Staying in Hope for the holidays

By Will Matteson | Dec 03, 2020

On Friday night, the day after Thanksgiving, as I drove into Camden to pick up a pizza at Megunticook Market, I saw a strange bright object in the night sky. It was pale like the moon but not as big; it seemed oblong and ill-defined in the foggy night. I was disturbed by the sight of what I briefly imagined was some horrifying aerial event, a UFO invasion perhaps, or a world-ending meteor, or a rapidly descending 747. I held my breath for almost a minute as I tried to make it out, my mind working through the terrible possibilities. Not until I hit Mechanic Street did I realize what I was looking at. It was the glowing star atop Mount Battie. I was amused as the realization sank in; only in 2020 could I mistake such a cheerful tradition for certain doom.

My failure to recognize the local icon is symptomatic of my condition as someone who just moved here. It was love that brought me. Love for a certain Hope-dwelling, Christmas-loving speech pathologist named Mary that uprooted me from my Bar Harbor home and brought me to the Midcoast in the summer of 2020.

And what a summer it was. The surrealness of the pandemic was made weirder by a new set of surroundings and the lack of a meaningful occupation. At the end of 2019, I had quit my hotel job to move here. By March—well, we all know that story. The historically good job market I had anticipated entering had taken a historically long dive. I spent my days applying to the few jobs that were being posted and waiting for callbacks that never came. I did a little writing and a lot of hiking. In some ways it was the best summer I ever had in my adult life, but how could I think so with the world crumbling all around me?

This is the basic paradox of the pandemic. A slow-motion panic. The frenetic pace of 21st century life come to a screeching halt over an invisible calamity that is too large for us to see. We are embattled by a disease that doesn’t present symptoms until after its been shedding and spreading for a week or two. We are forced to cut ourselves off from healthy routines to shelter from the possibility of unhealth. We are urgently anticipating the so-called “return to normal,” when we will still face a raft of urgent crises. In the meantime, we wait.

In order to protect my family from potential spread, we decided not to go to Massachusetts this year for Thanksgiving or Christmas. So it was a Scrooge feeling that went through me on Black Friday, as I pulled into Megunticook Market. A Grinch feeling. A shrewd wind.

Just this time last year, I would have been relieved by the opportunity to take the holidays off. There was always some work problem that would rear its head just when I was trying to get out of Dodge for a short, slushy visit with my family. And the trip would inevitably be composed of exhausting late nights with old friends, followed early the next morning by groggy family gatherings. There were zero-sum political conversations around the dinner table to look forward to. I would still be trying to appreciate that old Christmas magic even as time slipped through my fingers. The holidays have always been hard! Scrooge is not a new ghost inside this breast.

But 2020, like a twisting knife, has turned the tables on me, taking away what I took for granted. Humbug to a world that would take Christmas away from us in a year when we really could have used it!

Suddenly, I was roused from my funk by a hot breath on the back of my neck. It was Sophie, Mary’s little white dog with a boundless appetite for life. Paws up on the center console, looking like a baby polar bear, she was breathing in my ear as if to say: “Go get the damn pizza!” Things came back into focus.

My life isn’t perfect, but it is littered everywhere with small graces. And much bigger ones too. On a Thanksgiving Day when I was separated from my family, I was still able to see their faces in real time using technology that was science fiction when I was a kid. Living together isn’t always easy, but it is always wonderful. 2020 is the end of far too many lives, but it also the beginning of many, many more. When I got back in the car with the pizza, Sophie licked my ears and eyed the box with delicious anticipation.

I could see the Mount Battie star in my rear-view mirror as I drove home. When I was younger, anticipation was always the best part of Christmas. Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, my neighbors hung a lighted wreath that I could see from my bedroom window. For me, it was the first landmark of the season, just like I’m sure the Mt. Battie star was for so many kids around here. How many childhoods has that star shone over? How many deaths? Christmas brings back the hard times as much as it brings back the good. It’s that renewal that is so important. All the tinsel, the tunes, and the trees, in their familiarity, have the power to make us whole across time. Next year I’ll recognize the star right away. It will be, to me, a new Christmas landmark, and it will remind me of a hard year.

When I got back to our place, I could see Mary’s face through the window, and Sophie ran like mad to see her. I was home. I still missed my family and my hometown friends, but in this year of years, I could have done a whole lot worse than stay with my loves in Hope.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Dec 09, 2020 16:01

Speaking of staying in HOPE. this undertaking by local clergy renewed hope in me; HOPEfully it will in you. :)  Advent Lessons and Carols from the Midcoast of Maine 2020 - YouTube


Posted by: Pamela Smith | Dec 06, 2020 07:27

Great story!  Thank you for sharing it.

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