Sunday, December 31, 2017

December 31: Poo-tee-weet, New Year's Eve, "Before 4:30 Mass"

Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street.  The trees were leafing out.  There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind.  There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses.  The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.

Birds were talking.  

One bird said to Billy Pilgrim:  "Poo-tee-weet?" 

The last three paragraphs of Slaughterhouse Five on this last day of the year.  Tonight, we bid farewell to Kurt Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim, Montana Wildhack, and Tralfamadore.  Old friends by this time.  It's fitting that the novel ends with a nonsensical question.  After all, the entire book is about things that don't make a whole lot of sense.

This year hasn't made a whole lot of sense, what with the ascendancy of Donald Trump and the descendancy of everything else.  I wish I could say that the world is a better place this December 31st than it was last December 31st.  Unfortunately, I can't make that assertion.  America, which WAS great, is not so great anymore.

However, as I said in yesterday's post, my life has been full of wonderful things--new friends and poems, recognitions that I'm not sure I really deserved, and good health for my wife and children.  Of course, I have had some personal challenges, too.  My father, who turned 90 this year, had to be moved into a nursing home.  My brother's heart attack in May, and all the complications that followed.  Brake jobs.  Frozen water pipes.

No year is ever all positive, unless you're delusional (ahem--Donald Trump).  However, I have been, for the most part, greatly blessed this year, and I want to thank all of my friends and family who have filled the last 365 days with so much joy.

Saint Marty wishes all of you a safe--and warm!--New Year's Eve, and grace and light in the coming year.

Before 4:30 Mass

by:  Martin Achatz

I look down from the choir loft
At the silence gathered below.
Mrs. MacDonald wears her wool coat
In the same pew she sat in
With her parents, seventy years ago.
She looks behind her, as if she expects
Her father to march up the aisle,
Sit next to her, his boots
Still red with dust from the mines.
Father George flits from person-to-person,
Like a hummingbird in an apple tree,
Pausing long enough to taste
The blossom of each sinner's grief
Before moving on.  My daughter, white
Acolyte, lights candles on the altar,
Checks chalice and paten, makes sure
Gospel and cloth are in place
For the coming show.  So much quiet
Desperation fills the sanctuary,
Everyone craving a piece of holiness
To bring home, bake with eggs and oatmeal,
Spaghetti and meatloaf for the week.
I reach down, press the red button.
The pipe organ takes a long breath,
Groans to life, resurrected again.
It waits for my fingers, holds
Music in its gold pipes that reach
Up and up to the vaulted ceiling,
To the bell in the steeple.  It waits
For that low D of the first hymn,
Voices rising like seagulls
Above the waves of Galilee.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

December 30: Yon Yonson, Second-to-Last Day, Taking Out the Trash

A couple of weeks after I telephoned my old war buddy, Bernard V. O'Hare, I really did go to see him.  That must have been in 1964 or so--whatever the last year was for the New York World's Fair.  Eheu, fugaces labuntur anni.  My name is Yon Yonson.  There was a young man from Stamboul.

I took two little girls with me, my daughter, Nanny, and her best friend, Allison Mitchell.  They had never been off Cape Cod before.  When we saw a river, we had to stop so they could stand by it and think about it for a while.  They had never seen water in that long and narrow, unsalted form before.  The river was the Hudson.  There were carp in there and we saw them.  They were as big as atomic submarines.

We saw waterfalls, too, streams jumping off cliffs into the valley of the Delaware.  There were lots of things to stop and see--and then it was time to go, always time to go.  The little girls were wearing white party dresses and black party shoes, so strangers would know at once how nice they were.  "Time to go, girls," I'd say.  And we would go.

And the sun went down, and we had supper in an Italian place, and then I knocked on the front door of the beautiful stone house of Bernard V. O'Hare.  I was carrying a bottle of Irish whiskey like a dinner bell.

It is the second-to-last day of Slaughterhouse Five and Kurt Vonnegut.  He's on a journey in this little passage, going to visit his old war friend.  It's the start of the book that will take him to Dresden and Tralfamadore and back, over and over and over.  Billy Pilgrim hasn't made an appearance yet, and time is still pretty stable.

Journeys always seem to begin and end in the same place.  You leave home, fly or drive hundreds or thousands of miles, and then return home again.  That's what this year has been like for me.  I started off, walking hand-in-hand with Vonnegut, into January, 2017.  And now, the day before New Year's Eve, I'm still walking hand-in-hand with him toward January again.

A snow storm is on the way today.  According to the National Weather Service, we could receive up to ten or twelve inches of fresh white stuff.  It's like God is getting ready to erase 2017 off the face of the planet.  He's taking out the trash.  Out with the old, in with the new. 

Of course, I must say that, while 2017 was the year of Donald Trump and his Nazi cohorts, I have had a pretty good twelve months.  I was named Poet Laureate.  I've traveled from one end of the Upper Peninsula to the other, giving readings, raising money for causes that are important to me.  This month, I was given a teaching award from the university.

So, I will remember 2017 as a good year for me, personally, but a pretty shitty year for my country and the world, in general.  I have great optimism for the future.  I think that Donald Trump will not be President of the United States next December.  I think that all of the Republicans who've screwed over the middle-income and lower-income citizens of this country will be voted out of office next November.  There will be a quiet, peaceful political revolution.

And Saint Marty will continue to write poems and teach and do Poet Laureate stuff, trying to make the world a little better.

December 30: Frankie, Ravi Shankar, "Snowfall"

I am sitting in McDonald's at the moment, looking out of the long wall of windows, waiting for the snow to start.  I think they're calling this storm Frankie, which, to me, sounds like a character in a 1930s James Cagney gangster film:  "Wait 'til Frankie shows up, see.  Frankie will set you straight, you dirty rat."

I am not excited about dealing with a huge snow.  It just complicates my day and my plans.  However, I have chosen to live in an area of the country where snow and cold basically controls your life for about seven months of the year, if you're lucky.  Eight months, if you're unlucky.

So, I am thankful that, at the moment, the sky is blue, and the wind is nonexistent.

Saint Marty is on vacation and ready to relax a little bit this New Year's weekend.


by:  Ravi Shankar

Particulate as ash, new year's first snow falls
upon peaked roofs, car hoods, undulant hills,
in imitation of motion that moves the way

static cascades down screens when the cable
zaps out, persistent & granular with a flicker
of legibility that dissipates before it can be

interpolated into any succession of imagery.
One hour stretches sixty minutes into a field
of white flurry: hexagonal lattices of water

molecules that accumulate in drifts too soon
strewn with sand, hewn into browning
mounds by plow blade, left to turn to slush.

Friday, December 29, 2017

December 29: Late at Night, Keeps Him Awake, Insulated Pipes

We were United World Federalists back then.  I don't know what we are now.  Telephoners, I guess.  We telephone a lot--or I do, anyway, late at night.

It is late at night right now.  A long day of work and worry.  I think that's why Vonnegut makes phones calls late at night.  In the early morning hours, he starts thinking about the past, the war, Dresden.  He tries to make sense of everything he's seen and done.  It keeps him awake.  Makes him worry.

This week, I have been sleeping little at night because of my freezing/frozen water lines.  Worrying and fretting.  I'm really good at those two things.  Today, a couple plumbers came to our house.  They thawed and insulated our pipes.  According to them, we shouldn't have any more problems this winter.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for a good night's sleep.

December 29: Hopes for the New Year, W. S. Merwin, "To the New Year"

I have hopes for the New Year.  I hope for health and happiness.  For the safety and happiness of my wife and children and friends.  Success in my writing and work and teaching.  Cheesecake.  I hope for cheesecake.  And maybe a few good poems.

Saint Marty wishes for running water and little snow tomorrow morning.

To the New Year

by:  W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Thursday, December 28, 2017

December 28: Top Secret, Water Pipes, Next Year's Book

World War Two had certainly made everybody very tough.  And I became a public relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, and a volunteer fireman in the village of Alplaus, where I bought my first home.  My boss there was one of the toughest guys I ever hope to meet.  He had been a lieutenant colonel in public relations in Baltimore.  While I was in Schenectady he joined the Dutch Reformed Church, which is a very tough church, indeed.

He used to ask me sneeringly sometimes why I hadn't been an officer, as though I'd done something wrong.

My wife and I had lost our baby fat.  Those were our scrawny years.  We had a lot of scrawny veterans and their scrawny wives for friends.  The nicest veterans in Schenectady, I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought. 

I wrote the Air Force back then asking for details about the raid on Dresden, who ordered it, how many planes did it, why they did it, what desirable results there had been and so on.  I was answered by a man who, like myself, was in public relations.  He said that he was sorry, but that the information was top secret still.

I read the letter out loud to my wife, and I said, "Secret?  My God--from whom?"

Top secret.  For the last three days, I have been battling frozen water pipes.  I have e-mailed the city manager, gotten up in the middle of the night to flush my toilet and turn on faucets, and slept poorly.  Yesterday, I finally called a plumber.  The plumber was supposed to show up today, but postponed because of people with more urgent situations.  The plumber is supposed to show up between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. tomorrow.  The actual time, I guess, is top secret.

Another top secret--the book I will be focusing on next year.  That's right, the year of Kurt Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse Five is drawing to a close.  A new year will soon be upon us, and I have to choose a new novel, poetry collection, or work of nonfiction.  I can't say that I'm leaning toward any specific author.

I've been thinking about Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.  Or the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Another possibility--Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Usually, I've already made up my mind by this time of the year.  Not so much this time.

Tonight, I plan to go home and peruse my bookshelves.  I'm hoping some title will jump out at me. or that a book will fall on my head.  I need some kind of inspiration.  This evening, however, after several almost sleepless nights, I'm not feeling the touch of any muse.

So, if you are out there, Constant Reader, send me some book suggestions.  I will seriously consider any work except The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump.

Lend tired Saint Marty a hand.

December 28: Letting Go, Naomi Shihab Nye, "Burning the Old Year"

We come to a time of letting go.  In a few days, we will be writing "2018" on all our letters and e-mails and checks and poems.  It is time to think about endings and beginnings.

I am ready to let go of 2017, which has been full of wonderful things for me.  But, of course, it hasn't been all poetry and joy.  There have been challenges, as well.

Saint Marty is ready to start the fire . . .

Burning the Old Year

by:  Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.   
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,   
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,   
lists of vegetables, partial poems.   
Orange swirling flame of days,   
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,   
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.   
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,   
only the things I didn’t do   
crackle after the blazing dies.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

December 27: I Know, Water Line, Christmas Night

Even then I was supposedly writing a book about Dresden.  It wasn't a famous air raid back then in America.  Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance.  I didn't know that, either.  There hadn't been much publicity.

I happened to tell a University of Chicago professor at a cocktail party about the raid as I had seen it, about the book I would write.  He was a member of a thing called The Committee on Social Thought.  And he told me about the concentration camps, and about how the Germans had made soap and candles out of the fat of dead Jews and so on.

All I could say was, "I know, I know, I know."

Okay, this little passage reminds me of a few things.  No matter how bad my life may seem, it really isn't that bad.  I have never had to fight in a war.  I live in a country where dictators don't exist (sort of).  Genocide is not a thing of the past, but I don't have to worry about being dragged out of my bed and executed for my beliefs.  Yet.  I am pretty lucky.

I have had to remind myself of this fact several times today.  My water line was frozen again this morning.  With a little prayer, and about 40 minutes of my kitchen faucet running, I was able to restore water to my bathroom.  Then my wife and I went to work.  When I got home this afternoon, my bathtub faucet was frozen again.

While I know this isn't a life-or-death problem, I'm getting a little weary of worrying about it.  Tomorrow, a plumber is coming out, hopefully to insulate the pipes or blow the house up.  Either way, the issue will be handled.

Things like this humble me.  I was feeling pretty good about my life on Christmas night.  I was tired but comfortable.  Then, I woke up on December 26, and I have been struggling ever since.  God has a way of taking you down a couple pegs when you think you're on stable ground.  It's like He knocks on the door and says, "Guess who?"

So, forgive me if I'm feeling sorry for myself.  Can't help it tonight.  I know that I am still pretty blessed.  Healthy kids.  Healthy wife.  Food in the fridge.  Heat in my house.  And, as of two hours ago, clean running water.

Saint Marty is thankful this evening for drinking water.

December 27: End of 2017, Joy Harjo, "Remember"

We are almost at the end of 2017.  For me, it's been a pretty good year, personally.  I wish I could say the same for the rest of the world.

When people think back on this year, they will probably remember it as the year of Trump.  That makes me a little sad.

Saint Marty will remember the last 365 days a little differently.  They were full of poetry and happiness and celebration.


by:  Joy Harjo

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

December 26: Three Musketeers Bar, No Water, Christmas Hangover

While I was studying to be an anthropologist, I was also working as a police reporter for the famous Chicago City News Bureau for twenty-eight dollars a week.  One time they switched me from the night shift to the day shift, so I worked sixteen hours straight.  We were supported by all the newspapers in town, and the AP and UP and all that.  And we would cover the courts and the police stations and the Fire Department and the Coast Guard out on Lake Michigan and all that.  We were connected to the institutions that supported us by means of pneumatic tubes which ran under the streets of Chicago.

Reporters would telephone in stories to writers wearing headphones, and the writers would stencil the stories on mimeograph sheets.  The stories were mimeographed and stuffed into the brass and velvet cartridges which the pneumatic tubes ate.  The very toughest reporters and writers were women who had taken over the jobs of men who'd gone to war.

And the first story I covered I had to dictate over the telephone to one of those beastly girls.  It was about a young veteran who had taken a job running an old-fashioned elevator in an office building.  The elevator door on the first floor was ornamental iron lace.  Iron ivy snaked in and out of the holes.  There was an iron twig and two iron lovebird perched upon it.

The veteran decided to take his car into the basement, and he closed the door and started down, but his wedding ring was caught in all the ornaments.  So he was hoisted into the air and the floor of the car went down, dropped out from under him, and the top of the car squashed him.  So it goes.

So I phoned this in, and the woman who was going to cut the stencil asked me, "What did his wife say?"

"She doesn't know yet," I said.  "It just happened."

"Call her up and get a statement."


"Tell her you're Captain Finn of the Police Department.  Say you have some sad news.  Give her the news, and see what she says."

So I did.  She said about what you would expect her to say.  There was a baby.  And so on. 

When I got back to the office, the woman writer asked me, just for her own information, what the squashed guy had looked like when he was squashed.

I told her.

"Did it bother you?" she said.  She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar.

"Heck no, Nancy," I said.  "I've seen lots worse than that in the war."

Vonnegut is young, just returned from the war for a few years, studying anthropology and working as a journalist.  Since he's working the crime beat, he's exposed to a lot of gruesome scenes, as this passage verifies.  Yet, because of his war experiences, he seems anesthetized to the blood and violence.  Unfazed.  Like he has a war hangover.

Welcome to the day after Christmas.  I woke up this morning, after a good eight hours of sleep, still feeling heavy and exhausted.  I shuffled to the bathroom at around 7 a.m., did my business, and flushed the toilet.  The water in the bowl went down and didn't come back up.  I went to the bathroom sink, turned the cold water handle.  Nothing came out.  Ditto in the bathtub and kitchen.

My water line was frozen.  So, at around 7:45 a.m., I was on the phone with the Public Works Department, listening to a voice on the other end tell me I needed to get a hairdryer, find where the water came into my house, and try to thaw the pipe.  I sat at my kitchen table for a second and then said, "Yeah, that's not going to happen.  Could you please send somebody out?"

Two-and-a-half hours later, two men in yellow reflective coats were in the crawlspace under my house, breaths fogging the air, using a heat gun to get the water flowing.  After twenty minutes, there were drips.  Then a trickle.  Then a steady, thick stream.

So, water was restored in my house about 10 a.m.  And I was still feeling heavy and exhausted.  Vonnegut has a war hangover.  I have a Christmas hangover.  It feels like I'm not going to recover until after New Year's.  This cold snap (40-below-zero wind chills last night) is supposed to last a couple more days.  Hopefully, my water lines will remain ice-free until it passes.

My daughter is at home with her boyfriend.  I am at my parents' house with my son, who is currently having a mini-breakdown because his Nintendo Switch, which he received yesterday from Santa, isn't behaving properly.  My wife is almost asleep on the couch, and I am contemplating my return to work tomorrow morning with more than a little dread.

Basically, it's a typical day-after-Christmas day.

Saint Marty is thankful for running water this afternoon.

December 26: Back into the Swing, Kobayashi Issa, "New Year's Day"

Well, I am trying to get back into the swing of things with this blog.  This past week has been more than a little insane, what with my trip to Calumet, Christmas preparations, church services, Christmas turkey, Christmas dinner, relatives, and frozen water pipes.

Now, the year is winding down, like a tired clock.  The year 2017 will be in the history books in just a few days.  In a few days, it will be the time for new beginnings.

So, for the next seven or so days, I will be featuring poems about New Year's and starting afresh.

Saint Marty is ready to begin again.  In a few days.  After a nap.

New Year's Day

by:  Kobayashi Issa

New Year's Day--
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Monday, December 25, 2017

December 25: Merry Christmas, Special Hot Chocolate, Christmas Essay

Greetings and Merry Christmas to all.

I hope the day has been peaceful and filled with joy for everyone. 

My day has been full, that's for sure.  We were up at 6 a.m., thanks for my son, to open presents and have breakfast.  Then I played the pipe organ for church at 9 a.m.  Presents and lunch at my parents' house afterward.  We went to visit my father at the nursing home for a little while in the afternoon.  Then dinner at my house with my wife's family (a four-hour affair of turkey with all the fixings, cheesecake and an eggnog cake roll, and lots of special hot chocolate (heavy on the special).  Then more presents.

I finished cleaning up a little while ago, then passed out on the couch.  I am now watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas  with Jim Carrey.

Like I said, a full day.  Lots of family and love.

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

A Christmas essay to end the holiday . . .

A Snow Globe, a Magic Wand, and a Kazoo

by:  Martin Achatz

Dear Santa,

I hope you and Mrs. Claus had a good year.  Did you grow enough carrots for the reindeer?  Can you grow carrots at the North Pole, or do you have to import them?

I think I have been a good boy even if I punched Silas on the playground.  I think I should still get a Cozmo Robot.

Some kids tell me I should not believe in you any more.  They say I am too big.  I do not care what they say.  I still believe.




My eight-year-old son, Gideon, didn’t know that Aztecs believed night was a black orb roaring through an underworld of infant souls.  That the souls were babies taken away before their first suckle and babies waiting in the wings for the applause of their births.  That this black orb was also coupled with a Clawed Butterfly, a creature of obsidian wing that feasted on the living during solar eclipses.  My son didn’t know any of this that day in August when the moon swallowed the sun in one coronal gulp.


As a young reporter, Francis Pharcellus Church catalogued the dead of Gettysburg and Bull Run.  Smelled gunpowder burn at Fredericksburg.  At night, decades later, he probably still heard young men moaning for their mothers or girlfriends under a pall of battlefield smoke.  It was a time of testing the nation’s beliefs, as Abraham Lincoln said.  A crucible of Minie ball and bayonet.  Despite being the son of a minister, despite the tabernacle and pews of his last name, Francis became hardened and cynical, a devout atheist.  He left his faith on the piles of amputated arms and legs of the Civil War.

On his first day of kindergarten, Gideon sat under his desk, crowed like a Jurassic bantam when his teacher tried to coax him into the reading circle.  He didn’t care about green or orange, nine plus one.  Ate his afternoon goldfish crackers before the first bell.  Chased his classmates at recess, barking elephant seal barks.

After two days, his teacher phoned, told us, “I don’t know what to do with your son.”  After five weeks, he was serving lunch detentions with fifth and sixth graders.  In December, he told us not to hang up his Christmas stocking.  He shook his head, as if trying to unknot a stubborn shoelace, said to my wife, “What is wrong with me, Mumma?”


During eclipses, Vikings would scream, roar, beat drums, blow lur horns as if pillaging the darkness for light.  They believed twin wolves chased the sun and moon across the sky in a celestial game of fetch.  The noises the Vikings made were to force the wolves to drop their lunar or solar balls.

Australian aborigines blamed eclipses on an aboriginal tribe that lived on the craters and valleys of the moon.  They believed this tribe, filled with ill will, stole the sun away, hid it under dust, in shadows, the way my son squirreled away the rock he threw at our front porch window, the glass ribbing with forks and fault lines.


Francis Church became a part of the skepticism of the skeptical age that followed the Civil War.  He wrote for several newspapers, got married, but never had children.  Perhaps this was by choice.  Perhaps, after witnessing cannonballs shredding the bodies of men and boys with whom he’d just breakfasted, Church didn’t want to bring another life into the world.  Perhaps, on his wedding night, he told his bride, Mary Elizabeth, of how hard it was to scrape the mud of Bull Run from his boots, how the bloody dirt made the leather look like open wounds.


A diagnosis:  Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

. . . a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of an angry or irritable mood, defiant or argumentative behavior, and vindictiveness toward people in authority.  The child’s behavior often disrupts the child’s normal daily activities, including activities within the family and at school.
Errata:  Substitute “Gideon” for the word “child.”


Solar eclipses were believed to be evil portents for kings and emperors in the ancient world.  In China, for example, a pair of royal astronomers were executed because they got drunk and failed to foretell the swallowing of the sun by an unseen dragon on October 22, 2137 BCE.  A poem recorded their fates:
     Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi,
     Whose fate though sad was visible,
     Being hanged because they could not spy
     Th’ eclipse which was invisible.


In the summer of 1897, the New York Sun received the following letter from a young reader:

Dear Editor,

I am eight years old.  Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.  Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun it’s so.”  Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

The chore of answering the letter was assigned to one of the Sun’s veteran editors.  A no-nonsense man with a walrus moustache who preferred to wrestle with political scandals and religious controversies.  A man of hard facts whose only faith was his pen and a sheet of blank paper.  He saw the universe as broad, unknowable, humans as ants, tiny and insignificant.  The man’s name was Francis Church.


It’s a terrifying thing to feed your six-year-old son psychiatric drugs.  Imagine Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Windhover, a beautiful bird with gold-vermillion feathers, that fills your mornings and days with wild forest sounds, gashes of leafy sunlight.  Now, imagine having to clip that bird’s wings, ground him forever from the blue bowl of the heavens.


Writer Annie Dillard says this in her essay “Total Eclipse”:

. . . The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience.  Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas Card.  I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-five photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and the multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid.  More fearsome things can come in envelopes.  More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines.  But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.


According to Edward P. Mitchell, editor of the New York Sun’s editorial page, Francis, “bristled and pooh-poohed at the subject when I suggested he write a reply . . . but he took the letter and turned with an air of resignation to his desk.”  Instead of grappling with election laws or the presence of foreign ships in American waters, Church spent the day drafting a reflection on something beyond sense and sight, on a subject boundless and eternal.


Last Christmas, my son’s class had a Secret Santa gift exchange.  Every student in the room was supposed to spend one dollar on a present for another student.  Pencil erasers.  Plastic tiaras.  Whistles or harmonicas.  After several minutes of shopping at the Dollar Tree, Gideon handed my wife a snow globe, a magic wand, and a kazoo. 

My wife told him he only needed one gift.

My son’s eyes went dark, and my wife steeled herself for a Godzilla apocalypse.

“But, Mumma,” he said, “what if someone forgets to bring a present?”


Here is part of what Francis Pharcellus Church—former war correspondent, seasoned journalist, avowed atheist, childless husband—wrote in reply:

Not believe in Santa Claus!  You might as well not believe in fairies!  You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? . . . The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.  Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?  Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.  Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.  Is it all real? . . . in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.


August 21, 2017.  1:15 p.m.

My wife was trying to capture the solar eclipse with a cell phone and a piece of paper, pinpricked in the center.  She had no special glasses to view the lid of the moon sliding over the sun, but she wanted to prove to Gideon what was happening above them.  She called him to come over, but he was squatting a few feet away, staring at the sidewalk.  He ignored my wife’s pleas.  Finally, my wife went to him, to see what he was studying.

The maple tree above them blazed with chlorophyllic light.  Its leaves were studded with holes, places where aphids and wasps had chewed through.  The disappearing sun blasted through these apertures to the ground below.  My son was engulfed by hundreds of eclipses, thumbnail runes shifting and tumbling in the afternoon breeze.


A couple of scientific facts:

1.     A solar eclipse travels at 1700 miles per hour.
2.     Santa Claus would have to travel at 650 miles per second (3000 times the speed of sound) to deliver his freight of toys.


Dear Gideon,

Mrs. Claus and I had a wonderful year.  Yes, the elves were able to grow plenty of carrots for the reindeer.

You have been a very good boy.  I wish I could say the same for Silas.

It gets harder and harder to find children like you in this world.  So many of your little friends think that the moon and angels can’t exist together.  That the sun is too bright for the scales of dragons.  You may never visit Mars or Jupiter, but they are still above, shining down.  You may not be able to catch your parents’ love in a measuring cup, but it’s as real and deep as Lake Superior.

Shadows exist.  They race across the world at frightening speeds, darkening people’s hearts.  Don’t waste your time chasing shadows.  Just remember that after the moon comes the sun, after night comes morning.  Follow the light.

I believe in you, too.