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
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:
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.
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.
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