If you follow me on Instagram (baddestmotherever), you already know that I’ve got a precious collection of Christmas ornaments and for the last few weeks, they’re the only thing I seem to be able to write about. This time, every year, when I unwrap and unbox them and hang each on the tree, every one whispers a memory about some other day, some other adventure, some memory sweet enough that I made the choice to commemorate it with a bauble. Decorating the tree is like reading myself a story that I’ve been writing one line at a time for the last 25 years.
This year, I lost a small part of that story and fear of losing it forever paralyzed me for days. Here’s what happened…
I bought this dark green glass St. Christopher medal on the island of Santorini, in the Greek Cyclades:
Richard and I had just survived a harrowing taxi cab ride along some 500-foot cliffs. The driver was a fisherman on his off days, and he was telling us about a giant fish he had speared recently. As he leaned across the passenger seat to retrieve a photo of the fish from the glove compartment, the taxi slewed hard to the right. Tires crunched onto the gravel shoulder, RIGHT ABOVE THE DROP of the cliff because there are no guard rails. The driver jerked the wheel back to the left just in time to save us all. And he went on talking about his fish.
The adrenaline hit my guts and limbs at the same moment and while I fought to keep from barfing, I nodded politely to admire the photo of the speared fish that was thrust into the back seat. That’s when I noticed a St. Christopher medal swaying drunkenly from the cab driver’s rear view mirror.
Cab drivers in Greece are a rare breed (maybe because they don’t always live long enough to breed?). They drive modern cars filled with modern tourists on roads that were carved out long before modern times. Most roads can accommodate 1.5 car widths, which makes passing on a cliff a lot like accidentally joining Cirque de Soleil. There is a superstition that if you have seen the image of St. Christopher, you cannot die on that day. While the Greek Orthodox church has not validated this idea, Greek cab drivers are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Every cab has a St. Christopher medal to honor the patron saint of travelers.
As soon as we were dropped off at the hotel in Oia, and as soon thereafter as my legs stopped shaking, I went into a gift shop and secured this St. Christopher medal because I never wanted to forget that I had survived that cab ride.
This medal is small, so I hang it near the top of the tree. And, because 2016 just can’t let us have anything nice, I dropped it. I dropped a 1-inch dark green ornament made of glass into a 9-foot dark green tree.
There was no THUNK to indicate that it had reached the floor. I climbed down from the ladder and started searching the branches below it–no medal. I couldn’t shake the tree to dislodge the ornament because I might break everything else in the quest for this one lost item. And it’s glass, so shaking didn’t seem like the best plan. I tried to focus on the red of the ribbon but saw nothing. I searched and searched. I looked on the other side of the tree, as if St. Christopher might have bounced off a limb and taken a detour. I turned the lights off for a different perspective. I turned on every light in the room in hopes of making a glint in all that dark green.
I gave up. I reassured myself that I would come back later with fresh eyes.
But what if I forgot to look for St. Christopher? What if I got used to it being lost and forgot to be sad and whatever snag had snagged him held him all the way to the chipper in the New Year? For two days, I kept returning to the tree in search of St. Christopher. I even set a reminder in my calendar to look for the lost green medal.
I was overtaken by a deep sadness. I had lost my patron saint of travelers at the same time I was losing my story-telling voice. Sick for three weeks straight, overwhelmed with holiday tasks, busy at work, aghast at every cabinet pick and tweet.
Christopher of Lycia was a giant who was known for carrying others safely across a raging river. He was a sure-footed and strong ferry. One day, he agreed to carry a small child across the river. Out in the depths, Christopher felt pulled down for the first time, crushed by a weight that didn’t seem to match the size of the child. He feared that they weren’t going to make it. Legend tells it that on the other bank, after Christopher had found a way across, the child revealed that he was the Christ and the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the world that the child carried.
After all the other ornaments had been placed on the tree, I gave it one more shot. Sometimes the best way to look for something is the opposite way. Read an essay backwards to find typos. Look in the freezer for your car keys. Do the opposite of what makes sense. So I lay down on the floor and I slid myself up under the lowest branches of the tree. Instead of looking down in the path that the ornament would have fallen, I looked up.
And that’s when I saw a little flash of red ribbon, tangled around a branch high above my head. I slid back out and with great joy, snaked my hand into the depths of the tree. There lay Saint Christopher, gold side down and ribbon tangled in the branch, utterly invisible from the outside. I hung him right up on a safe branch, on the other side of the river and out of trouble. I gave him a tap so that the medal swung like a pendulum, counting out the even arc of time.
In my own heart, I put down the burden and the weight of the world and I remembered that I can tell stories. I remembered that sometimes there are raging rivers and stories help us cross them. That’s what I can do.
And I will.