Something To Cling To

Reflecting on an especially sad holiday season

Last month, a mystic of the female arts gave me a gift certificate for a manicure and said, "Honey, good hands complete the look. It's just as important as smelling good or shined shoes." I think our moment together was the social equivalent of someone offering an Altoid after a garlic-laden lunch at the Holy Land Market.

And so my socially embarrassing cuticles landed me at Nail's Desire Salon in Knoxville Center. It's next to Sears, in case you are interested. The sound of Christmas music ironically warbled through the salon as a very nice woman from Vietnam painted the last coat of Lincoln Park After Dark polish on my fingers. When she got to my ring finger she said, "Why is all the Christmas music in the United States so sad? I thought Christmas was the happiest time of year?" Point taken.

Perhaps she misinterpreted sincerity in classic American Christmas songs with sadness. Yes, I am aware of the upbeat songbook of holiday tunes that include quirky demands for hippos, diamonds, and deeds to a house. But for the most part, Christmas songs resonate with dirge-like offertories respectfully heralding the birth of Jesus. As my very polite manicurist rubbed peach-scented oil into my cuticles, I realized that from a non-American perspective these songs are sad.

Particularly this year.

Witness the children's choir that sang "Silent Night" as the opener to Saturday Night Live on Dec. 17. It was a poignant tribute to one of the most wicked crimes committed in our nation's history. Yes, I am talking about the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Are you sick of hearing about this on the news? Me too. Because it hurts so much. Because there is no amount of expert analysis to explain why someone would choose to do such a thing. We are a country desperate to do something in response to this horrible tragedy. We are desperate to do something because we are talking about little children.

School safety is a maddening issue with no clear path to solvency. Because considerations of schools and how they serve society rest at the intersection of money, politics, and social plagues such as mental illness and drug abuse.

Parents are clinging a little closer to their kids these days. School principals (who understood long ago their job might demand the ultimate sacrifice) are working like hell to reassure their communities. And then there are kids around the country who responded to this tragedy by bringing weapons to class for self-protection.

How do we fix this? How do we sift through the lobbyists, the ignorant, and the zealots? How do we protect the innocent?

I have no answers. I don't think the experts have any answers either because the problem of maintaining a safe and orderly learning environment is rife with bureaucracy. Such are the problems we tend to talk around but not through in our country. School and its purpose in society is a puzzle that most of us don't want to think too deeply about. Perhaps it is this way because we all don't have children. Or our understanding of school is centered on when we were students. Or perhaps because we can't consider the needs of those outside our own circle.

USA Today ran a photograph of a little coffin as a way to announce the barrage of funerals in Newtown. The vision prompted a call to my own mother in search of comfort. She said, "Thank God for our faith. At least we can cling to that. At least this is the season to remind us of our faith." I heard her. And I heard our president remind us all of the power of hope in the aftermath of the shooting.

My festive fingernails and I moved to the drying station. The woman next to me was wearing a Star of David around her neck. We sat quietly in this salon owned by Buddhists, and decorated for Christians. No matter how hard I tried, all I could see were bunches of presents for little ones that will never be unwrapped.