When I was quite young I fondly imagined that all foreign languages were codes for English. I thought that "hat," say, was the real and actual name of the thing, but that people in other countries, who obstinately persisted in speaking the code of their forefathers, might use the word "ibu," say to designate not merely the concept hat, but the English word "hat." I knew only one foreign word, "oui," and since it had three letters as did the word for which it was a code, it seemed, touchingly enough, to confirm my theory. Each foreign language was a different code, I figured, and at school I would eventually be given the keys to unlock some of the most important codes' systems. Of course I knew that it might take years before I became so fluent in another language that I could code and decode easily in my head, and make of gibberish a nimble sense. On the first day of my first French course, however, things rapidly took on an entirely unexpected shape. I realized that I was going to have to learn speech all over again, word by word, one word at a time--and my dismay knew no bounds.
It's a completely kid thing to think. The whole world, everything that is mysterious and confusing, is a coded message, and, as we get older, we are given the keys to these codes. Suddenly, speaking Russian and Mandarin is as simple as doing a crossword puzzle or reading a map. Inevitably, Annie Dillard learns the truth, as we all do: the world is complicated and, at times, unknowable.
When I was a kid, I believed in Santa Claus a lot longer than most of my contemporaries. While my friends begged their parents to buy them Commodore 64's and Atari game systems, I simply thought to myself "suckers!" and fired off a letter to the North Pole. I was unwilling to let go of the idea of magic existing in the world. Flying reindeer and a jolly Christmas elf with a bottomless bag of gifts.
Long about fifth grade (yes, fifth grade!), I had to let go of magic and, as Dillard, my dismay knew no bounds. The world suddenly became, at once, smaller and larger. More confusing. Death and poverty. Incredible wealth and incredible poverty. And languages--all kind of languages--separating the peoples of the world. I suddenly understood, in a much deeper way, the story of the Tower of Babel. No code existed to unlock the divisions of country and religion and culture. Santa Claus did not unite us all.
However, I still hold on to the idea, the possibility, of mystery. I believe that the universe is divinely, infinitely miraculous. That is the basis of hope, and hope is why I get out of bed in the morning, go to work, teach, read, write blog posts and poems. I think that's what Santa Claus is all about, too. Santa allows kids to put a face to the longings of their lives. The empty holes. Santa is mystery with a smile. Hope with a big round belly, trimmed in red fur.
Yes, loss is a part of life (the burning up of the past, as in Sandra Beasley's poem below). Phobias and fears are abundant (death, spiders in the shower). However, each day is an opportunity for newness, for the blossoming of something beautiful and redemptive.
Maybe Saint Marty still believes in Santa Claus.
by: Sandra Beasley
Sooner or later, the thing you value most will beg to be burned.
Trust me, says the phoenix, I'm immortal. Watch your childhood
home--how the wires fray, how the baseboards splinter to tinder.
Your nights are split open by steam and the writhing of hoses.
Your sister learns to thicken gasoline with jelly, collects cannisters;
the man you love shares a mouthful of smoke with someone else.
Trust me. Even Joan of Arc, age ten, tanned her arms as she tended
the sheep. I'm immortal. Tomorrow will rise to a full boil but still
you'll strip down, lay out, you'll slick the thin oil over your chest.
For six night before the city blazed Nero could not sleep, pacing
the palace balcony. He fiddled to ease his nerves. Pretty tune,
whispered Rome: lips licked with flame, mouth readying to sing.
Off the Top of My Head