These Holy Days


Yesterday morning, I woke up to Christmas. Four in the morning, I was warm and buzzing nestled between soft pillows and a billowy comforter, the holiday songs from my dreams still echoing in my sleepy memory. What had I been dreaming? A tiled sauna and a room full of hot cascading showers, a shuffling choir, long curtains of fabric draped in folds and shifting gently in a warm breeze… My bedroom was cool and dark, utterly quiet, as sun, steam and bright colors wound ribbons of anticipation and giddy joy through my mind. Some days just feel like Christmas.

Another hour of light dozing and my alarm was going off. As I dressed and ate breakfast, I caught myself humming “Santa Baby” …I really do believe in you, let’s see if you believe in me… I walked to work through blue twilit dawn, the scent of the late February air — tense with chill, sparkling just slightly under each streetlamp in diffuse wisps of crystalline snow — seeming entwined with hints of peppermint and cinnamon; even the smell of cigarette smoke wafting down early morning city streets reminded me instead of smoldering hearth fires and sap reaching up lazily through the limbs of pines. All morning felt like a holiday. When I wasn’t paying attention, I slipped backwards through the calendar, pulsing with gratitude and energy.

My first customer of the morning was a disheveled-looking woman with suitcases and overflowing canvas tote bags piled up around her in the tiny booth where she sat sipping her coffee and fingering an unlit cigarette back and forth across her knuckles. The waitress from the midnight shift shrugged and shook her head. “It’s not like she’s out of her right mind or anything…” I glanced at the woman grinning dreamily across the dining room. “When she came in, she threw up her arms in the air in a bear-hug,” my manager chimed in, “I thought she was going to attack you!” I walked a fresh pot of coffee over and topped off her mug. The woman winked. “It’s cold enough out there to shiver my timbers!” I smiled. “That’s what we’re here for,” I said, gesturing gently with the steaming pot.

All morning, the woman sat in her booth, hunched over a newspaper, stepping out sometimes for a smoke. From behind the counter, I could see her bundled, hunched form shifting from foot to foot outside the hazy window, reaching sometimes to tap ash into the street’s gutter. Another thin layer of dust covering the dusting of snow and gray hunks of sidewalk salt. Other customers came and went, the usual barrage of coffee, eggs, hot tea and homefries, oatmeal and bagels and french toast and fruit. Some were regulars, catching up on news, asking after my family and sharing stories from the weekend. Others were new faces, or only vaguely familiar, meeting strangers to talk morning business, or sitting alone with their palms cupping the smooth porcelain side of a grande carmel latte. Warmth radiated. My manager kept to the basement, going over the usual Monday morning inventory, and upstairs it was just the one sleepy cook and myself drifting through the oldie tunes playing over the muzak system. Sometimes I sang along softly to myself, feeling the roots of my hair prickle as though radiating heat in a halo of lazy melody.

Midmorning, a soldier came in, dressed in gray sweat fatigues, and sat at a table by himself in the far corner of the dining room. Soldiers make me a little uncomfortable, I admit. “Service” means something so different to me. Courage and loyalty, discipline…. I’ve known boys who went off after high school to become soldiers, often just for the financial aid or health benefits. Two of them have died because of it — one in war, one from sudden heart failure while training to pass his physicals. Another called me a “childish c*nt” and stopped speaking to me when I joked about anarchy and a community shaped by Gandhi’s satyagraha, love-force, instead of a Big Brother military enforcing our interests overseas. These men — mostly men — sit in their uniforms and follow strict protocols of civility, refusing to eat until a commanding officer has begun on his own meal, calling us waitresses “ma’am” as though we were all mothers or teachers. But they have also been trained how to kill, to level a gun or swiftly drop a missile with the same precision and detachment. I am a pacifist, perhaps by nature; I cannot choose war, I cannot choose military even in its most abstracted and ideal form. And so soldiers — unlike police officers, or EMTs, or the local crossing guards — make me feel how deeply I am a civilian, how soft and far I am from a fighter.

I always wonder what they’re thinking. As I dropped off this soldier’s breakfast — a young man hardly older than myself from the looks of it, and sullen in the frozen morning sunlight cutting down through the long restaurant windows — — I smiled and felt my own uncertainty lurking beneath my usual kind and eager inquiries about refills and condiments. I always want them to know that I respect them as human beings, rather than as soldiers. I always want them to feel the aching wish in my heart that they would one day just… give it up, that every one of them would give it up and come home and leave the weaponry to rust. National security be damned. Politics and power-plays be damned. In this small, cozy diner where every scent, every scrape of silverware or drip of the coffee machine, is familiar and resonant… I always want them, for a while, to cease to be fighters and become men again.

With barely a dozen words exchanged between us, eventually the young soldier picked his check up off the table and came to the register to pay. He stood, seemingly distracted and uneasy, as I punched in the amount and he rummaged for change in his wallet. Then from behind him, the disheveled woman was approaching, tapping him softly on the shoulder, muttering something too low for me to hear. “No, ma’am,” he replied, looking down at his gray sweats, “Just standard issue.” A moment longer the woman stood before him, her old body a good head shorter and a good deal wider and softer than his own muscled and rough beneath the worn gray fabric. Then, she threw her arms up in the air, and drew him into an embrace that seemed to grow long and quiet from the center of her being. For a moment, everything in the dining room stopped. I lowered my eyes.

Then, she shuffled back over to her seat and took up her coffee mug again. I watched the young man out of the corner of my eye as I counted quarters and nickels back to him; once or twice, he glanced over at where the woman sat, as if bewildered or shaken. I wished him a nice day, and he thanked me distractedly. He stepped away from the register, hesitated, then turned slowly towards her booth. “Thank you,” was all he said. The woman looked up and grinned her awkward, tooth-rotted grin, split open with caring.

“Pass it on,” she said, “Pass on love. We all have to try to become better people.”

The young soldier nodded his head, or bowed it, as he walked back out into the cold.

~

Later, another coworker arrived, picking up my slack as business increased despite the ever-denser snowfall outside. Shafts of sunlight that had cast sharp, long shadows across the carpet earlier in the morning were replaced by monotone grays and whites in slow, low-lying clouds wending their way between buildings and alleys across the street. The old woman was back outside sucking delicately at a cigarette when my coworker glanced at her fort of battered, pudgy suitcases and asked disdainfully, “Who’s at booth thirty-three?” thinking it was a bag-lady.

Perhaps she was. “Just a woman getting coffee,” I said. I shrugged and shook my head, feeling tears stinging the corners of my wide, humming eyes. “It’s not like she’s out of her right mind or anything…”

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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