Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31: Should Auld Acquaintance...

I have no idea what "auld" acquaintance is.  I've always thought it meant old friends or lovers or times.  Basically, "Auld Lang Syne" is a lament about the past.  Maybe a warning even.  It's saying, "Don't think about the past" or "Think about the past with fondness."  It's about letting go and moving forward.

I am letting go this evening.  I'm saying goodbye to J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye after over 300 posts.  Holden has become a part of me, like Ebenezer Scrooge became a part of me in 2012.  I'm totally ready to part ways with Holden.  He's not an easy guy to live with for a year.  Of course, I will miss him.  Eventually.

For the first two years of my son's life, he never slept through the night.  I was up with him two or three times a night.  It was exhausting.  I would go to work tired, come home tired, go to bed tired.  I used to lie in bed, praying my son would sleep through the night.

Now my son is five years old.  He's stubbornly independent.  He doesn't like me to help him with anything.  In five or six years, he'll probably think I'm an idiot for not understanding the rules of football or not knowing the difference between the AFC or NFC or NFL or NHL.

My point is that I sort of miss the nights when my son would call out to me from his crib, needing comfort and love in the darkness.  And I will miss Holden eventually, as well.

Auld acquaintance.  Fond auld acquaintance.  Goodbye, Holden.

Saint Marty wishes you well.

Time to raise a cup of kindness...

December 31: Digression Business, New Year's Eve, End of Year Prayer

"Oh, I don't know.  That digression business got on my nerves.  I don't know.  The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses.  It's more interesting and all."

Holden admits to Mr. Antolini that he likes digressions.  Holden is more interested in small, inconsequential details.  Or perhaps he recognizes that the small, inconsequential details really contain the important things in life.  The only real way to know a person is to find out what he ate for breakfast, what grade he got in high school chemistry, or what Santa gave him for Christmas when he was eight years old.  Life is one big digression.

It is New Year's Eve.  A big, momentous day when we look back and look forward.  We think about the successes and failures of the past year.  We think about the possibilities and impossibilities of the coming year.  I have a lot of big disappointments I could dwell on this evening.  Personal and professional.  The year 2013 has not been kind to me.  I have a lot of empty pages I could dwell on this evening, as well.  The year 2014 holds much uncertainty for me.

However, I'm not going to focus on these big things.  I'm going to say an end of year prayer for digressions.

Dear Lord of Digressions,

I want to thank You for the peanut butter ball I ate this morning.  And the five dollar bill that currently resides in my pocket.  Thank You for Julia Roberts film festivals, all of that sentimentality and weeping.

When I went home this evening, the furnace was just kicking on.  As I sat down to read a late Christmas card from a friend in Washington state, I felt the heat on my feet, and it was good.  Thank You for that.

I am going to be playing games tonight with my family.  Pictionary.  Dictionary Dabble.  Sniglets.  We will laugh and argue and call each other names.  We will eat Wheat Thins and Cheetos and M&Ms.   At midnight, we will put on hats and blow horns, hug and kiss, wish each other "Happy New Year!"  And we will gather around the piano and sing "Auld Lang Syne."  It will be good.  Thank You for that.

Most of all, thank You for all the digressions to come in 2014.  Breakfasts with friends.  Prayers with my kids.  Trips (short and long).  Mornings with pink sunlight.  Evenings with purple clouds.  Long winter nights.  Longer summer days.  Cool autumn afternoons.  Hot chocolate mixed with Bailey's Irish Cream.  Churches lit by candlelight.

Thank You, Lord, for all these small digressions.

For it's in these digressions I find Your love.

Your loving child,

Saint Marty

Small blessings, small changes

December 30: What I Have Learned

I have learned a great deal about Holden Caulfield this year.  Holden is funny and smart.  He's a good writer, and so is his brother.  Holden has good taste in books, but he has lousy taste in friends.  Holden's severely depressed and has been for quite some time.  And Holden loves his little sister, Phoebe.  He smokes too much, eats too little, and thinks anybody over the age of ten or eleven is a phonie.

The most significant thing I will take away from my Catcher year is that it's not a great book to read if you're struggling in any way.  There's very little that's uplifting in Salinger's novel.  The only time Holden is truly happy comes at the end of the narrative, right before we find out that he's in a hospital, recuperating from a mental breakdown.  Holden's sitting in the rain, watching his little sister ride the merry-go-round in Central Park.  And he's really happy.

It's a simple moment.  Nothing really significant has happened.  Holden hasn't figured out the meaning of life.  He's figured out very little, actually.  Yet, he has finally reached a state of bliss.

Happiness isn't something to hunt down and capture.  Happiness doesn't depend on the school you attend, the job you have, or the people you call friends.  Happiness is a choice.  Whether you're sitting on a beach in Hawaii or on a bench in Central Park during a rainstorm, you can be happy.

Saint Marty chooses to be happy this last day of 2013.

It takes a lot of practice

Monday, December 30, 2013

December 30: Drawing to a Close, Relief, Magic 8-Ball

Goodbye, 2013!

The year is drawing to a close, and I am so ready for 2013 to be over.

I spent the day getting ready for New Year's Eve.  I went to my parents' house and decorated for our annual New Year's Eve party.  It's something I've been doing since I was about 12 or 13 years old.  I got a little tired of sitting home and watching the crowds in Times Square on TV.  So, I created my own Times Square at home.  Tomorrow night, I will be playing games, eating way too much junk food, and counting down the seconds to midnight.

It's going to be a quiet party.  Just close family.  No friends or in-laws.  Last year, my best friend from New Zealand was in town.  It was a great party.  We played games until two or three o'clock in the morning.  There was joy and expectation and hope.  This year, with the four or five people who will actually still be awake at midnight, I will experience a different emotion:  relief.

Which brings me to my final Magic 8-Ball question for this year of The Catcher in the Rye:

Will 2014 be a better year for me and my family?

And the final answer from Holden Caulfield is:

I went around the room, very quiet and all, looking at stuff for a while.  I felt swell, for a change.  I didn't even feel like I was getting pneumonia or anything any more.  I just felt good, for a change...

Well, that's encouraging.  Things in 2014 are going to be swell, good.  A change is on the way.

Can Saint Marty get an "amen"?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

December 29: Money Worries, Classic Saint Marty, New Cartoon

Last Sunday of the year 2013.  I got my last paycheck from the church today.  Next month, I may be working at another church, or I may be struggling to pay my mortgage.  I'll be bitter and angry.  Basically, I'll be George Bailey right before he meets Clarence on the bridge in It's a Wonderful Life.

Which leads right into today's episode of Classic Saint Marty.  This episode originally aired on December 21, 2011.  When I reread it a little while ago, it reminded me of how things haven't changed a whole lot in the last couple of years.  Same worries.  Same fears.  Same things to pray for.

Saint Marty needs to learn a new song.

December 21, 2011:  To Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar

"A toast!  A toast!  A toast to Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar, and if you want to keep this old Building and Loan in business, you better have a family real quick." 

George celebrating with Mama and Papa
George Bailey keeps the Building and Loan afloat through the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.  On October 24, 1929, a mob descends on his business, demanding their money.  Of course, George doesn't have it.  What he has is his money which he was about to spend on his honeymoon.  It amounts to about two thousand dollars.  At the end of the day, George has exactly two dollars left of that kitty.  He dubs those two bucks "Mama Dollar" and "Papa Dollar."  He makes the statement above and then parades around the office with Mama and Papa, as if he's in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  He's full of joy and triumph.  Over two dollars.

I went home last night to my drafty old barn.  I wasn't in the greatest of spirits, if you couldn't tell by my last post.  I struggled to be happy and upbeat for my daughter and son.  They'd both had great days.  My daughter won a lunch with a local celebrity singer at school, and my son had his Christmas program at school.  My daughter was bouncing around the house, singing Christmas carols, and my son was chasing her.  I had to get them dressed in their Christmas outfits to take a picture in front of the tree, which was about the last thing I felt like doing.  I'd sort of lost my taste for Christmas.

But I got my son dressed up.  I combed out my daughter's hair and braided it.  I put them in front of our Christmas tree, and I snapped a bunch of pictures.  I don't know if any of the pictures are that good, but they're done.  Now I just have to get some printed for our Christmas cards.

I didn't parade around the house with the camera after I took the pictures.  I didn't feel like I'd accomplished anything of great importance.  No Mama Photo and Papa Photo.  I spent the rest of night trying to shake off the disappointing news about the mortgage.  It didn't work.  I went to sleep and had horrible dreams filled with dark bridges and homeless people.

I can't work up much enthusiasm this morning to finish my Christmas poem or think about choir practice tonight.  I'm not George Bailey.  At this point in my day, I can't celebrate the three dollars I have in my pocket, because I know they're not going to magically procreate.  Even sitting at the breakfast table this morning with my coworkers drove me crazy.  I couldn't stand listening to their talk about Christmas brunches and Christmas mornings and family squabbles.

I know I'm supposed to turn to God at times like this, put my faith in Him.  One of my best friends has had a really rough few years with her kids.  We're talking suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and rehab.  The last two years, she's come to church on Christmas Eve with her family.  This year, things are quiet for her.  No huge crises brewing.  She's not coming to church this Christmas Eve.  I guess she doesn't need to thank God for the fact that her life, at the moment, is peaceful.  God is only for times of turmoil and despair.

At one point in It's A Wonderful Life, George folds his hands and prays.  It's the first time he's ever turned to God.  Sitting in Mr. Martini's bar, George is at the absolute end of his rope.  He starts out his prayer with these words:  "Dear Father in Heaven, I'm not a praying man..."  Turmoil and despair can turn atheists into praying men and women.

For most of his life, George's motivating factor is money.  Not greed.  Money.  Enough money to provide for his family and friends.  He dreams of tons of cash to go on trips, buy expensive cars.  In the end, Mama Dollar and Papa Dollar abandon him.  Then he turns to God, and God comes through.

Saint Marty has been worrying too much about Mama and Papa Dollar.  Maybe he needs to visit Mr. Martini's bar.  Say a little prayer.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, December 28, 2013

December 28: A Job Somewhere, Organist for Hire, New Cartoon

"...We'll stay in these cabin camps and stuff like that till the dough runs out.  Then, when the dough runs out, I could get a job somewhere and we could live somewhere with a brook and all and, later on, we could get married or something..."

Holden has a lot of plans for his future.  Most involve running away, living in some remote wilderness, and, eventually, getting married and acquiring a job.  You can tell he's a teenager.  He's full of the kind of optimism that a person who has been part of the work world for any length of time simply doesn't have any more.

I will soon be looking for work.  I need to find a church that needs a pipe organist because, as of January 1, I will no longer have a job at my current church.  It all boils down to the fact that people don't want to pay artists what they're worth.  I have over 25 years of experience as a church accompanist and musician.  I've earned a Master's in fiction writing and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry writing.  I've been a worship leader/planner at a couple of churches going back almost 15 years.

And yet I find myself unemployed.

I'm a little nervous about the whole job search process.  I haven't had to do it for a long time.  Until this year, I thought I was pretty secure in my employment situation.  Of course, I have learned there's no such thing as security.  All it takes is some accountants revising a budget, and suddenly I'm out of work.

I'm supposed to trust that God has a plan for my life.  That's all part of faith.  I'm supposed to know God has my back.

Saint Marty just hopes God's plan doesn't include foreclosure or bankruptcy or soup kitchens.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, December 27, 2013

December 27: A Christmas Poem, "WHEN I FIRST SAW SNOW," Gregory Djanikian

I have a poem for you guys tonight.  It's a Christmas poem I love by Gregory Djanikian.

Saint Marty hopes it warms the cockles of your heart.  It warms Saint Marty's cockles.  (Get your minds out of the gutter, people.)

Tarrytown, N. Y.

Bing Crosby was singing "White Christmas"
     on the radio, we were staying at my aunt's house
     waiting for papers, my father was looking for a job.
We had trimmed the tree the night before,
     sap had run on my fingers and for the first time
     I was smelling pine wherever I went.
Anais, my cousin, was upstairs in her room
     listening to Danny and the Juniors.
Haigo was playing Monopoly with Lucy, his sister,
     Buzzy, the boy next door, had eyes for her
     and there was a rattle of dice, a shuffling
     of Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens.
There were red bows on the Christmas tree.
It had snowed all night.
My boot buckle were clinking like small bells
     as I thumped to the door and out
     onto the grey planks of the porch dusted with snow.
The world was immaculate, new,
     even the trees had changed color,
     and when I touched the snow on the railing
     I didn't know what I had touched, ice or fire.
I heard, "I'm dreaming..."
I heard, "At the hop, hop, hop...Oh, baby."
I heard, "B & O" and the train in my imagination
     was whistling through the great plains.
And I was stepping off,
I was falling deeply into America.

I'm dreaming...

December 27: Next Year's Book

After much deliberation, I have chosen the book for next year.

You may remember that I was considering Willa Cather's My Antonia and E. B. White's Charlotte's Web.  Both are great books, and made Entertainment Weekly's list of the top ten novels of all time.  Either one would be a worthy choice.

Well, I have consulted many experts.  I prayed.  I called up the Vatican and spoke to Pope Francis.  I listened to the small inner voice inside my head.  (That didn't help.  It just kept saying, "Hillary Clinton for President!")

After all that, I'm pleased to announce that my choice for next year is...

Just kidding.

Next year's book is Charlotte's Web.

Saint Marty isn't really into badly written pornography.

December 27: A Christmas Fairy Tale and Stuff

This morning, I spent a couple of hours of quality time with my son.  We watched Curious George and Peg + Cat.  Breakfast was Ramen noodles and toast.  (OK, I said quality time, not quality food.)  We had a great time together.

Most days, I see my son for a total of two hours, right before bedtime.  That means he's usually cranky and in need of a bath.  He's usually not too happy to see me because I'm the bad guy.  I'm the one who drags him away from Minecraft or the iPad to scrape off the layer of sweat and dirt he's acquired over the past nine or ten hours.  He doesn't like baths, and he's very good at verbalizing this dislike.  And then, after I've tortured him in the bathtub for five or ten minutes, I drag him, kicking and biting and screaming, into his bedroom.

I much prefer giving him junk food in the morning and being a cool daddy who can tell him really good stories, like...

Once upon a time, and of all good times of the year, on Christmas Eve, a magician named Marlin was working late at the palace.  Marlin always worked long hours.  He left his cottage at four o'clock in the morning and didn't usually return until well after sunset.  He rarely saw his children, and his bloodhound bit him every time he walked through the front door.  The bloodhound was really stupid.

Marlin was a magician of the Third Order of Merlin.  That means he wasn't considered a very important magician at the royal court.  Usually, Marlin spent his days changing any boys who seemed interested in the king's daughters into frogs.  The princesses were very beautiful, so the palace was plagued with amphibians who went around croaking, "Kiissss meee, kisssss meee."  It wasn't exciting work, but it paid Marlin's mortgage.

This Christmas Eve, Marlin was wrapping up a few last-minute spells before heading home.  He had a knight with a hangnail to cure and a possessed toilet to exorcise.

Marlin sighed.  "I wish, just once," he thought, "I could have a really important spell to cast."

Just them, the king's adviser appeared.  "The king orders you to cast the annual White Christmas spell."

"But," Marlin said, "that spell is usually done by Gary, the court magician.  He's much better at it than I am."

"Gary called in sick," the king's adviser replied.  "There no other magician on call.  It's up to you to save Christmas."

"OK," Marlin said.  "I'll do my best."

The adviser went away.  Marlin took out his wand, thought for a moment, and then sang, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas."  He waved his wand.  "Just like the ones I used to know," he sang.  He cast the spell.

That night, every young boy in the kingdom was transformed into a frog.  On Christmas morning, the king summoned Marlin to the palace and ordered him to reverse his White Christmas spell.

"I don't know how," Marlin said.  "I didn't get past eighth grade in wizarding school."

"What am I supposed to do with all these frogs?" the king demanded.

"I have an idea," Marlin said.

And that is how the tradition of the royal Christmas frog leg feast started.

Moral of the story:  Frogs taste just like chicken.

And Saint Marty lived happily ever after.

White or dark meat?

December 27: Started to Cry, Angels, Piece of Mind

"You can take it all.  You can pay me back.  Bring it to the play."

"How much is it, for God's sake?"

"Eight dollars and eighty-five cents.  Sixty-five cents.  I spent some."

Then, all of a sudden, I started to cry.  I couldn't help it.

Holden's sister, Phoebe, gives Holden her Christmas "dough" because he's out of cash.  It's a simple act of giving.  Something that a kid does without thinking.  She has money.  Holden needs money.  She gives Holden her money.

I'm sorry I didn't post yesterday.  I worked twelve hours, and then my book club came over last night for our Christmas meeting.  They were here really late, and, by the time the house was cleaned up, I couldn't string two words together into a coherent sentence.

Which I'm really sorry about, because I really had a piece of my mind I wanted to share.  You see, on Christmas evening, we went to a get-together at the house of my wife's cousin.  It was lovely, noisy, crowded, and just a little out-of-control.  Basically, it was a family Christmas.  We had turkey and mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole.  All of my favorites.  And, of course, we opened presents.

My wife's family follows the tradition of choosing names.  So, each adult usually receives one present.  I prefer this tradition.  It cuts down on the commercialism that is rampant this time of year.  It also allows you to purchase something really decent for your person.

Well, I got a little surprise.  All of my wife's sisters, their husbands, our niece, and my wife's grandma pitched in and bought my wife and me a wonderful present.

One of the most expensive expenses in our weekly budget is the purchase of gasoline for our vehicles.  My jobs take me into Marquette, Michigan, about 20 miles away, every day.  My wife usually make at least one trip to the "big city" at least once a day, as well.  That's a lot of gas.

My sister-in-law handed me a card on Christmas night.  Inside the card were gift certificates to a local gas station.  A lot of gift certificates.  Enough so that we won't have to purchase gas for several weeks.  I sat there, completely stunned.  Then, like Holden, I started to cry.

"Don't do that," my wife's cousin said, "or we'll all be messes."

I laughed.

My wife and I are truly blessed.  Some people don't believe in angels.  I can tell you, without a doubt, that they exist.  I may never be able to pay back my wife's family for everything they've done for us over the years.  We've struggled through mental illness and addictions and separations.  We've endured.  Because of love.  Because of family.

Saint Marty believes in Christmas miracles.

Angels are all around me

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

December 25: A Christmas Poem, "Age of Miracles," Exhaustion

I promised you a Christmas poem, and I'm a person of my word.

I have been awake since about 5:30 this morning.  That's the time my son decided it was time to get and up and unwrap the presents.  I was able to hold him off until about 6:15 a.m., and then I gave up.  I knew I wasn't going to get any more sleep.  At this point, I'm pretty exhausted, and exhaustion is taken over every part of my body.

I'm trying to last long enough to get this post typed, but I've already nodded off a couple of times.

Saint Marty is ready for a long winter's nap.

Age of Miracles

for everyone we love, Christmas 2013

My daughter has reached that age
when her body unfurls
gospels of growth all night,
psalms filled with arm, leg, hair, sweat,
breath staled by the tilt
from girl to woman.  She will soon
inherit gifts.  Blood.  Ovum.  Creation.
Then she will be lost to me.  Gone
on a long journey across desert, mountain,
to a distant Bethlehem.

This December, she tells my wife
she doesn’t believe in caribou
flying over glacier, tundra.  Questions
things like seraphim choirs,
kingdoms at the North Pole,
donkeys that sing “Dona nobis pacem”
on the winter solstice.  I know,
she says, nods as if she’s accomplice
to some divine conspiracy theory.

So I write her this poem
about last Friday, when twenty inches
of snow fell in Cairo, Alexandria,
Jerusalem.  Brought the entire Middle East
a silence it hadn’t heard in 112 years.
Children in refugee camps danced
in the blizzard, made rosefinches
with ice bodies, palm frond wings.
No bombs.  No bullets.  Just white.
Everywhere.  White upon white.
From the Mediterranean to the Mount of Olives.

It’s a miracle, little girl,
like the smell of baked ham and cloves
on Christmas Eve, or the sound
of your first breath
the morning you were born.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

December 24 Make-Up: Christmas Eve, Christmas Essay, "Anatomy of a Christmas Poem"

Sorry about not posting yesterday.  I spent the entire running errands, visiting a sick friend, and then playing music for church services.

I have something special for you guys.  It's my 2013 Christmas essay.  I hope you like it.

Merry Christmas to all.  Saint Marty has to go to Christmas dinner at his cousin-in-law's house now.

Anatomy of a Christmas Poem

Summer.  1946.  Southern California.  One of the hottest on record.  During that June, July, and August, a film crew covered four acres of land in Encino with 6,000 gallons of artificial snow.  Three city blocks coated in foamite, soap, and water.  Up the main drag of this movie set, a tall, lanky screen idol ran in nearly one-hundred degree heat, sweating like a marathoner at the end of mile 26.

This movie star stumbled onto a bridge above boiling black water.  He glowed with perspiration as he whispered his lines, “Please, God, let me live again.”  Out of the humid air, more foamite, soap, and water began to fall, stirred softly by wind machines.

Director Frank Capra said of It’s A Wonderful Life, “It’s the picture I waited my whole life to make.”  Jimmy Stewart named George Bailey his favorite movie role ever.  Neither of them spoke of that 1946 summer or the time Capra had to give his entire cast and crew a day off to recuperate from filming in the heat.  But there’s no escaping the fact that, when the Baileys gather around the tree to sing “Auld Lang Syne” with family and friends at the end, there were men in tee-shirts and khakis off-camera, probably dreaming of a tall, cold beer instead of a white Christmas.


July.  2012.  The central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Typically the hottest month of summer.  Cicadas sawed the air.  Blueberries swelled in the forests, and Lake Superior rose to temperatures above glacial.  In the cool of evening, I’d lace up my Nikes and head out for a run.  Sometimes, I’d follow U. S. 41, semis and cars blowing by me at fatal speeds.  Other times, I’d hit the streets of downtown Ishpeming, past the Carnegie Library, Mather Inn, old Butler Theater, chasing the ghost of George Bailey.


I had big dreams as a kid.  Not of anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles like George.  I didn’t want to design new buildings and modern cities.  I wanted to write.  Bestselling novels.  Poetry collections.  Histories.  Biographies.  I was going to be a mash-up of Dickens, Frost, Capote, Faulkner, without the mental illness or alcoholism.  When I was 15, I listed in my journal two goals:  (1) win the Pulitzer Prize for anything by the age of 30, and (2) win the Nobel Prize by 40.  Big, George Bailey-sized dreams.


March.  1959.  The central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Snow still on the ground.  A passenger train slid into the Ishpeming station, stopped.  A crowd of close to 200 locals had gathered.  A door on the train opened, and George Bailey stepped out, squinting, probably, at the dance of sun on ice and snow.

Thirteen years after It’s A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart spent four months in the Upper Peninsula, in my home town, making a film with director Otto Preminger.  Stewart lived at the Mather Inn, worshipped at a local Presbyterian church, ate pizza at the Congress Lounge, strolled up Main Street some evenings.  Maybe he thought of George Bailey once or twice during his stay.  Maybe he was tempted in those first snowy weeks, as he walked past the Peninsula Bank, to yell out, “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old building and loan!”


Mr. Potter, the villain of It’s A Wonderful Life, describes George Bailey’s life like this:  “But George Bailey is not a common ordinary yokel.  He’s an intelligent, smart, ambitious young man who hates his job, who hates the building and loan almost as much as I do.

“A young man who’s been dying to get out on his own ever since he was born.  A young man—the smartest one of the crowd, mind you—a young man who has to sit by and watch his friends go places, because he’s trapped.  Yes, sir, trapped into frittering his life away playing nursemaid to a lot of garlic-eaters.”


July.  2012.  Downtown Ishpeming, Michigan.  Heavy construction equipment, deep trenches, mountains of dirt blocked my usual running route.  I took a labyrinth of side streets, alleys, bike paths to negotiate my way through the city.

My life hadn’t turned out the way I thought it would.  I was seven years older than George Bailey at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.  I worked two part-time jobs.  Played the pipe organ at a couple of local churches to supplement that income.  I’d published one collection of poems, earned three college degrees.  I had a wife and two kids, but no Pulitzer Prizes.  The closest I’d come to the Nobel Prize was a plate of Swedish lutfisk one Christmas.  As I ran up Main Street, I felt old man Potter’s breath in my ear.


When Jimmy Stewart stepped onto the set of It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946, he hadn’t made a movie in five years.  In that time, he served in the Air Force, officially flying 20 bombing missions over Europe, rising from the rank of private to colonel.  Stewart was unsure of his acting abilities after his military service, even though he’d already won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1941.  He questioned whether moviegoers would still pay money to see him on the screen.

He was nervous and hesitant, haunted by half a decade of war.  And he was portraying a man scared and desperate, haunted by a lifetime of cancelled dreams.


Being a full-time poet is like being a full-time cloud watcher.  Nobody will pay a person to lie on his back all day and gaze at formations of cumulus, nimbus, or cirrus to find Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane.  A mastodon rolling in snow.  A hummingbird sipping an apple blossom.  An encounter with a full-time poet is as rare as a sighting of Sasquatch, and, unless you have photographic evidence, nobody will believe you.  You can’t pay for a pound of hamburger with a sonnet, and you can’t buy your kids’ school supplies with a sestina.  That’s why William Carlos Williams was a doctor, and Wallace Stevens sold insurance.

That’s also why I was working as a part-time bookstore clerk in 1996.  And, because I couldn’t afford to buy presents that year, I wrote a Christmas poem to give to family and friends.  Metaphors were cheap, and microwave ovens were not.  I did spring for picture frames (two dollars each at Walmart) and some nice, cream-colored paper on which to print the poems.

But they weren’t much to look at.  The word “shabby” comes to mind, like George Bailey’s tiny office.  Like a wingless angel.


Spring.  1959.  The Carnegie Library in Ishpeming.  Closed to the public for a day.  It was getting warmer in the U. P., moving toward those blueberry months of summer.  Jimmy Stewart stood among the stacks on the second floor, above the circulation desk, pretending to be a lawyer for the movie cameras below.  It was a short scene, less than a minute or so in the final film.  A shot and a reaction shot.  Stewart searching for a legal precedent.  Not guilty by reason of insanity.  Innocent due to overwhelming passion.  Something like that.  An urge to do something crazy.  Skinny dip in a moonlit pond.  Climb Mount Bedford.  Smell the pines.  Watch the sunrise.


Violet Bick to George Bailey:  “Georgie, don’t you ever get tired of just reading about things?”


August.  2012.  The Carnegie Library in Ishpeming.  Summer was winding down, the fields and culverts of the U. P. swelling with Queen Anne’s lace, delicate as tissue paper frost.  I stood in the same place Jimmy Stewart stood almost 60 years before, on the second floor above the circulation desk, wondering what books he’d found on the shelves before him that day.  Maybe law books with sections like “State of Michigan v. Henry F. Potter.”  Travelogues on Fiji, Tahiti, the Coral Sea.  Poetry about having a mind of snow.  I ran my fingers over the spines, their cracks and tears.  George Bailey reached out, took my hand.


Almost twenty years of part-time jobs.  Bookstores.  Medical offices.  Schools.  Churches.  Twenty years of disconnect notices and overdraft statements.  Day-old bread pudding.  Ramen noodle casseroles.  Of chasing cirrus swans and nimbus bears.

Seventeen years of writing poems for Christmas gifts.  Some years, haiku.  Others, free verse.  A sonnet about Robert Frost’s last stop by a snowy woods.  A lament on lost love by Ebenezer Scrooge.  A meditation on Mary Bailey, naked, in the hydrangea bushes.


Comment by an angel second class:  “Strange, isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.  And when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”


Early summer.  1959.  The Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Jimmy Stewart climbed aboard a train and disappeared.


Instructions on how to write a Christmas poem: 

  1. Start early, July or August.
  2. Play Christmas music.  Bing Crosby or Dolly Parton.  “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or “Hard Candy Christmas.” 
  3. Think about the dreams you had as a child.  Santa Claus.  Monsters behind the shower curtain.  Rooms made of chocolate.  Asteroids and luna moths. 
  4. Remember the Christmas your daughter was 20 days old, no bigger than a loaf of sweet cardamom bread. 
  5. Remember the Christmas you had to explain to your daughter why mommy wasn’t living at home any more.  How you waited until your daughter was asleep and then went into the kitchen and washed the dishes with water so hot your hands stung until New Year’s Eve. 
  6. Write.


1947.  The Shrine Civic Auditorium.  Los Angeles.  Jimmy Stewart lost the Best Actor Oscar to Frederic March for The Best Years of Our Lives.


1960.  The Pantages Theatre.  Hollywood.  Jimmy Stewart lost the Best Actor Oscar to Charlton Heston for Ben-Hur.


Another comment by an angel second class:  “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”


October.  2012.  Ishpeming.  Maple leaves the color of pumpkin and crabapple outside my living room window.  I finished writing my Christmas poem, closed my journal.  The Chinese writer Mo Yan had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. 

In a few weeks, I’d bring boxes of garland, wreaths, and lights down from the attic.  Heavy snow wouldn’t come until early December.  On Thanksgiving night, I’d watch It’s A Wonderful Life with my wife in my shabby house, and we’d talk about what we could afford to buy our kids for Christmas.

Above us, an angel of blue and brown construction paper, studded with pink dots.  Made by my daughter nine years ago, “for good dreams,” she said.


A poem for everyone we love, Christmas 2012.


Ox and ass aren’t good enough
for my son this Advent
as ice claims Teal Lake and snow
hangs in the air like clean sheets
on a clothesline.  He stares
at the bisque Mary and Joseph,
the Baby, tiny as my thumbnail,
while I sing him a psalm of hay, cattle,
stars burning over a barn,
a sleeping Child.
But my son wants more than herders,
sheep and camels, a trio of sad
kings with their unimpressive myrrh and incense.
He wants the Child to have a universe
Of aliens with dove eyes, superheroes
with capes red as pomegranate Jell-O,
cars that roar like angel choirs.
The Child deserves all this, my son believes,
and more.  One night, I find
a tyrannosaur at the manger, paying
homage with tooth and claw.  Yesterday,
a Hershey kiss sat beside Mary,
a shimmering, silver comet.
My son keeps bringing gifts to the stable,
trying to find his place among angel
and cow.  I don’t tell him about
Herod, how innocence can be lost
in the time it takes for a school bell
to ring, or a soldier to raise a sword
and cut the young flocks in two.  No.
I’ll let my son return again and again
to share his stuff.  Unicorn.  Harmonica.
Butterfly wing.  Dragon.  Chocolate
milk, cold and dark and sweet.
My son waits for the Child
The way he waits for the neighbor boy
To finish dinner.  He stands
in the driveway at dusk,
stares at the neighbor’s house,
and calls out Come play with me
over and over
until someone answers
his prayer.


Harry Bailey’s toast:  “To my big brother, George—the richest man in town!”


On my pillow last night, a purple rubber band.  A gift from my five-year-old son.

I tuck it in my pocket, save it, like Zuzu’s rose petals.

No man is a failure who has friends