It’s a shame to think there will be no more Christmas parties at 346 Madison Avenue. But perhaps Brooks Brothers will host its annual benefit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at another location in the years to come. The photo above is from the 2010 party, and it is quite sobering to revisit and rewrite this post in light of the events of 2020, one decade later.
I had been in New York for one year that night at Brooks when I reunited with Kalu Kalu. I’ll always remember him as our paths crossed at pivotal junctions in our lives. Wiped out by the last recession, I spent six weeks staying with a friend on Lake Merrit in Oakland. I was a nervous wreck, constantly catastrophizing about the uncertain future (note to former self, the future is always uncertain), and was happy to make a new friend. Kalu Kalu hung out at the same Whole Foods cafe where I went to manage this newly launched website on my laptop, and he was always dressed in a blazer and bit loafers. I found out he’d picked up the style in Boston, but for some reason had come out west. We saw each other daily, and then, more than a year later, both found ourselves in New York and reunited at the annual Brooks Brothers Christmas party. Gazing now at yet another embarrassing photo of my naive self on the Internet, the thing that strikes me now is that I actually look happy. Nearly all the time I was troubled by some buried problem I hadn’t the courage to face, and this went on all the way to 2017 until finally the suffering ego could endure it no longer and began to die so that the new man, awakened to the little sliver of divinity given by the Creator to each one of us, could start to emerge.
I write these words in the spirit of Christmas, when one of mankind’s greatest spiritual teachers came to show us that the kingdom of God is within each one of us, but that we cannot enter it until we become as little children. To be reborn to divine reality is to live in a state of perpetual wonder, as if going through a second childhood, when all the world shines in freshness and fascination. My oldest friend from high school is named Job, and he looks a lot like Kalu Kalu. We were always an odd couple, and there were several fallings out in which we didn’t speak for many years. But at some point I think we both realized we were stuck with each other, brothers passing through this earthly guise together, our fates inextricably intertwined. Recently I learned that 2020 had knocked him out cold. Not the coronavirus, but the climate of fear and chaos that has characterized this year. He’s on disability and meds, up all night and sleeping fitfully throughout the day. All my creative friends have anxiety in one form or another, the curse of a vivid imagination. It’s always the same fear: the ego’s dread of its destruction. But Christ taught that we are so much more than our miserable, suffering selves.
Christmas coincides with the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky. To our ancestors, the sun — the source of all light and life and truth — would seem to lie “dead” for three days, whereupon it would be “reborn” and begin its annual climb back towards its apex at the summer solstice.
Likewise, each of us needs to undergo a second birth. The first birth is of our physical selves, but then, after establishing ourselves in the world, we reach the point where that self cannot take us any further, and in fact is the source of all our inner conflict we project onto the world. That self needs to “die” to “make room for God,” as Christians say. I think that time this come for my friend, and I hope I can help him, having gone through the painful process myself. Earlier this month I decided that 2020 has realigned me as well, and so I will be returning to the area north of San Francisco where I grew up. I’ve been away for 20 years, which is oddly enough how long the knight Parsifal goes wandering looking for the Grail castle in the Arthurian legend. When he finally finds it again, he is giving the opportunity to join the lords and ladies of the court if he can but ask the right question, which he failed to do all those years ago. Parsifal pauses, then speaks from the wisdom of the depths when he says, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Trumpets blow, the ailing king is revived, and Parsifal is welcomed into the kingdom. This is another way of saying, “What is the true meaning of Christmas?”
So that’s my message for 2020. Below are a few snapshots from that party in 2010. May we heed the timeless words of the great carol:
Someday soon we all may be together
If the fates allow
But till then we’ll have to muddle through somehow
Merry Christmas, brothers. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD