On the Saturday morning after Knoxville’s annual Christmas parade, I saw a mournful-looking paper plate with two half-eaten Christmas cookies on it, one with green icing and one with red. Having forgotten to eat breakfast, I thought about eating the cookies myself—and even looked around for witnesses—but I was able to restrain myself.
There is something so melancholy after a great celebration is over, as if the place itself feels abandoned and forlorn, with crumpled, colored napkins blown this way and that, a child’s antlers dropped and left behind, red and green lights turning on and off in the rain under the morning’s dark sky. It was hard to imagine the joy and laughter from last night’s festivities in the leftover gloom of a rainy winter’s day.
The previous night was an altogether different story…
Dutifully trudging up the street for First Friday, exhausted, I was surprised when a very nice woman invited me to come and have cookies and hot chocolate in the Presbyterian church on the way from the KAT bus station to Market Square. Although I didn’t much feel like going, I didn’t want to refuse such graciousness. Walking up the steps, I was led by guides to the majestic white church at the top, and for an instant I imagined I was walking into the many mansions of heaven. There were brownies and cookies of all sorts served by kind women, and there was a feeling of love and goodwill all around.
Back outside on Gay Street, little girls and mothers wore matching antlers that flickered on and off in the dark. Little boys sat cross-legged, fidgeting with great excitement as they waited for the parade to begin. With their innocent, shining eyes and rosy cheeks, they seemed lit from within by some secret essence of purity that set them apart from the adult world.
Where does it go, I wondered? Did we get too smart, too sophisticated that we lost the joie de vivre that is our natural birthright? Perhaps if we simplified our lives, ran less hard and fast, had less meaningless conversations, and settled down inside ourselves, we might regain the joy of children. We have not lost it, we have only lost contact with it for a time.
Onward I walked, through vendors selling all kinds of Christmas lights: some to put on dogs along with jingling bells, others for around the wheels of bicycles, yet more to put in your hair. I love those kinds of things, and after awhile the Christmas spirit began to take hold of me as I stood watching the ice skaters—some falling, some skating, and some holding onto the rail.
I never learned to ice skate, but my greatest joy as a child was roller-skating ’round and ’round the rink as Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” It was a great heartbreak for me when they folded up the tent over the rink, packed up, and moved on to another town, allegedly because the skating rink owner (who was quite glamorous) was having an affair with the organist of the First Baptist Church, who was married.
As soon as the parade began, I walked away, for even as I child I did not like parades. I didn’t like cartoons, either, and even less so the circus, except for the lady riding bareback on a horse. I was obsessed with horses for awhile, and when I got a life-size, walking, talking doll on my 10th Christmas, I almost wept with disappointment. I had wanted a magnificent, white Lipizzano stallion, which I would name Forio, after Tippi Hedren’s horse in the movie Marnie—the one she rode wildly down the meadows until he stumbled and fell, and she had to shoot him.
In Krutch Park, someone had set up a manger scene with a photographer. A young father called out to his bride and four children, “They’re taking pictures and they’re free.” Hearing this, people fell over each other to be first in line for a free photograph with their family.
On a telephone pole next to the skating rink was an exquisite shawl with muted colors of gray, pale pink, and blue. On it was a note tied with a ribbon, which read: “I am not lost. If you are cold, please take me and warm yourself.”
I was unable to stop myself. I took the shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders. Its softness and beauty made me feel as if a tender lover had just wrapped his arms around me. I felt so cared for—but every act has a consequence, and within seconds I was suffused with guilt. I went to Fizz and gulped down a couple of glasses of wine. The guilt was too much for me. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and said: “You know very well that shawl was not meant for you, you low-life scoundreless!”
So for once I did the next right thing. Not only did I pin the shawl and the note back on the telephone pole, I also nailed my favorite leather coat with the hood next to it and added my own note: “May grace abide in you and yours.”
I walked away feeling as holy as the Virgin Mary, and I was rewarded—for on South Gay Street I walked inside a store where there were paintings of women so eloquent and moving that they took my breath away.
I sat and stared at these paintings for a long while. There was suffering in the faces of these women, but there was also joy, power, and everything that women have endured over the ages. But most of all, there was a great love of humanity and a deep comprehension of the human condition. I felt transported, enlightened, and transformed.
Finally, I left the store and walked away from all the tinsel and bright lights—which are the antithesis of Christ, in my opinion—and into the darkness of night. Remembering the paintings on South Gay Street, I felt I had been given a great gift. I touched my heart and did the sign of the cross for the painter, who must surely be intimately acquainted with everything that Christ was about: love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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