Life Among the Sugarplums

The genre of the month is the wish list.  I carry my children's handwritten lists around town in my coat pocket. I update our family Amazon wish list and forward the link to grandparents and cousins. I consult the wish lists posted outside my kids' classrooms and annotate my palm, then sync it to the back of an old receipt in my wallet. A scrap of paper plumbs my children's innocent avarice, limns their hopes fond and foolish. Visions of sugarplums dance in their heads.

Do not mistake this observation for a bit of seasonal anti-consumerism. Not all wish lists are freighted with things to buy. There are also things to bake, things to make, books to eat, music to drink.  You should see my list of "Meaningful Christmas experiences for my children": a well-curated parade of stories by candlelight, carols around the piano, multi-cultural cuisines, carefully selected charities, and matching pajamas!  Impeccably chosen, if I do say so myself, but for all that nothing more than my vision of sugarplums: my wishes, my hopes -- my preferences, my prejudices -- dancing their lovely, lonely rondo on the stage in my head.

Not always, though.  Life has a way of interrupting the choreography; a temperamental 7-year-old, a last-minute call, or an empty box of matches can make short work of my Christmas wish list. And this too is part of the Christmas mystique:  the disappointment of an expectation jilted, a pleasure curdled, a hope deferred or abandoned. In this sense the holidays merely bring into focus a larger human condition: we rise each morning and move through a troupe of dancing sugarplums, those waking visions of who we are and what our lives look like, only to be escorted firmly off the stage by the strong limbs of disappointment and defeat and disease and despair.

What I'm saying here is no revelation, of course. That life does not give us what we wish for has been said many times before, and much better. And coming from someone as unaccountably and undeservedly privileged as I, the observation is banal if not frankly peevish. Life has, up to now albeit with one or two notable exceptions, given me mostly what I wish.  So allow me to make only a narrow point on the subject.

Often when it is noted that God does not gift-wrap a future selected from our personal life-registry, it is also suggested that what we receive instead is ultimately richer than what we had hoped for -- more expansive, more instructive, and more vibrant. Certainly this is sometimes the case. But sometimes, no matter what kind of mental gymnastics one performs, one cannot avoid the conclusion that life in the real world is indeed colder, meaner, and bleaker than life among the sugarplums.

There is little comfort in this observation, but there is a bracing, expansive beauty. Years ago in graduate school I read Max Weber on the Protestant foundations of capitalism, where I encountered the image of the iron cage. Weber uses the phrase to describe the rationalized bureaucratic machinery of modernity, but I've shamelessly cribbed his image and given it an idiosyncratic meaning of my own.  For me the iron cage is a potent symbol of the limiting, atomizing effect of subjectivity -- that is, of the unavoidable fact that we live in our own heads, capable of intimations of the sublime, yes, but also subject to the finitudes and distortions and blindness of our own imagination.  Life among the sugarplums is life in an iron cage -- a life of comfort and contentment, probably, but a life confined to the meager pale of one's own pate.

When life blows the door off the iron cage, most of the sugarplums are lost to the whirlwind. But it leaves a hole in your head, an escape hatch. I am not in general a lover of paradox, but perhaps one must be acknowledged here: there is a bleak, beautiful freedom in being forced to recognize both the poverty of our wishes and our powerlessness to bring them to pass. Life is no respecter of wish lists, but it will do us the favor, once in a while, of leaving open a back door to the wide, wide world outside the iron cage.

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