Christmas has been a whiz this year. It went by with the puff of wind like an express train: one carriage at a time. The train never stopped as I stood in a daze under a canopy of a terminal roof clutching a bag of wishes in one hand and a silver box finished with red ribbon tucked under my left arm. Lights of compartments blinked past, silhouettes sitting at the windows zipped by as the rushing train left me standing behind with a light luggage at the station.
Part of it was that I practiced Zen philosophy with Christmas this year. I decided nothing would upset me or push me over the edge, no matter how much the circumstances tried twisting my arm while stepping on my toes all at the same time. I was stoic minus a pole, on which Stoic sat. In fact, I was that pole.
A preparation of a traditional Polish Christmas Eve is like a prayer. Everything is made from scratch, and requires a list of secret ingredients that can be obtained only in a shady Deli. It takes time and a lot of soul searching to go through the maneuvers. By the time you let the beets ferment for a week for the borscht brine, soak the salt out of the herring , grind the poppy seeds three times for the prescribed desserts, your choices are limited. You are either a stoic or a madman.
Zen helps to become either one with full immersion.
I practiced my religion this year by stroking each silvery walleye with empathy, feeling the freshness of the meat, thinking tenderly of this carp, back in my childhood bathtub, whom I christened Fred. It was quite a relationship we had, Fred and I. He spent a week in the one bathtub we had, releasing me from the least favorite chore of scrubbing my neck. Not a bad trade-off. Fred adapted swimmingly to a confinement of a tube-like tub and listened opening his gill covers while I talked to him. A tenet I most enjoyed in our relationship. He practiced his lapses at a consistently vigorous pace, while the other two tub tenants gradually slipped into a drowsy state of half-belly-up being. At which point, grandma would release them from the comatose condition with a hit of a hammer: head off and split. The headless carp would still leap on a cutting board, flipping the tail until the nerves stopped receiving signals. Grandma was the head butcher of the house. She ruled at Christmas. Nobody else would even come close. To make things completely clear, father would leave the house when Grandma entered the bathroom with a bucket and a sieve. The battle field was all hers. I watched the killing from the kitchen door frame ready to withdraw in case the fish backfired. Once, it did, catapulting itself into the air, it went flying like a lobbed tennis ball with a mermaid torso before landing at my feet flat. I shrieked and ran. Grandma cursed in her mild manner and scooped the fish from the floor, then split her belly open and cleaned it up lining the guts orderly on a counter for further use: the chopped-off head with watery eyes,the white balloon of a swim bladder, the bloody steaks of the carp's body. That's when I learned Christmas is not for the faint of heart, and it needs to be done with most concentrated attention. Even if it's gone in a blink.