Seattle native struggles with ‘COVID Christmas’ in Italy

Lisa Marchese had a hard time finding the joy in Christmas this year, but an expected fall during a morning run reignited her Christmas spirit

(Note: This article initially appeared in KGW, an affiliate TV station of NBC in Portland.)

Photo: Lisa Marchese, who grew up in Seattle but now lives and works in Italy, sits at her computer in her home looking at the current statistics of new cases and watching the Minister of Health’s press conference on TV.

Author: Lisa M. Marchese
Published: 10:30 AM PST December 21, 2020
Updated: 10:38 AM PST December 21, 2020

MILAN, Italy — Editors Note: Lisa Marchese is a lawyer from Seattle who moved to Milan, Italy last year before COVID-19 struck. Reporter Pat Dooris knows Lisa from their high school days and began chatting with her on social media as the first wave of the pandemic surged through Italy. She wrote a reflection on that experience here. Now, she finds herself unable to return home for Christmas. This is her story:

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. No matter how bad the year had been personally, professionally, or otherwise, I could set it all aside when the Christmas season began. Once all the lights and decorations went up, smiling became as effortless as breathing. If Christmas was my favorite holiday, the season of Christmas was my most reliable friend.    

COVID-19 seems to have changed everything familiar in our lives. It has been the gift that keeps on taking, robbing us of our loved ones and livelihoods. It has isolated us from our family and friends. It has banished us from public and turned our homes into prison cells. So, when COVID-19 cheated me out of spending the holidays with my family I lost it. That is until I found my salvation in a fallen tree branch and a handsome stranger on a foggy winter morning in Milan.    

Given my love of Christmas, I should have welcomed the arrival of the season with open arms. Yet when the beautiful lights and decorations went up in the center of Milan a few weeks ago, I hardly noticed. I was still stuck on the image of my computer screen flashing a cancelled flight to Seattle. With a few keystrokes, the Christmas I had known since childhood became a painful memory. As tears streamed down my face, the realization that I would spend Christmas alone hit me like a ton of bricks. That was when I lost my way and was blinded by anger and resentment.

In that moment, I had a new resolve. It wasn’t a healthy one. I wiped away my tears, declared war on Christmas, and became a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge. No tree, no decorations, no presents, no Christmas. I would stay hunkered down in my apartment. Like Scrooge, I would distract myself with work while counting pennies and refusing to turn up the heat. Humbug to it all!  Yet even in this blinding rage, I could still see the shadows of what I was becoming, and I didn’t like it at all.  ut anger isn’t always a bad thing.  It lets you know you are still alive. And sometimes, it leads to your redemption.

Like any big city, Milan has its share of street people and panhandlers. Since moving here over a year ago, I was struck by the generosity of Italians toward these people, so much so that my heart and wallet slowly opened-up to them too.  After a while, it became a habit to drop whatever spare change I had into someone’s hand or cup. Neither the pandemic nor the lockdown had changed their reality. They were still on the streets and they still needed help.  But in my new Scrooge persona, it was now easy for me to ignore them with disdain.  Yet the gratification was temporary and fleeting. The shame I felt was far more powerful than the anger. I was stuck in this awful place with no apparent escape. Then the most amazing thing happened. I wasn’t visited by 3 ghosts or anything that cool. But I was, quite literally knocked to my senses. 

I like to run in early the morning while Milan is still sleeping. It lets me enjoy a busy city in solitude before everyone else wakes up. Last Sunday, I was out the door while it was still dark. It was a perfect crisp winter morning that let me relish a rising sun against a vibrant blue sky. I was on my favorite route which takes me through 2 amazing city parks and the ever-scenic Piazza del Duomo. When I reached the first park at Porta Venezia, I remember thinking how relieved I was to be off the streets for a few miles because I was sick of seeing Christmas lights and decorations. I had vowed not to celebrate Christmas, so I didn’t want to be reminded of it. More Humbug. The scenery in the park was instantly better. No lights or ornaments on the trees. Infused with my false sense of empowerment, I decided to pick up the pace a bit. I was lost in thoughts that began with “Me”, “I” or “My”. Those thoughts, however, often lead us down a treacherous path. “Maybe I will run another marathon in the Spring.” That was my last thought before I realized I was face down on the ground, covered in mud, writhing in pain. I was so engrossed in my self-absorbed Scrooge monologue that I wasn’t paying any attention to the trail. I never saw the fallen tree branch that caught my toe and launched me head-first into a pile of rocks and mud. My seething anger at the world may have knocked me to my knees. But it was a loose branch, a few rocks and a little bit of mud that knocked me to my senses. My right knee got the worst of it. But as it turns out, my soul got the best of it.      

Tripping on a run isn’t all that uncommon, particularly for a runner like me. I have had a few missteps in my day. Usually, I just get up, dust myself off, take a second to laugh at my own stupidity and then I keep running. Whether a race or a training run, I never quit.  However, this time things were different. At first, I didn’t know if couldn’t get up or if I didn’t want to get up. Either way, I stayed on the ground, completely stunned. I couldn’t tell what was worse – the pain in my knee or the pain of embarrassment.    

After what felt like an eternity, I saw a figure emerge from the fog on the trail. Before I realized it, a fellow runner appeared, offered me his hand, and helped me to my feet. With genuine concern, he asked me if I was hurt and I assured him that I was okay. Then he wished me a Merry Christmas with an effortless smile, and continued on, leaving me stunned once again. Not from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous, and I looked like a hot mess caked in mud. Rather, I was the recipient of a simple yet significant act of kindness that I am quite certain I did not deserve. Why do we always wait for the Earth to move when so often our redemption can be found in the little things of our lives?

When the pain subsided to a dull roar, I finished the remaining 3 miles of my run. Like before, I was determined never to quit. But this time, I had a new resolve. The physical pain from the fall made me realize I was still alive and had feelings, no matter how hard I tried to suppress them. Declaring war on Christmas was not a solution. It was a selfish diversion. Christmas didn’t fail me. I failed the spirit of Christmas with my ridiculous Scrooge persona. It takes a lot more effort to be a self-absorbed jerk than to extend a hand of help to a stranger.    

Dante got me through the first lockdown and the Inferno helped me climb out of my apartment to see the stars again. Now it was Charles Dickens’ turn to save me. Even though I read “A Christmas Carol” every year, usually on Christmas Eve, I had planned to boycott Dickens too. In the wake of my tripping catharsis, however, that storyline was my one consistent thought.        

As I hobbled to finish the run that morning, the Dickens’ prose in my head finally gave way to something Viktor Frankl once wrote. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”  Indeed, COVID-19 has stolen so much from so many. It has inflicted gratuitous pain and misery indiscriminately. Yet in that moment, I realized it can never take away our freedom to decide how we will respond. In anger, I opted to be the worst of Scrooge, the worst of myself. But Like Ebenezer, I can also choose redemption.  

It is interesting to reflect upon what the world was like in 1843 when Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol”. Victorian England was a harsh reality for most. Slums and slave labor were the mainstays of the Industrial Revolution. The unsanitary living and working conditions in London and other big cities helped spread many deadly diseases. In the span of Dickens’ lifetime, the world endured at least 6 pandemics including smallpox, scarlet fever and typus, diseases that ravaged the European continent and England. By far, Dickens’ reality was far more brutal than ours. Yet from the cruelty of his world Dickens found inspiration to create a story that we still cling to after nearly 200 years. If Dickens could find hope in the daunting challenges of his day, who am not to look for the hope that exists in ours? 

Ever since that Sunday morning, I have been thinking about Ebenezer, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and that wonderful story. I have read and re-read it, letting the words both fill me and haunt me. What draws us to this story, year after year? For starters, Dickens captured the redemptive power of Christmas when he described it as, “the only time. . .in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave.” When my time here is done, what good will the loose change be that stayed in my pocket? Wouldn’t it have been put to better use in the hands of someone in need?    

The global pandemic has pushed all of us beyond our limits. In my frustration, I gave in to anger over circumstances that were far beyond my control and it got me nowhere.  As I continued to read, I stumbled again. This time on another passage I had read many times but never fully appreciated. “Reflect on your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” I have so much to be grateful for. My family, my health, my friends, my work, the roof over my head. Every morning that I wake up is a new gift and opportunity for something amazing to happen. How I decide to spend that day is forever my choice. COVID-19 can never take that way from any of us.   

Dickens understood the power of smiling in the face of adversity.  He could have been describing COVID-19 when he wrote, “While there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing more contagious as laughter and good humor.” When I think back to my fateful Sunday morning, it is easy to laugh at how ridiculous I must have looked in my trendy muddy attire while running through the fashion capital of the world. COVID-19 may have taken away a shared dinner table, but not my ability to laugh with family and friends. We just do it on a video call now. We are as loud and irreverent as ever.  Everyone still talks over everyone else and we still need to explain jokes to certain family members repeatedly.  After all, “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself.” The imagination of a child is a wonderful thing.

The truth is, we need the spirit of Christmas in our lives, now more than ever. Not just on December 25th, but every day.  As we try to be better, we will see our reflections in the humility of Bob Cratchit, the enthusiasm of Fred or the generosity of Tiny Tim.  We will also stumble and fall when our hearts turn cold and miserly.  But like Scrooge, we can be redeemed. The choice is always ours to make. I like to think that a loose tree branch, a little bit of mud and a handsome stranger helped me make the better choice to honor the spirit of Christmas once again.