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Author of this essay:

Fa Tian Shakya
(5 December 2006)

by Fa Tian Shakya

It started mid-October, appearing out of nowhere like a Halloween ghost. A few neighbors had strung crimson lights around the eaves and doorways of their houses. I thought they were simply a pronouncement of an allegiance to the University of Alabama – the Crimson Tide. We hadn’t lived in Alabama for very long, and I only vaguely remembered the rivalry with Auburn and how the biggest game of the year was coming up in the next few weeks. Days later that I noticed the Brunswick green lights, looking almost black next to the crimson. It's funny how the mind grasps at what it thinks it sees and overlooks everything else. I asked my wife about the colors, and she rolled her eyes.

"They're not for football, they're for Halloween."

"Oh," I said. Then I thought about the implications. "Are you telling me that crimson is the new orange? And I guess that dark green is the new black?"

"Exactly. It's the new 'universal decorations' thing. You don't have to take them down between Halloween and Christmas. You know, Christmas is only a couple months away."

I thought she was joking about the decorations - I still do – but the day after Halloween, all the stores were putting up their Christmas decorations.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Christmas season would be heralded by Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. My mother would be in the kitchen stuffing the turkey, while the rest of us would be sitting in front of our old television watching the parade, not so patiently waiting for the end when Santa would appear. Then there'd be the football games and a channel change and, this being before remote controls and digital cable, my father, comfortable in his recliner, would command one of us to change the channel. Being the youngest of three, this job fell to me. If I was lucky, the picture quality would be clear. If not, he would guide me in the adjustment - a little to the left, up a little - of the two telescoping antennas, curiously called rabbit ears, until he was satisfied with the reception. The next day, our family tradition was to start decorating for Christmas, putting up the string of colored lights which hung on the eaves of the house. The tree, a real tree, would have to wait for a few weeks.

Today, Christmas is heralded by advertisements and store displays, which seem to appear earlier every year. Their purpose is to generate desire and get us in the mood for consumption. Of course, advertising isn't confined to Christmas; we are bombarded by it daily. And whether we’re talking about hair plugs for ourselves or a gift for someone special, advertisers understand one thing; the more they can make us believe that material goods will solve our problems and dispel any sense of dissatisfaction with our lives, the more they will increase their profits. But this is Christmas, and, like birthdays and anniversaries, we're supposed to remember what the season is all about – it's a time of giving, a time of making lives brighter for the ones we love. Luckily, retailers have provided us with a vehicle to drive that desire – Black Friday.

Black Friday, a name synonymous with the Great Depression of 1929 when financial markets collapsed, has, ironically, become a day of hope for countless retailers. It's a time when they need to see their books move from red to black. My wife and I were going to do all we could to help them.

We were already behind schedule when, at 5:30 a.m., we headed out. Most stores had opened at 5 a.m.. She wanted to leave before that, but I wasn't exactly in the mood to be pried from my bed at 4AM on my day off. Besides, it was only a five mile drive to the mall – a trek I usually make in 10 minutes - so what difference would an a half an hour make, right?

In my naiveté I figured that we would be home by 11 a.m. at the latest, which would leave plenty of time for the Texas A&M/Texas kickoff. My afternoon plans were set, or so I thought.

Even in the dim morning light, I could see the anticipation in my wife's eyes at the thought of all those after-Thanksgiving Day sales. But nestled in the back of my mind was the vague but persistent thought that I was missing something important - like driving to work, only to remember that you left your lunch on the kitchen counter when you were half way there. And though it shouldn't have come as a surprise, it did anyway when, after only a few miles, I was forced to bring the car to an abrupt halt as sea of red lights appeared in front of us. I had expected a quick drive, and if I hadn't been seated I would have kicked myself. This was the busiest shopping day of the year, and I should have expected traffic, but here we were stuck in the middle of it. Like lemmings, we crawled along, one following another in the direction of the mall, a place where each of us was prepared to plunge into the gulf of debt.

"Well, there goes that 'additional 10% off for the first 100 customers' I said a little sarcastically. My wife, however, was oblivious to the traffic – she was "in the zone" humming along with Jingle Bell Rock that was playing on the radio. Like a big-game hunter preparing for the hunt, she was developing her shopping strategy. On her lap was what seemed like a ream of paper: lists of every store she planned to visit and of what gift she wanted to purchase and the name of its recipient; a stack of coupons; and cut out newspaper advertisements. I could tell this was going to be a long day, and it was only 6:00 a.m. "So much for the games," I thought to myself.

As we sat there, I tried to sneak a peek at the list, looking for my name.

"Don't even think about it," she said, without even looking up.

I heeded her warning and turned my attention to the endless miles of traffic ahead. Out of the corner of my eye I caught her grinning. We weren't moving, and, feeling a little claustrophobic, I opened the car window for some air. A gust of wind blew in, causing her precious papers to fly around inside the car. My action elicited that look - what has come to be known as the 'evil eye' - a look you have to experience only once to know that you never want to experience it again. Every woman has the gene for the evil eye locked away in her DNA. It remains dormant until a mutating retro-virus, generally marriage, causes it to activate. It gets more potent every time it is used; and while I don't fully understand the dynamics of it all, I quickly closed the window. My mood did not improve.

As we crept on towards the happy hunting grounds, I grew more anxious. I had never ventured out on hunts in the past - I was the chief and the chief didn't hunt, he only reaped the benefits from the hunt.

Motorists began honking their horns as if that would get the traffic moving. I remember thinking, "So this is what Christmas has become." It didn’t look or sound as if there were any "good will toward men" left in the world. The news had replayed the images from past Black Fridays – people crowding into the stores, pushing and shoving each other, grabbing merchandise out of each other's hands. The greed was tangible. The rudeness, the arguments, and the signals of dissatisfaction expressed with an extended finger. The thought that I was going to be part of this made me want to put my foot down... except it already was on the brake. I began looking for an avenue of escape; but we were stuck on the highway with no way to turn the car around. And even if I could have turned around and gone back, I'm not sure I would have dared suggest it to the huntress sitting next to me. I saw myself ending up as the victim of some unfortunate accident, one involving a ball-point pen and my thigh.

It wasn't long - it only seemed like hours - when the traffic broke and we finally sighted our destination - the Mall. After a bit of searching, we found a parking space – one that was about as far from the entrance as was possible, yet still could be considered "at the mall." I suggested we call a cab to take us to the entrance. My wife considered giving me the "look"- but she was smelling Sale blood. She walked fast and I trudged behind her.

I'm sure there was a plan. Well, she told me there was a plan and I believed her. Yet, it appeared as if we went to the same stores again and again. Everything had to be compared: price tags, colors, sizes, labels, – "Nobody," she explained, "purchases an item from the first store it is found in." Usually, though not always, we ended up back at the first store, and usually, when we did, the item had already been sold. This process went on for hours. My load of bags and boxes grew. Whenever we passed an electronics' department, hundreds of televisions screens displayed an identical array of soundless football plays... while Christmas music blared everywhere. I was in agony. With a deeper appreciation for the priestly choice of celibacy, I padded along, pack animal that I was. My wife had a few more presents to buy. I was hungry and said so. "All right," my wife relented. "I'm starving, too. We can go to the west entrance. There's a row of fast food joints there." For the first time in hours I had a destination.

My wife had plastic and some pocket change. I had two tens. "Get what you want," I said with a certain lack of hospitality, handing her a ten. She looked over the menu and then turned to listen to something. Also near the west entrance was a Salvation Army bell-ringer.

It was a small thing; but small things can make a difference, just as a small gift given in sincerity is worth more than a big gift given with an expectation of return. While I was wolfing down a burrito, my wife walked outside and put her ten dollar bill in the bell-ringer's red collection bucket. She talked to him for a minute and I could see that he thanked her and wished her a merry Christmas. She was still smiling when she came back. "I'll eat when we get home," she said. I won't describe how I felt. I cleared my throat a few times and then managed to say, "Come on, girl. We've got some shopping to do."

I found myself singing along with the canned mall music. I found myself filled with the Christmas Spirit. I found myself not giving a damn about who won the games. We were acting like kids, running from store to store, looking at racks of clothes, shelves of toys, and electronic gadgets - checking off the names and gifts.

We rely heavily on experience to guide our day- to-day activities. We are, after all, experiential beings. We have six senses with which to experience this world; our external senses collect information and our internal one, the mind, puts everything into focus for us. This helps us to get to work in the morning with our lunch in hand and not on the kitchen counter. All too often, however, we allow that sixth sense to dominate every moment of our lives. In a way, we spend all of our time living in the past trying to control the present to insure our future. Sometimes this works out and everything goes as we expected. This is part of the problem because we have short term memories for our failures, but long term memories for our successes. We're always surprised when things don't happen as we expected they would.

The mind with all its thoughts, feelings, and opinions is a useful tool. But like any tool, when we're done with it, we need to put it away. By ceasing to predict and control each moment, we can keep our mind spontaneous and alert, open to whatever happens, and live a happier, more fulfilling life. This is where our Zen practice comes in, and I'm not just speaking about time on the cushion. Keeping our mind open to any possibility, seeing each moment as new and fresh, allows us to get through the fog of our belief that we know a damned thing and to reach that vaunted "Cloud of Unknowing" where we can see with perfect clarity.

Have a Mindful Merry Christmas!

In the Dharma,
Fa Tian Shakya

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