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:
- Start early, July or August.
- Play Christmas music. Bing Crosby or Dolly Parton. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” or “Hard Candy Christmas.”
- Think about the dreams you had as a child. Santa Claus. Monsters behind the shower curtain. Rooms made of chocolate. Asteroids and luna moths.
- Remember the Christmas your daughter was 20 days old, no bigger than a loaf of sweet cardamom bread.
- 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.
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
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.
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