Outtakes: Holidays and Belonging

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Holidays and Belonging

Discussion stemming from a book study group on Debby Irving’s Waking Up White has caused me to regret cutting the scene below. In “Belonging,” one of the most powerful chapters for me, Irving quotes organizational behavior educator Dr. Stacy Blake-Beard: “Everybody has a context in which they feel empowered…and everyone has a context where they feel ‘otherized.’ And it’s not just about race…”

Understanding “the other” and using that understanding to bridge divides compels me, especially as a writer. Prejudice large and small is an overarching theme of The FOG MACHINE. In this scene, I hoped to build on the feeling of not belonging that originally brings C.J. and Zach together in the deli, when his telling of how his father was treated as a Jew reminds her of Jim Crow. I sought to present an opportunity to strengthen their connection as each reacts to Zach’s feelings of alienation at Christmas.

“False consensus bias,” not unlike white privilege, causes people to overestimate the extent to which others agree with them and share their values and beliefs. Everyone should wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. It just makes sense to ask everyone how their Christmas shopping is going. What could be wrong with asking elementary school students to do a family tree when all children will be able to ask their biological parents for the information? In short, what do we assume that harms others in ways small and large and distances us from them?

At the Bus Station with Zach before C.J.’s Christmas Visit Home

In the Chicago bus station, wedged between Zach and a large grandmotherly woman, C.J. clutched her satchel and purse, excited about her first Christmas back in Poplar Springs. Her suitcase was at Zach’s feet. He balanced the Marshall Field’s bag full of gifts on his knees. On his face was a look she wasn’t used to seeing and couldn’t quite put a name to.

Zach sighed as Bing Crosby began his dreaming about a white Christmas over the loudspeaker. Now that they were settled, she realized she’d done the bulk of the talking all the way here. She reckoned he just didn’t have as much to look forward to during the holidays as she did.

“Wait ’til you taste what all the girls have planned for Christmas dinner,” she said. He’d be fine once he got to eating and telling stories with them.

Zach’s scowl seemed to deepen. As much as she looked forward to Christmas with her family, part of her wanted to be here, too. She looked at him askance, wondering if he could possibly be moody because he would miss her.

“I hope you’re planning to be more agreeable than that tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve had plenty of practice.” He shook his head and looked out the window. Snow was coming down sideways. A fat Santa ringing a bell next to a Salvation Army kettle turned this way and that, trying to keep the snow out of his face.

Zach’s irritation made her think she was missing something. Maybe he just wanted to be rid of her. “What then? You got someplace else to be. I’ll be fine getting on the bus by my—”

“You could not manage all this.”

“Surely someone would help if I needed it.”

Zach gestured toward a mother balancing a baby on her hip and a bag on her shoulder as she pulled a suitcase and admonished her toddler to hold on to her skirt. No one helped. “Everyone’s in a hurry to get where they’re going.”

“You, too?”


“Then, I give up. Just go on and do it.”

“Do what?”

“Have a conniption.”

“Which means what, exactly?” A smile flitted at the corners of his mouth.

“Blow up. Explode. Pitch a fit.” She was waving her arms around in demonstration.

Zach chuckled.

“You gonna tell me now, what’s had you down in the mouth since you showed up to carry me here?”

Zach tipped and leveled the shopping bag on his lap, causing tiny Santas to peek out, then disappear. “Same thing, I imagine, that’s had you walking on air.” He set the bag on the floor by her suitcase and shifted in his chair to look straight at her. “Don’t ever think I can’t imagine how you feel, being excluded.”

She felt enveloped by his eyes and had to look away. “What’s that got to do with Christmas? It’s a time for coming together, families and friends.”

“What if you don’t have a family?”

“You’ve got your friends.”

“I’ve got a family, too. Just not one that celebrates Christmas.”

He sounded so selfish and small. “Does that mean no one else should?”

“Of course not. I just wish the Christian world didn’t assume everyone was like them. Thanksgiving turkeys are barely cold when people start wondering about each other’s Christmas shopping. And you can’t give a quarter to a Salvation Army Santa without getting a Merry Christmas for it.”

“You’ve got Chanukah. Can’t you just ignore the other?”

“That would be easier. But I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying I don’t celebrate Christmas.”

The grandmother next to C.J. started in her sleep, as if she’d heard him.

“See?” He smiled sadly. “It shocks people.”

“Some things you just got no choice but to ignore. That’s what I do.”

“I know you do. And I wish you’d be more like—”

“All aboard for Effingham,” boomed the loudspeaker, interrupting Perry Como. “And have a Merry Christmas wherever you’re going.”

Zach led C.J. to the bus and stood waiting to deposit her suitcase in the cargo hold. She thought her suitcase looked lonely against the mountain of other luggage and suddenly understood.

“I don’t like to think of you feeling that way.” Excluded. Alone in the feeling. The way she’d felt over and over in her life. “I’m going to think on it. All right?”

She slung her purse over her shoulder and reached for the Marshall Field’s bag. Zach took her hand, pulling her toward him. “I’m going to miss you,” he said, gently brushing snow from her hair. “Tell your family I said Happy Holidays.”

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Zach would miss her, too. But there was no way she could say Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas to her family from Zach. The realization that he did not understand that weighed her down more fully than the things she carried. She waved goodbye from the steps of the bus and found a seat on the side away from the station, where she could sink down and feel the way Zach had looked.

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