Annie Dillard is talking about slipping into the spiritual cracks of the world. Finding places of grace and beauty, and then staying in those places. A little earlier, she says, "The gaps are the spirit's one home, the altitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound." In those gaps, Dillard finds her tranquility and trembling.
I think tranquility and trembling pretty much describe Christmas Eve. The chaos of preparation is over. Christmas shopping. Christmas card mailing. Present wrapping. Cookie baking. Maybe I'll take a few turns around the living carpet with the vacuum cleaner this afternoon. But, for the most part, it's time to breathe and enjoy some peace.
I will be rehearsing this afternoon with my band for the Christmas services tonight and tomorrow morning. This afternoon, I'll drive out to the cemetery to visit my sister's grave. I think we're going to make some sugar cookies this afternoon with my son and daughter.
Below is this year's Christmas essay. It's a little long, but I pray that it brings a little tranquility and trembling into your life this Christmas Eve.
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Miracle of the Hay
Newly wed. That’s what she was over sixty years ago. A refugee from the Great Depression, World War II. Detroit was in the fledgling auto time, factories filled with men who still carried the stamp of Europe and the Pacific, Normandy and Iwo Jima. There were others, too. Strangers. Assyrian Chaldeans and Palestinians drawn to the bright star of the Motor City. People with names like Ibrahim and Dabish and Acho who spoke a dialect of Aramaic.
My mother’s memory isn’t great these days, so she doesn’t recall whether it was Woolworths or Monkey Wards where she found her refugee family. Tiny, plastery figurines, painted in bright primaries. Mother. Father. Infant. Ass and ox. Maybe a camel or two. A lamb. A couple stooped shepherds. And three darker-skinned travelers from places even further east. It was a modest start. A small immigrant wave.
Leprosy is thought to be a respiratory disease, primarily spread through nasal droplets. It’s not epidemically contagious. In fact, it’s difficult to contract. It doesn’t make ears and penises and noses decay and fall off, contrary to popular jokes. Question: Why did they cancel the leper hockey game? Answer: Because there was a face off in the corner. Leprosy manifests as skin lesions. Left untreated, it swallows the body’s cartilage, causing fingers and toes to shrink and curl.
The name comes from the Latin word lepra. Translation: “scaly.” Skeletal remains date leprosy’s existence back to the second millennium B. C. in northwest India. It colonized the world through poverty, desperation, slavery. The Book of Leviticus contains these instructions:
Those who suffer from any contagious skin disease must tear their clothing and allow their hair to hang loose. Then, as they go from place to place, they must cover their mouths and call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” As long as the disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean and must live in isolation outside the camp.
Leper. Scaly. Unclean. Alone. Unwanted. Alien.
May 15, 1965. Detroit again. My sister, Rose, was born with an extra chromosome. Three 21s. The doctor’s advice to my mother was the prevailing medical opinion. Her baby would never walk or talk or sit up by herself, he said. She would die within a year. Put her in a hospital. Walk away. Forget.
Idiot. Trisomy 21. Mongolism. Down syndrome. Retarded.
My mother swaddled Rose in a blanket and carried her out of the maternity ward. Brought her home. Fed her. Changed her diapers. Read her stories. Fairy godmothers. The Big Bad Wolf. Sang to her: “Que sera sera.”
December, my mother unpacked her refugees again. They had increased to a horde. Think Ellis Island with sheep and angels. They camped everywhere. On the television. Across the mantel. Under the tree.
My mother walked the room, carrying my sister, introducing her to them. Glass lamb beside plastic ram. A ceramic drummer boy, three inches taller than the nearest shepherd, who was holding bagpipes. The woman in pink and blue, her nose chipped, gaping. The man holding a crook of curved copper wire. And the child, a Frisbee of gold behind his head. And the saffron hay.
“Look,” my mother said to my sister. “Baby.” Then slower. “Baaaaaby.”
In the kitchen, a pot of sloppy joes simmered on the stove.
Lepers terrified Francesco Bernadone. There was a leprosarium near his home town of Assisi, and Francesco never went near it, would pinch his nose if he came within two miles of its walls, as if the very air was fogged with disease and heresy.
For Francesco, lepers were his father’s fists on his back. The coal hair of the neighbor girl who laughed when he confessed he loved her. His malarial fever in prison, the dark and sweaty walls. Dreams he had as a child where he was alone in a strange land, surrounded by people speaking a tongue he didn’t understand.
That day, the leper bell rang in the sunlit afternoon, like a cowbell, but more insistent. An alarm to turn away, run. Keep running. Francesco heard it, tasted coppery fear in his mouth. Yet, he didn’t flee. Some inner Rose of the Winds pointed him in a different direction.
He followed the bell, found the source. Scaled skin. Face wrapped in soiled bandages. Smell of infection like boiled cabbage in the air. Francesco took the hands in his own, pressed his lips to their withered fingers. Pulled the man into his arms, held him, found something he hadn’t expected.
My mother fought for my sister, Rose, all the time. Fought principals who said there was no room at their schools for her. Teachers who thought two times ten was the Sombrero or Sunflower Galaxy, part of an expanding universe beyond Rose’s reach. Parents who saw her as a D. P. from some war-shredded country too distant to matter.
And every year, as the planet tilted toward winter solstice, my mother’s refugees emerged from the attic. She would open the storage boxes, unwrap them from Kleenex and tissue paper. One-by-one, my mother would place them around the child in the hay and imagine a world where even the stones sang lullabies.
Many facts surround the life of Brother Francesco, as Francesco Bernadone came to be known. Some of those facts are certainly true, others apocryphal.
- True: He was one of seven children of a wealthy silk merchant.
- Apocryphal: He levitated when he prayed,
- True: He was a soldier and prisoner of war.
- Apocryphal: He could bilocate, appearing to people hundreds of miles away while he was meditating in the Italian wilderness.
- True: He owned only one tunic and rope belt, usually slept on the ground with a rock as a pillow.
- Apocryphal: He multiplied food for an entire crew of sailors, feeding them with a few scraps of bread and fish jerky.
- True: He preached peace and love for everything and everyone. Man. Woman. Muslim. Christian. Leper. Called birds and mice and wolves his sisters and brothers.
- Apocryphal: He called a grasshopper to him at the Church of Saint Mary of the Angels, saying, “Sing, my sister . . . rejoice and praise the Lord thy Creator.” It sang for eight days straight.
I choose to believe all these things, true and apocryphal.
People with an extra chromosome 21 live an average of 55 to 60 years. Seventy-five percent of those over 65 years of age with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s. Something to do with nebulas of plaques and proteins, tangles in the brain. Memory gone outcast.
Rose celebrated her fifty-first birthday this year. Last night, I watched my mother lean over her, touch her face. Both of them have started asking the same questions over and over. “Is it cold out there? . . . How was work? . . . Can I have a Nutty Bar? . . . Is it cold out there?” They put away hearing aids, can’t find them later. Don’t remember if they’ve taken medicines.
As she was leaning over my sister last night, my mother said to her, “You’re still my baby.”
I’m not sure either of them remember the refugees in their boxes.
Three years before his death, Brother Francesco staged the first nativity. Like a medieval Cecil B. Demille, he chose the location (a small cave in the hills outside the town of Grecio), the cast (an ox, a donkey, some nuns, a few fellow brothers), costumes (the thirteenth century equivalent of bathrobes and coat-hangar wings), and set decoration (a trough filled with hay).
Christmas Eve, the citizens of Grecio gathered at the cave. The woods sparked with light, perhaps a bloom of fireflies summoned by Brother Francesco. Psalms rang through the night, maybe sung by the gathered crowd, maybe by a host of sparrows, a murmuration of starlings.
Brother Francesco stood before the trough. Forty-two years old. Nearly blind. Probably suffering from leprosy after a lifetime of caring for the poor, outcast, disenfranchised. He raised his head and chanted the familiar tale of the refugee family from Nazareth.
Apocryphal: A retired soldier named John “affirmed that he beheld an infant marvelously beautiful sleeping in that manger, whom . . . [Francesco] embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.”
Again, I choose to believe these details, apocryphal or not. Choose to believe that Francesco held an infant that night. That the child was marvelously beautiful. That Francesco and the child were one, along with the donkey and ox and sweaty townspeople and the soldier John and the Assyrian Chaldeans of Detroit and my mother and my sister. All part of what Francesco found in the leper’s arms that day so many years before. A shared narrative of otherness.
Francesco became the hay, and the hay became Francesco.
Two Decembers ago, I unpacked some of my mother’s refugees, set them on her piano, snaked white lights around them. In the evenings, after playing three games of Casino with Rose, my mother would sit and stare at the little encampment.
I’m not sure how much she saw, her eyes macularly degenerated and chronically exhausted. She probably saw the lights. Indistinct coronas and orbs. Possibly silhouettes of shepherds and cows and magi, like some Victorian shadow play above the ivory keys.
In my mind, I see her holding my infant sister, marvelously beautiful. Hear her speaking a tale. Maybe Rumplestiltskin. Hay spun into gold.
According to legend, the hay from Brother Francesco’s nativity was saved. It was used to remedy “all diseases of cattle and many other pestilences.” Pestilence. One of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, along with War, Famine, and Death. All cured by hay.
My mother and Rose don’t get out much anymore. Don’t go to McDonald’s or for trips along Lake Superior on autumn days of amber and squash. Don’t go to church to climb the choir loft stairs. Rose depends on a cane. My mother uses a walker.
At night, when my mother goes to bed, Rose stands at the top of the stairs. When she’s sure my mother is near her bedroom door, Rose will call out, “Have sweet dreams about me, Mother.”
And my mother will call back, “I always do.”
I often wonder what’s in those sweet dreams. Are they the same sweet dreams Brother Francesco’s mother had when he was a child? Him, all legs and arms, sitting at the top of a fig tree, tossing fruit at passersby, yelling, “I baptize you in the name of the fig!” Or him slipping a gold band on a girl’s finger in a cathedral, her saying “yes” and him saying “yes.” Dreams any mother would have, absent of leprosy or levitation or grasshoppers singing arias or errant genetics. Dreams as common as hay.
Brother Francesco died on October 3, 1226. Bernard and Giles, two of his closest friends, recorded this fact: “Many birds, called larks, flew low above the roof of the house where he lay, wheeling in a circle and singing.” Two years later, Pope Gregory IX, another friend, canonized him. He became Saint Francesco of Assisi.
Early December. My mother and Rose are playing Casino again. Lining up pairs of kings and eights and aces. They play with their heads close together, almost touching, like they are praying or sharing family recipes for meatloaf or telling stories about boys they wanted to kiss long ago. The sun is gone. The windows are black mirrors. I can see Rose and my mother in the glass, etched in the night sky. For a moment, they are spinning constellations, human auroras. I imagine them playing cards above Grecio on Christmas Eve, above the woods, the cave. Rose lays down a nine. My mother claims a deuce. The people of Grecio crowd together. The ox moans. The donkey nickers, snorts. Rose slaps down a queen. My mother snatches it up. Francesco stands by the trough, swaying as if on a boat deck in bad seas. My mother and sister look down. Francesco looks up. They are surrounded by lepers and Syrians, scaly hands, extra chromosomes. A whole universe of vagrant stars telling the same once upon a time.
An unwanted child. Born in a strange land. Placed on a bed of warm hay.
In 1916—when the world was all mustard gas, Armenian genocide, and millions of displaced Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Jews—Pope Benedict XV had a poem for peace published in the Vatican newspaper. Its title now bears Francesco’s name:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
I would add one line: “Where there is hay, miracles.”