subway, I couldn't stop thinking about a quote that hung on the wall of the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan offices, underneath a picture of George Bailey's late father. "All you can take with you is that which you've given away," it reads in plain, unembellished text. I know it's a well-worn, even cliché sentiment.
But I've scrawled it across a notepad on my desk all the same: It cheers me up. This may be a tough year for me to embrace any kind of true holiday spirit. But I won't stop doing my best to give. And if nothing else, I will keep trying with all my heart to be good.