“‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
‘Good Heaven!’ said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘I was bred in this place. I was a boy here!’
The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!’”
A Christmas Carol.
These words come from one of my all time favorite books, penned by one of the great master novelists of England. As a kid I loved so much about the story, from Scrooge’s journey to redemption, to its Yuletide setting, to the time travel aspects. However, I recently had my own visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past.
No, I’m not actually saying that an ethereal spirit who is the embodiment of the abstract concept of “Christmas Past” appeared by my bed and took me on a trip back to the past. It all began with an e-mail from the music department at my alma mater, Bethel University. Every year they put on a huge music event know as the Festival of Christmas. I got to be a part of their 50th Festival, which was televised and is still shown on PBS stations throughout the Upper Midwest (check your local listings for time and channel). With this year being the milestone 60th Annual Festival of Christmas, they were inviting the alumni to be a part of the performance.
I jumped at the chance.
I’ve been back to Bethel before, usually to guest lecture on comic book superheroes for a literature class, Modern Mythmakers in Film and Fiction. Most recently now that I only live about a mile away, I like to try and attend their Sunday night worship services once in a while, and I have also been known to use the campus to go jogging when the weather is nice, mainly because it has ample hills, and staircases perfect for doing a Rocky style run. I have not gotten to be part of a music ensemble like this since graduating, with much of my singing relegated to signing in a church congregation, so this has been a great experience.
Unlike when I’ve gone back as a “teacher”, this time I got to mingle more with the students. In the intervening years since turning the tassel and receiving my diploma, it’s easy to forget how it was back then. For example, I noticed during one rehearsal waves of choir members getting up to leave and returning five minutes later and was puzzled for a moment. That is, until I overheard one tell a friend “I got registered” and I remembered that this was the time of year in which students had to register for the next term’s classes, and that meant it had to be done at a certain time. I snickered to myself as I remembered a time where I actually had to use my boss’s computer in the campus dinning center to get into my classes at my appointed time!
Other times I’d just listen as the inside jokes known only among these friends would unfold and think back to some of my own that I once shared. I’d watch as spontaneous games begin, like during the Festival wrap party a full scale game of Candyland, with real candy, was played amongst some of the students, granted it was one that seemed to take a few detours down Dante’s Inferno. Hmm, perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to just mention that. Hasbro could decide to make such a movie, and tap Michael Bay to do it.
But I digress.
As I watched all this, I thought back to the four years of festivals that I have been a part of, how hard the prep work was, but how rewarding it was to be part of something like that, and how much I missed this feeling of community. I think back to lessons I learned from my mentor and classes I wish I had time to take. I think of chances I had to do fun things that I missed out on because I was afraid to step outside my comfort zone.
But none of that met the feelings that a washed when I walked back into the Benson Great Hall for rehearsal. I forgot just how magical and beautiful that campus looked at that time of year. After working in a shopping mall after college, that campus feels all the more warm, homely and inviting, and then a plastic Christmas at a shopping mall.
Like Scrooge all at once I was conscious of those thousands of odors, connected to those thoughts, hopes and cares long forgotten, and watched in my mind’s eye as the years unfolded.
I looked in aisles and could see me during my first week of classes, Shy, awkward, not knowing anyone, trying to find someone to sit with, and alone. At the same time, I’m young, eager, filled with big dreams of the future and ready to take on the world. I was going to be a high school English Teacher and get kids excited about great works of literature. And be a writer on the side.
Up in the balcony and could see myself as a young man of 19, a Freshman, trying to see if my family came to my performance. There is some tension in his dorm room between him, his friend Andy and their roommate Ryan. I had some problems registering for classes next term. Then for an instant, I gazed down into the tranquil blue eyes of a beautiful violinist and felt a warmth in my heart he never knew possible.
I turned to glance and saw myself in the spring of that year performing in a Jazz band concert, off to the right sit my new found friends, Dean, Mark, Derek, Jason and Josh.
I’m a sophomore. My chest is racked with pain from the previous week in which my lung collapsed. All at once I’m more aware of how short my own life is, and only wishing for more time. Time to learn, to grow, and get to know these friends I’ve made. My friend Katie is nearby. She’s overwhelmed with school and we pray together.
Before long I’m a Junior, I’m at Vespers hearing that those would be dreams of being a High School English are crushed, struggling with my questions in life, breaking down in tears amidst this inward struggle. I’m at a crossroads. I’ve decided to make writing my career, but as my mentor Professor Becknell reminded me, using an analogy from Lord of the Rings, he can only guide me so far and like with Frodo and the Ring it’s a path that I have to figure this out on my own. The Violinist tries to offer comfort.
A turn of the head and it’s spring, a male chorus concert. My parents are there, and sitting next to them is that beautiful violinist with her parents. My dad does an armpit motion causing me to have to try and not laugh on stage.
Soon I’m a senior. It is the final performance .We are being televised. Down in the orchestra sits my friend Kari, alive, and engaged to my friend John. They are planning a future together. The beautiful violinist and her equally beautiful twin sister are praying for me. Due to my then unknown-Asperger’s Syndrome my eyes tend to wander, and they pray that my eyes will stay focused on the conductor during the performance.
The last second of the last festival performance. Tears glisten in my eyes as I realize this will be the last time I ever am a part of this.
One final jazz concert. Everyone is there.
A final choir concert.
And then comes the day I worked so hard for. Graduation day. I walk across the stage to receive my hard earned diploma. My friend and mentor, Dr. Becknell, who guided me these four years as Obi-Wan with Luke through the Death Star trench, stands as I receive my honor. The class is presented to the audience, the rooms erupts in applause. I walk out, seemingly for the last time.
A 22 year old adult, his dreams for his future somewhat different. No longer as shy and awkward and having found the best friends I could ask for, no longer fully alone…
Now I’m back. The waning years have been hard. Not long after graduating I learned that I have Aspergers. My friend Kari has long sense died in a car accident on the way back from her first ultrasound appointment, and I said farewell to an old friend of my family who was like an uncle. The violinist and I went our separate paths, having not spoken in years, while her twin and I are like brother and sister. My dad was laid off the recession of ’09. I mourned the passing of a niece I never got to hold. I bid farewell to my childhood home, and the bedroom where I first heard the stories of Narnia and Middle-earth. My grandfather and grandmother were both diagnosed with cancer.
Looking at all of this, it’s hard to look back and see those years in college as being simpler. The concerns of finals, class projects, registering for classes, housing assignments, campus jobs, and semester end banquet tables seem so much easier in comparison. That’s the funny thing about the past: it’s always easier than the present due to the benefit of hindsight.
If I could actually go back and interact with myself at the stage of life, I wonder what I’d say. Perhaps it would go something like this:
Mom was right. It’s always a good idea to pay close attention to the weather before going for a jog. Today seemed like a good day to go on up to Bethel campus for a jog. That was when there was a strange streak of lightning struck. And just when the iPod playlist hit the theme from the TV show The Flash.
I blinked and then suddenly gasped. It took awhile to regain any sense of direction, but considering I was in the middle of a college apartment the details began to fill in quickly. This was not just any apartment.
This was my apartment Senior Year of college! Over there, the couch with my Star Wars and Spider-Man blankets. Movie posters fill the walls. I walk over to my old computer desk, and see the pictures of my family and my friends. My collection of books and DVDs that is actually bigger than most college students may have fill a shelf. Everything is exactly as I remember it. Noticing the Star Wars chess set that is perfectly displayed on an end- table, I walk over and pick up one of the figures.
In the corner is a well decorate tree with presents underneath. I glance at the calendar on the wall. If I’m not mistaken I know exactly what night it is. It’s the day before the Christmas banquet. I will share my first slow dance with the violinist. But first a Christmas celebration.
The door opens and I see it. There I am, hurrying to grab a Santa hat and my dad’s red liner jacket to deliver presents to my friends. The college student that I was stops a moment and notices me. Me, current me, is holding the Yoda chess piece.
“Wh..,who are you?” he asks.
“Isn’t it obvious, Sven.” I say, calling him by one of my college nicknames. I think to myself for a moment that it’s almost too bad I didn’t get sent back to Freshman Year, mainly as my roommate Ryan had an awesome swivel chair that would be perfect for this moment.“ I’m you. From the future.”
“The future?” Sven asked, not sounding like he believes it, which is probably wise. “How far…”
“I come from the year 2016.”
“2016?” he asks, eyebrows raised. “If you’re from the future, do the Cubs win the World Series in 2015 like they are supposed to in Back to the Future II?”
“Well, the movie was actually off by a year. But don’t tell Dean. Let him be surprised. And contrary to Ghostbusters 2, the world does not end on February 14, 2016.”
Sven snorts and pushes past me to go to the tree. He’s a man on a mission, and no voice from the future will stop him.
“I’m serious,” I say, setting down the chess piece. Boy, I forget just how myopic I could be. Once I had my mind made up on something nothing would deter me. Right now, doubting someone who claimed to be me from the future is one of them. It probably doesn’t help matters much that I really haven’t aged that much.
“Fine, let’s say I believe you which…I don’t…”says Sven. “ Just why are you here?”
“I’m not sure. I guess maybe it’s because it’s a big weekend for you. I know you’re going to give the twins their Christmas presents tonight and that tomorrow you’re going to a banquet with them.”
Now it seems like the kid believes me. “Oh, that’s creepy. How did you know that?”
I smile. “Like I said…I’m you.”
He sits down, obviously as the cliché goes, this is a lot for him to take in. One might even say that “this is heavy” even if weight has nothing to do with it. It’s strange for me too. Mainly as I have no memory of ever interacting with someone claiming to be me from the year 2016. I figure the best way of smoothing things over is to offer a drink. Heading to the fridge I take out to cans of Mountain Dew and hand one to Sven.
“Ok,” says Sven with a sigh. “I guess the fact that you know where everything is may prove something.”
“Maybe,” I say.
“So, based on the rules of time travel established in science fiction, if you get to interact with your past self, it’s usually to try and offer advice or something. Do you got any words of advice for me?”
“Just be yourself.”
“That’s it? Jason told me that yesterday.”
“He’s right you know. And try to relax. And oh, don’t do the Bat-dance” I said thinking back to when I did the Batusi from the 1966 Batman series during a Beach Boys songs during the banquet. “Trust me.”
The kid laughs. “Don’t worry. I already promised Dean my most solemn promise as the founding member of the Bethel Jedi Order not to do the Bat-dance…”
Here, the current me laughs, how I remember the days when Dean, Mark, Jason and I were a self proclaimed Jedi Order. Dedicated to peace and justice in the campus, we were created for one purpose. After some bad attempts our first two years here at dating we decided, no more, we were going to follow the Jedi Code, which meant no dating anyone. Then I think about how quickly that promise was broken, and how Dean accused me of being the biggest lying hypocrite in the entire history of the Bethel Jedi Order. That said, I can’t say I blame the kid for his reasons. After all, the Violinist did ask nicely.
“But seriously, not just about the whole dance thing,” Sven says. “I mean the big stuff. How does it all turn out.”
Here it’s best to be careful. It’s hard to say if this is a dream or not. If not, it’s probably best not to upset the time space continuum. That kind of thing can have serious repercussions on world events. Worst case scenario, an alternate dystopian universe. Slowly I begin to fill him in on a few very vague details about what will happen, leaving out names, dates and the like.
Then I tell him about the Aspergers.
“No…No…it can’t be. I am not a monster!”
“And you’re not! I’m not! Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it means that you quite literally don’t know your own strength and have little control over your fine and gross motor skills. Yes, it means that basic social interaction will be a lot harder for you, and there will be times when you are going to be prone to sensory overload. But it’s not a death sentence, and believe me, with each day it gets easier to manage. All it just means you have a different way of looking at the world and navigating through it.”
“But…I’m all alone.”
“In a way, yes. You always will be. No matter how many people you let into your life, or how many you care for, there will always be a rift between you and them. But every once in a while, the rift can be crossed and you will at least meet them half way.”
I see Sven’s face awash in horror. “No…No. That can’t happen. You got to tell me everything, in full detail, so I can stop it. All of it.”
“I can’t and you know that. C’mon you devour comic books and sci-fi. You know how these things work. This could have a domino effect on future events and create a temporal paradox.”
“But you just said that the Cubs win the World Series in 2016!”
“OK, my mistake,” I admit.
“Then what can I do?”
“Remember the words of Gandalf?”
“You mean ‘All we have left to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us?’”
“Exactly, Sven,” I say. “That’s the best I can tell you. You know full well that none of us have any say in how the future unfolds, and you probably know that better than anyone right now. Like were you planning on having your lung collapse that morning two years ago when after practicum?”
“And see. You can’t avoid all pain in life. It’s kind of inevitable. The best you can do is just hold on.”
“To your faith. To hope. To your family. To your friends. For as long as you can.”
Now, I smile. I know one of the things Sven is anxious about is if he will lose touch all his friends when he graduates. If after four years will all that hard work had been worth it. This, I feel I can tell him.
“Yes,” I say. “Dean. Josephine. Mark. Jason. Dr. Becknell. Even Andy and Sawblades. Katie will even become your dentist! They will all still be part of your life.”
Sven smiles, hearing those words. “But what about…”
I know what he’s going to ask about. The violinist.“ Will it make any difference?”
He shakes his head. He’s a hopeless romantic at this stage.
“But enjoy that ride. There is no greater feeling then being in love. It’s a feeling that really is like what Spider-man says, ‘when you look in her eyes and she’s looking back in yours… everything… feels… not quite normal. Because you feel stronger and weaker at the same time. You feel excited and at the same time, terrified. The truth is… you don’t know what you feel except you know what kind of man you want to be. It’s as if you’ve reached the unreachable and you weren’t ready for it.’”
“That movie is so awesome.”
“It is…” now I smile. Might as well let him know about some of the good things the future holds. “There will be a universe of shared Marvel movies. Like there will be a Avengers movie with Spider-Man alongside Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor.”
“YES!”Sven exclaims. He goes on to say how he and Dean were saying Freshman Year how awesome such a cinematic endeavor would be.
“And..MORE STAR WARS MOVIES!”
“Yes!” says Sven.
“And get this, Dr. Becknell will have you back to Modern Mythmakers to guest lecture on superheroes.”
“Ok, that’s pretty cool.”
“And you will be a writer. You’ll come up with ideas for different projects you never even knew possible. You’ll even get free books while reviewing for a website.”
“That’s not…too terrible, I guess. Free books are nice.”
“Yes, and if you hate the book, you can always sell it back to half price books and get a cup of coffee.”
“Wait…do I actually drink that stuff in the future?” he asks, looking sick to his stomach.
It’s hard not to blame him, between having a bad cup of coffee in Sunday School one time in High School, and working as a beverage runner in the dining hall and dumping out the old stale stuff that makes him think he’s a comic book super villain poisoning the water supply, it’s hard not to see what.
“Ohh, goodness no. I just like to use the collective term of ‘cup of coffee’.”
“Is there any other good things about the future?”
Then I let him tell him about going to the weddings for different friends and seeing the great joy they will all experience. I tell him about the nieces and nephews he will have, both biological and honorary. How he will get to make a difference in the lives of those children. It isn’t necessarily his own children, but I assure him that being an uncle is almost as good.
“But the thing is, Sven,” I say. “Just enjoy it. It is going to go by too quickly. It is like when you’re in festival. One minute you glance down at at your set list, rise to perform the song, and the next you look at the clock and the auditorium erupts in applause. And then…it’s over.”
“It is short, isn’t it? Feels like it wasn’t that long ago…”
“That you were a Freshman and it was your first Festival?”
“And that’s the thing. Don’t worry about the future. It’ll be here soon enough. Trust me. Enjoy the present.”
I smile. Sven seems to finally understand what I’m trying to tell him. “Now go. Have fun with your friends. I guarantee that you’ll have a real swell time. It’ll become one of your most treasured memories. Don’t be afraid to make more of those. ”
Sven smiles and heads to the tree to pick up the presents. “Thanks. I’ll try and do that. You… you have a Merry Christmas.”
He turns to head out the door. I stop Sven for a moment. A thought occurs to me. There are certain things I can’t change. There is no way for me to prevent the Recession of ’09. I can’t stop our family friend from dying of still unknown circumstances, prevent my sister from having a miscarriage, or my grandparents from getting cancer. Maybe there is the chance I could at least try and change one thing. I can’t erase the Aspergers. But maybe. Just maybe, there is the chance that I could save the life of my friend from that car crash…
“One more thing, Sven…”
I never get to say it. In a moment I hear a voice calling. It’s Dr. Becknell. He noticed me out here and came to check on me.
“Jonathon!” he says. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I just had the weirdest dream…”
“Well, tell me about it on the way to the nurse’s office.”
Or was it? I mean a lightning bolt, and an MP3 of the theme from The Flash really can’t send someone back in time, can it? It’s hard to say. I obviously never got the chance to send a warning to save my friend’s life. After getting checked by the nurse and heading back to the apartment where my parents and I now reside its petty clear that none of us bought stock in Marvel, or Lucasfilm, or place any bets on the Cubs. Maybe, if I did go back in time, all I got to do was give myself a message to learn from the pain that comes my way, and hold on to the good things in life, and enjoy it, as long as I can.
Maybe that’s all any of us can do. This year, and every year.