On Building a Life and Christmas

No one ever said building a life would be so complicated.

There is so much packing and unpacking.

And every time I settle somewhere — the two story townhouse outside of campus, the condo with hardwood floors on 7th Street, the 1930s fourplex with a courtyard near downtown, or the bungalow with creaking floors behind a house — I unpack what I gathered throughout the years, and I’m always shocked by how much I seem to catch in my net and drag along.

They are my own private collections of trivialities.

Every time I unpack, I rearrange them just so. Some need to overlap a tiny bit, face this way or that way, but not too much.

Even though it doesn’t matter. It just adds another layer of complexity, a useless expenditure of time — time that no one, as it turns out, can spare.

I have this tiny Nativity scene of 9 figures plus a few donkeys and a sheep. They stand about two inches tall. In my adult life, I have always lived in small places, so I’m unable and unwilling to recreate the elaborate displays of my childhood, where a whole corner of the house was set up with tables covered in papel manila as a stage for Jesus and his gang. The scene included trees, mountains made out of more papel manila, lights, buildings, sprinkles of pine needles from the Christmas tree. Once, I saw a Nativity scene at someone’s house — a cousin or uncle — that included an honest waterfall with running water.

One block.

The Nativity scene of my childhood possessed a meaning, a scent of something greater than the pine needles from the Christmas tree.

In Panama, Christmas is a collection of traditions deeply woven in Catholicism. I do not recall how I reconciled Santa with El Niño Dios, both of whom are said to bring gifts to children. My child’s brain must have been satisfied with knowing that El Niño Dios was Hutch to Santa’s Starsky. Santa, being an overweight man, can’t slide down the non-existent Panamanian chimneys so that’s where El Niño Dios, with his freaky newborn-sized crown of thorns, would come in and assist.

Two blocks.

So I arrange this pathetic Nativity scene on top of a corner of my bookshelf. I do this because it holds some meaning tied to a different time.

The meaning changed, it morphed into a non-meaning of tiny figures standing for something that’s important, of what was important to me long ago.

I can still remember the scent of the house during Christmas. A scent that for years I wondered how to replicate. I thought it was just the Christmas tree, but no overpriced tree we ever bought in U.S. could match the scent. Maybe the ventilation in North Carolina apartments, with heating and such things, was somehow responsible, I thought. Years later, long after my parents stopped pretending that Christmas trees mattered at all, I reevaluated the scent of Christmas in our house in Panama. The scent of angry pine beat by the unrelenting humidity of a climate it did not belong in, combined with the smell of the house, formed after fifty years of occupancy, of old furniture and dust. The scent of the family that lived there all along. The scent of its history, of time.

Three blocks.

Beyond the platitudes of the season, my Nativity scene exists to remind me of the building blocks that once combined create a life, same as the other worthless accoutrements I have packed and unpacked so often in the process of adding on to the building of said life.

I turned the figures this way and that way, the one-eyed sheep needs to be over here by the shepherd. And the shepherd can’t be too close because after all Mary is giving birth and the shepherd would want them to have privacy. The three Reyes Magos need to be standing farther apart because they haven’t arrived yet, and this donkey can be over here acting as guard.

Yeah, it makes sense.

I hide Baby Jesus behind a picture frame that reads “Stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”  As tradition dictates, the tiny Lord and Savior will stay hidden until the 25th, when he will make his grand appearance. One year, I forgot to bring him out of hiding and the Nativity scene remained Jesus-less until the 27th or 28th, at which point I was already several days in on my ride to hell.

Even as the meaning of things change, the blocks of how we got to where we are remain.

They take up space in our boxes.

They often take up space in ways that are unquantifiable, unmeasurable.

Reminders to never stop building.

Reminders of that scent.

The tiny furniture of the soul.

The one you can’t get rid of.

It all belongs to you.

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