Thursday, December 31, 2020

December 29-31: Sing With Peace, New Year's Eve, In the Midst of Death

 Merton has an epiphany . . . 

I had my thesis to type out, and a lot of books to read, and I was thinking of preparing an article on Crashaw which perhaps I would send to T. S. Eliot for his Criterion. I did not know that Criterion had printed its last issue, and that Eliot’s reaction to the situation that so depressed me was to fold up his magazine. 

The days went on and the radios returned to their separate and individual murmuring, not to be regimented back into their appalling shout for yet another year. September, as I think, must have been more than half gone. 

I borrowed Father Leahy’s life of Hopkins from the library. It was a rainy day. I had been working in the library in the morning. I had gone to buy a thirty-five-cent lunch at one of those little pious kitchens on Broadway— the one where Professor Gerig, of the graduate school of French, sat daily in silence with his ancient, ailing mother, over a very small table, eating his Brussels sprouts. Later in the afternoon, perhaps about four, I would have to go down to Central Park West and give a Latin lesson to a youth who was sick in bed, and who ordinarily came to the tutoring school run by my landlord, on the ground floor of the house where I lived. 

I walked back to my room. The rain was falling gently on the empty tennis courts across the street, and the huge old domed library stood entrenched in its own dreary greyness, arching a cyclops eyebrow at South Field. 

I took up the book about Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chapter told of Hopkins at Balliol, at Oxford. He was thinking of becoming a Catholic. He was writing letters to Cardinal Newman (not yet a cardinal) about becoming a Catholic. 

All of a sudden, something began to stir within me, something began to push me, to prompt me. It was a movement that spoke like a voice. 

"What are you waiting for?” it said. “Why are you sitting here? Why do you still hesitate? You know what you ought to do? Why don’t you do it?” 

I stirred in the chair, I lit a cigarette, looked out the window at the rain, tried to shut the voice up. “Don’t act on impulses,” I thought. “This is crazy. This is not rational. Read your book.” 

Hopkins was writing to Newman, at Birmingham, about his indecision. 

“What are you waiting for?” said the voice within me again. “Why are you sitting there? It is useless to hesitate any longer. Why don’t you get up and go?” 

I got up and walked restlessly around the room. “It’s absurd,” I thought. “Anyway, Father Ford would not be there at this time of day. I would only be wasting time.” 

Hopkins had written to Newman, and Newman had replied to him, telling him to come and see him at Birmingham. 

Suddenly, I could bear it no longer. I put down the book, and got into my raincoat, and started down the stairs. I went out into the street. I crossed over, and walked along by the grey wooden fence, towards Broadway, in the light rain. 

And then everything inside me began to sing—to sing with peace, to sing with strength, and to sing with conviction. 

I had nine blocks to walk. Then I turned the corner of 121st Street, and the brick church and presbytery were before me. I stood in the doorway and rang the bell and waited. 

When the maid opened the door, I said: 

“May I see Father Ford, please?” 

“But Father Ford is out.” 

I thought: well, it is not a waste of time, anyway. And I asked when she expected him back. I would come back later, I thought. 

The maid closed the door. I stepped back into the street. And then I saw Father Ford coming around the corner from Broadway. He approached, with his head down, in a rapid, thoughtful walk. I went to meet him and said: 

“Father, may I speak to you about something?” 

“Yes,” he said, looking up, surprised. “Yes, sure, come into the house.” 

We sat in the little parlor by the door. And I said: “Father, I want to become a Catholic.” 

It's a profound moment of revelation for Merton.  Everyone experiences times like this in their lives--where the fog lifts and the road forward becomes clear. While Merton has been toying with the notion of conversion for quite a while, he has never given voice to it--confessed it--before.  He does so now to a Catholic priest.  Even if he backslides, he can never unspeak these words.  He will never be the same again.

It is New Years Eve.  An evening that invites reflection and resolution.  People take stock of the previous 365 days.  Think about failures and successes, losses and joys.  This year has been rife with struggles for everyone across the globe.  Unless you are a resident of Antarctica, you have been somehow affected by COVID-19, directly or indirectly.  Nobody on the planet will ever be the same again.

For the first seven months of this year, I worked in healthcare.  I sat at hospital entrances, taking names and temperatures.  Screening patients for symptoms.  Answering phone calls from frightened family members.  Worrying on a daily basis about carrying coronavirus home to my family.  

Since March, my social circle has pretty much been limited to about three or four people--my wife, daughter, son, and daughter's boyfriend.  That's it.  My interaction with family members outside my household has been pretty much limited to six-foot distant conversations from doorways.  An outside barbecue or two.  One small birthday gathering.

Meanwhile, the citizens of my country were dealing with a leader who was becoming increasingly unhinged.  Who claimed the pandemic was nothing worse than a normal flu season, and that the virus would simply vanish in warm weather.  He criticized scientists and medical doctors, and encouraged people to defy the most basic of safety measures--facemasks and social distancing.  The result?  344,000 deaths in the United States.

In addition, racial tensions spilled into the streets, and politics edged toward fascism and dictatorship.  

And, for the last month of the year, I have been in quarantine with my family, with both of my kids contracting COVID-19.  Tonight, on this night of looking forward and back, I give thanks that my daughter and son have recovered, and my wife and I tested negative.

During this month of isolation, I have been blessed so many times by the kindness of friends.  Some dropped off groceries.  Others brought dog treats.  Dinners.  Snacks.  Cards in the mail.  Text messages.  It has been a lesson, for me, in the inherent goodness of people.  

So, I sit here at the brink of 2021, counting some of the blessings of 2020:

  • I started a new job that pays me to organize poetry readings and concerts and theatricals and fundraisers.  This isn't work for me.  It's earning money for dreaming.
  • I got a beautiful new puppy that fills my house with love and laughter every day.
  • My beautiful wife got a new job, as well.
  • My beautiful daughter was promoted to a supervisor.
  • My beautiful mother fell out of bed and broke her hip  She had hip replacement and is currently a resident at a nursing home.  She contracted COVID, but her symptoms remained mild, and she never lost her appetite or smile.
  • My beautiful sister, Rose, who has Down Syndrome, ended up in the ICU with heart issues.  She's on medication now, doing physical therapy.  Home.
  • I published some poems and started a podcast.
  • I reconnected with a beautiful friend who lives downstate, and we have become writing buddies.  Just last night, we Zoomed and drank and wrote.  And drank some more.
I could go on.  And on.  There's a saying from the Book of Common Prayer:  "In the midst of life, we are in death."  For 2020, I think that the saying is a little different:  "In the midst of death, we are in life."  In the face of so much suffering and division, there have been miracles, as well.  Things to celebrate.  Yes, we lost Sean Connery this year.  But Betty White is still alive and kickin'.  Yes, my 12-year-old son ended up in the ER this fall because he was having ideas of self-harm.  But tonight he's playing Family Feud and Taboo with us, laughing and joking.

As the clock counts down to the first hour of 2021, I celebrate all of the miracles of 2020.  There have been many.  Yes, a year from now, ten years from now, 25 years, the newspapers and history books will be filled stories of overrun hospitals, body counts, racial protests turning violent.  Pictures of empty churches.  Masked families.  Angry, MAGA-hat wearing domestic terrorists.

Here is what Saint Marty will remember about this year:  tonight, with his family.  Everyone laughing.  Healthy.  Hopeful.  Together.

Monday, December 28, 2020

December 28: My Lost Identity, Some Beliefs, Hosting Poetry Readings

 Merton and looming war . . . 

The city felt as if one of the doors of hell had been half opened, and a blast of its breath had flared out to wither up the spirits of men. And people were loitering around the newsstands in misery. 

Joe Roberts and I sat in my room, where there was no radio, until long after midnight, drinking canned beer and smoking cigarettes, and making silly and excited jokes but, within a couple of days, the English Prime Minister had flown in a big hurry to see Hitler and had made a nice new alliance at Munich that cancelled everything that might have caused a war, and returned to England. He alighted at Croydon and came stumbling out of the plane saying “Peace in our time!” 

I was very depressed. I was beyond thinking about the intricate and filthy political tangle that underlay the mess. I had given up politics as more or less hopeless, by this time. I was no longer interested in having any opinion about the movement and interplay of forces which were all more or less iniquitous and corrupt, and it was far too laborious and uncertain a business to try and find out some degree of truth and justice in all the loud, artificial claims that were put forward by the various sides. 

All I could see was a world in which everybody said they hated war, and in which we were all being rushed into a war with a momentum that was at last getting dizzy enough to affect my stomach. All the internal contradictions of the society in which I lived were at last beginning to converge upon its heart. There could not be much more of a delay in its dismembering. Where would it end? In those days, the future was obscured, blanked out by war as by a dead-end wall. Nobody knew if anyone at all would come out of it alive. Who would be worse off, the civilians or the soldiers? The distinction between their fates was to be abolished, in most countries, by aerial warfare, by all the new planes, by all the marvelous new bombs. What would the end of it be? 

I knew that I myself hated war, and all the motives that led to war and were behind wars. But I could see that now my likes or dislikes, beliefs or disbeliefs meant absolutely nothing in the external, political order. I was just an individual, and the individual had ceased to count. I meant nothing, in this world, except that I would probably soon become a number on the list of those to be drafted. I would get a piece of metal with my number on it, to hang around my neck, so as to help out the circulation of red-tape that would necessarily follow the disposal of my remains, and that would be the last eddy of mental activity that would close over my lost identity. 

The whole business was so completely unthinkable that my mind, like almost all the other minds that were in the same situation, simply stopped trying to cope with it, and refixed its focus on the ordinary routine of life. 

Merton hated war his whole life.  At the end of his life, he vocally criticized nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War.   As I've said in previous posts, these views got him in a lot of hot water with his superiors.  In fact, these views may have cost him his life, if you subscribe to certain conspiracy theories.

Sometimes, you simply have to stand up for something you believe in, regardless of the consequences.  It takes courage and strength to do this.  Abraham Lincoln did it.  Gandhi, too.  And Martin Luther King, Jr.  Jesus Christ.  They all held highly unpopular beliefs, and they were executed for those beliefs.

Here are some beliefs the I hold very strongly, regardless of others' opinions about them:

  1. I believe in God.  The universe is too complex--too interconnected--for everything in it to be the result of random coincidences of chemistry or biology or cosmology.  
  2. I believe in science.  Science is a way to try to understand and appreciate the mind of God.
  3. I believe that, in the end, love always wins.  The world can be a pretty cruel place, filled with war and plague and violence and divorce and addiction.  Yet, love is the antidote to all that.  It will overcome any obstacle.
  4. I believe in the healing power of poetry.  The right words, said in the right order, can be the exact medicine to heal any wound.
  5. I believe in friendship.  I have the best friends in the world, and they have saved my life on many occasions.
  6. I believe in family.  Family grounds me.  Keeps me connected.  Reminds me on a daily basis what is important.
  7. I believe in vaccines.
  8. I believe that It's a Wonderful Life is the best Christmas movie ever made.
  9. I believe that Die Hard is NOT a Christmas movie.
  10. I believe COVID is real.
  11. I believe that Donald Trump is the worst President my country has had or will ever have.
  12. I believe my puppy is the cutest puppy ever.
You may want to argue with me about any or all of these beliefs.  Feel free to do so.  It won't change my mind in the least bit.

I only have one pandemic snapshot I want to focus on today:
  • I hosted a Zoom poetry reading for the library this evening.  Ten nominees for Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.  All the poetry was amazing.  At one point, there were 78 people in attendance.  And I learned this about myself:  I really like hosting events like this.  I believe I may be good at it.
I will never face execution for any of the beliefs I've expressed in this post, but they sort of define who I am right now.  Talk to me in a week, and I may have changed my mind on a few of these items.

For tonight, however, Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of his convictions.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

December 27: Vague and Floating Entities, Obsessions, Annus Mirabilis

Catholic obsession and war on Thomas Merton's mind . . .

Then, of course, I was reading the metaphysical poets once again— especially Crashaw—and studying his life, too, and his conversion. That meant another avenue which led more or less directly to the Jesuits. So in the late August of 1938, and September of that year, my life began to be surrounded, interiorly, by Jesuits. They were the symbols of my new respect for the vitality and coordination of the Catholic Apostolate. Perhaps, in the back of my mind, was my greatest Jesuit hero: the glorious Father Rothschild of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, who plotted with all the diplomats, and rode away into the night on a motorcycle when everybody else was exhausted. 

Yet with all this, I was not yet ready to stand beside the font. There was not even any interior debate as to whether I ought to become a Catholic. I was content to stand by and admire. For the rest, I remember one afternoon, when my girl had come in to town to see me, and we were walking around the streets uptown, I subjected her to the rather disappointing entertainment of going to Union Theological Seminary, and asking for a catalogue of their courses which I proceeded to read while we were walking around on Riverside Drive. She was not openly irritated by it: she was a very good and patient girl anyway. But still you could see she was a little bored, walking around with a man who was not sure whether he ought to enter a theological seminary. 

There was nothing very attractive in that catalogue. I was to get much more excited by the article on the Jesuits in the Catholic Encyclopaedia— breathless with the thought of so many novitiates and tertianships and what not—so much scrutiny, so much training. What monsters of efficiency they must be, these Jesuits, I kept thinking to myself, as I read and reread the article. And perhaps, from time to time, I tried to picture myself with my face sharpened by asceticism, its pallor intensified by contrast with a black cassock, and every line of it proclaiming a Jesuit saint, a Jesuit mastermind. And I think the master-mind element was one of the strongest features of this obscure attraction. 

Apart from this foolishness, I came no nearer to the Church, in practice, than adding a “Hail Mary” to my night prayers. I did not even go to Mass again, at once. The following week-end I went to see my girl once again; it was probably after that that I went on the expedition to Philadelphia. It took something that belongs to history to form and vitalize these resolutions that were still only vague and floating entities in my mind and will. 

One of those hot evenings at the end of summer the atmosphere of the city suddenly became terribly tense with some news that came out of the radios. Before I knew what the news was, I began to feel the tension. For I was suddenly aware that the quiet, disparate murmurs of different radios in different houses had imperceptibly merged into one big, ominous unified voice, that moved at you from different directions and followed you down the street, and came to you from another angle as soon as you began to recede from any one of its particular sources. 

I heard “Germany—Hitler—at six o’clock this morning the German Army ... the Nazis...” What had they done? 

Then Joe Roberts came in and said there was about to be a war. The Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia, and there was bound to be a war.

Ominous clouds on the horizon for the world and Merton.  Hitler is on the move in Czechoslovakia, and the world is bracing itself for war.  Of course, Merton also has the ghost of Catholicism Yet to Come haunting him, as well.  He's taken no actual steps toward conversion.  He's simply . . . obsessed with the idea.  And with Jesuits.

Writers understand obsession.  As a poet, I understand it even more.  This Christmas season, my obsession has been Louisa May Alcott and Little Women.  For a few weeks now, I have lived and breathed Jo March and her little family.  They hijacked my annual Christmas essay and became the subject of my dreams.  

Today, I indulged myself, as I have been this whole Christmas week.  I watched Christmas movies (again), read a little bit of a biography of Louisa May Alcott, and then took a nap.  I didn't accomplish a whole lot of anything.  I didn't write anything.  Didn't shovel snow or make dinner.  I just . . . was.

And then I had a Zoom meeting with my book club.  The book was Day of Days, and the author, John Smolens, is a good friend of mine.  He and his beautiful wife joined us, and, for almost two hours, we talked about literature and memory and history and trauma and survivor's guilt.  And everyone laughed and shared.  There is really nothing better than being with a group of people, virtually or in-person, who love to read.  Who are obsessed with good writing.  

After Zoom book club ended, I packed my family in the car, and we drove to a local Christmas lights display.  After being quarantined in my house for the better part of a month, it was wonderful to do something almost normal, even if I was wearing two facemasks.  It was another indulgence of one of my obsessions--Christmas decorations.  

Everyone has obsessions.  They're what get us up in the morning, fuel our days.  Without obsession, the world is monochromatic instead of technicolor.  While I love film noir, I think that I would prefer to live Singin' in the Rain versus Sunset Boulevard.  More song and dance, less betrayal and murder.

Here are some snapshots of this day in quarantine:
  • Attended a Zoom church service this morning where Governor Whitmer attended and spoke.  She talked about 2020, using the Latin term annus horribilis (horrible year).  And then she said that every annus horribilis is followed by an annus mirabilis (wonderful year or year of miracles).  
  • Took my beautiful puppy for a good long walk in the snow.
  • Spent a beautiful afternoon reading and napping.
  • Got together with some of my best friends for a Zoom book club.  Beautiful conversation.
  • Saw some beautiful Christmas lights with my beautiful family
Movies.  Writers.  Books.  Christmas lights.  Friends.  Family.  These are the things that bring color to my life.  Meaning.  Especially in this annus horribilis where so much has been taken away from so many people.

Saint Marty embraces his obsessions.  And he believes that an annus mirabilis is on the way.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

December 26: A Mysterious Attraction, Keep Christmas Alive, Togetherness

Merton rereads James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist and finds something new . . . 

My reading became more and more Catholic.  I became absorbed in the poetry of Hopkins and in his notebooks—that poetry which had only impressed me a little six years before. Now, too, I was deeply interested in Hopkins’ life as a Jesuit. What was that life? What did the Jesuits do? What did a priest do? How did he live? I scarcely knew where to begin to find out about all such things: but they had started to exercise a mysterious attraction over me. 

And here is a strange thing. I had by now read James Joyce’s Ulysses twice or three times. Six years before—on one of those winter vacations in Strasbourg—I had tried to read Portrait of the Artist and had bogged down in the part about his spiritual crisis. Something about it had discouraged, bored, and depressed me. I did not want to read about such a thing: and I finally dropped it in the middle of the “Mission.” Strange to say, sometime during this summer—I think it was before the first time I went to Corpus Christi—I reread Portrait of the Artist and was fascinated precisely by that part of the book, by the “Mission,” by the priest’s sermon on hell. What impressed me was not the fear of hell, but the expertness of the sermon. Now, instead of being repelled by the thought of such preaching—which was perhaps the author’s intention—I was stimulated and edified by it. The style in which the priest in the book talked, pleased me by its efficiency and solidity and drive: and once again there was something eminently satisfying in the thought that these Catholics knew what they believed, and knew what to teach, and all taught the same thing, and taught it with coordination and purpose and great effect. It was this that struck me first of all, rather than the actual subject matter of their doctrine—until, that is, I heard the sermon at Corpus Christi. 

So then I continued to read Joyce, more and more fascinated by the pictures of priests and Catholic life that came up here and there in his books. That, I am sure, will strike many people as a strange thing indeed. I think Joyce himself was only interested in rebuilding the Dublin he had known as objectively and vitally as he could. He was certainly very alive to all the faults in Irish Catholic society, and he had practically no sympathy left for the Church he had abandoned: but in his intense loyalty to the vocation of artist for which he had abandoned it (and the two vocations are not per se irreconcilable: they only became so because of peculiar subjective circumstances in Joyce’s own case) he meant to be as accurate as he could in rebuilding his world as it truly was. 

Therefore, reading Joyce, I was moving in his Dublin, and breathing the air of its physical and spiritual slums: and it was not the most Catholic side of Dublin that he always painted. But in the background was the Church, and its priests, and its devotions, and the Catholic life in all its gradations, from the Jesuits down to those who barely clung to the hem of the Church’s garments. And it was this background that fascinated me now, along with the temper of Thomism that had once been in Joyce himself If he had abandoned St. Thomas, he had not stepped much further down than Aristotle. 

I frequently turn back to books that I have read, sometimes reread, many times, much like Thomas Merton in the above passage.  And, like Merton, I find new things each time I return.  Last night, after the presents were opened, turkey dinner eaten, and Zoom family meetings ended, I sat down on my couch and read.  Poems from Joseph Brodsky.  Parts of A Christmas Carol.  Old friends, made new in light of the waning days of this pandemic year.

Now, December 26th.  Non-Christmas lovers will have their trees down and decorations put away by nightfall.  People will turn away from the lights of yesterday and begin to anticipate the last days of a pretty wretched year.  As if, at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, the shadows of COVID and Donald Trump and racism and unemployment and recession/depression will vanish like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come.

I'm a Christmas person.  Usually, the day after, I sit in my living room, staring at the lights on my tree, piles of presents beneath it, and fall into a funk.  A blueness that hangs over me well into the new year.  Today, however, I don't feel that particular absence.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I am still in quarantine.  Will be until the fifth day of January.  

I am able to keep Christmas alive because of this.  Won't have to drive down streets and see Christmas trees lying on people's lawns, branches webbed with leftover tinsel, waiting to be gathered and burned in the fires of January.  I can sit in my living room, keep visiting Brodsky and Dickens and Oscar Hijuelos (Mr. Ives' Christmas--still my favorite Christmas novel of all time).  Watch my favorite holiday movies.  George Bailey and Jo March.  Members of the Stone family.  Ebenezer Scrooge and Scott Calvin.  All without the reminders of undecorating and unlighting and un-Christmasing.

Here's the thing:  I really do subscribe to the notion of keeping Christmas alive all the year 'round.  My old friend, Scrooge, said it best:  "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.  I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.  The spirits of all Three shall strive within me."  That is me.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I will not be taking down my Christmas tree any time soon.  I will thrive in its light, like a Christmas cactus, well into 2021.

You see, it's not about retail sales or economics.  Those things are small bits of cosmic dust in the Christmas universe.  Brief flashes through the atmosphere.  Don't get me wrong:  I love getting presents.  However, it's really not about the gift, but the person who gives me the gift.  It's about thriving in the fact that someone loves and appreciates me.  That's what I try to keep alive all year.  Just like Scrooge.  George Bailey, too.  

These old friends from favorite books and movies have taught me an additional lesson this year, as well.  With the virus stripping away so many of the normal yuletide traditions, all that is left is this:  human connection.  It's what everyone is craving these days.  It's what I get rereading A Christmas Carol and Brodsky's Nativity Poems.  I know these characters.  These writers.  These words.  They come to me, gather around me in the kitchen.  The way everyone does at a holiday party.  Because that's where the food is.  The alcohol.  Jokes and laughter.  Where everyone feels most comfortable.  Together.

It's why, yesterday, we crowded around laptops to see each other's faces.  Because we are starved for family and friends.  For embrace.  Fellowship.  Each other.  In this year, more than any other, that is the greatest gift that no virus can dispel.  Our indomitable will for connection.  We found ways to fill that hunger.  Safe and loving ways.  We went the extra mile, because it was important to us.  Necessary.

Here are a few snapshots from quarantine today:

  • My beautiful friends Helen and Gala sent me texts this morning about the stuffed Bigfoot I got for Christmas.  Togetherness.
  • My beautiful puppy sat by my side on the couch all day as I wrote and read and watched movies.  Togetherness.
  • My beautiful kids have been enjoying their Christmas presents all day--computer games, electric toothbrushes, computer chairs.  Togetherness.
  • My beautiful daughter enjoyed eating the sugar cookies I baked on Christmas Eve.  A lot.  Togetherness.
  • Tonight, I will be planning out my book club that's meeting tomorrow evening.  Discussion questions.  Facebook posts.  Zoom invites.  The author of the book is a wonderful friend of mine, and he's going to be joining us.  Togetherness.
  • Later, I will work on a chapbook manuscript that I hope to submit to a contest this January.  A poet friend gave me revision suggestions.  Hoping to create something beautiful.  Togetherness.
It's getting dark outside now.  People are switching on the lights of their Christmas trees.  Soon, I'll heat up some leftover turkey and mashed potatoes.  Maybe I'll eat a sugar cookie.  Ebenezer will be with me.  George Bailey and Joseph Brodsky.  Truman Capote and O. Henry.  Family, each and every one.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the miracle of togetherness--with books, authors, friends, and family.

Friday, December 25, 2020

December 25: Merry Christmas, Blessed This Whole Month, "Bigfoot and Little Women"

Merry Christmas to all of my disciples!

I will be returning to Thomas Merton tomorrow.  Tonight, however, I just want to write about my Christmas in quarantine.  

Yesterday, no in-person church services.  Cookie baking.  Wrapping.  Love Actually twice--once in the afternoon, again at about 1 a.m. as I was putting the finishing touches on my Christmas poem.  I finally got to bed around 3:30 a.m.

My son woke us up at 7:45 a.m. today to open presents.

Here are some Christmas Day snapshots:

  • Got a stuffed Bigfoot for Christmas from my beautiful daughter.
  • Got a bag of movie theater popcorn for Christmas from my crazy wonderful son.
  • Got the Nobel Prize in Literature for Christmas from my beautiful wife.  (Literally, it's a Nobel Prize in Literature medal.)
  • Made French toast for my beautiful family for Christmas breakfast.
  • Had a Zoom Christmas with my three beautiful sisters, and it was so good to spend time with them.
  • Cooked a full turkey dinner with the help of my beautiful wife.  Mashed potatoes.  Gravy.  Buttered corn.  Stuffing.  A 12-pound bird.  Hawaiian rolls.  Cherry pie for dessert.  
  • Had a Zoom Christmas with my wife's beautiful family.  Opened presents.  Laughed.  Drank, more than a little.  Got a mic for my computer to help with podcasting.  Books that I wanted. A new journal.
  • Watched my new remastered Blu-ray of It's a Wonderful Life.  My favorite Christmas movie.  A quiet, beautiful evening.
  • Played a board game with my beautiful family, and laughed.  A lot.
  • Now, I'm watching Love Actually again.  It is my Christmas movie-of-choice this season.  It speaks to me a many levels.
I am now approaching exhaustion after this strangely quiet Christmas.  And I am so, so grateful for December miracles.

I have been blessed this whole month of isolation with the kindness and love of friends and family.  Thankful for it all.

And here is Saint Marty's new Christmas essay . . .

 Bigfoot and Little Women

by:  Martin Achatz 

1976.  The Bicentennial.  A year of parades and pyrotechnics.  Everything came in shades of red and white and blue, even the summer air we breathed.  My father flew his flag every day, rain or fog or snow.  If a plague of locusts had blackened our neighborhood and chewed my father’s Old Glory to threads, he would have gone out, bought a spinning wheel, and Betsy Rossed himself a new one.

Bicentennial Christmas, I wasn’t interested in Stretch Armstrong or Connect Four or Sonny and Cher dolls.  The J. C. Penny catalogue didn’t carry my heart’s desire, which was bigger and hairier and wilder than any page could contain.


“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff. 

“We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from the corner.

                                    --Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


2020.  The pandemic.  A year of shutdowns and facemasks and division and loss.  Families separated, parades cancelled, weddings paused, funerals postponed.

Pandemic Christmas, I’m in my house, quarantined, my son and daughter recovering from COVID-19.  My daughter can’t smell a bottle of rubbing alcohol under her nose, can’t taste a spoonful of peanut butter.

I sit with my journal for hours, trying to write a Christmas essay, fill pages with false starts, crossed-out words.  My pen moves in fits, unable to find a clear path to manger and tinsel and Santa.

As if my imagination has contracted a virus.


Louisa May Alcott did not want to write Little Women, according to biographer Susan Cheever.  In fact, she did everything but sit down at the writing desk her father had built for her.  She visited her neighbors, the Emersons, played “blind-man’s buff with the Emerson children.”  Sometimes, she ran errands in town, to “purchase some lamp oil.  Her father’s blue shirt had to be mended.”

She visited Thoreau’s mother, bringing her fresh-picked apples.  Or she walked around Walden Pond, thinking of her friend Thoreau, who had been dead for six years.

Alcott’s father and her publisher kept pressuring her to “write a girl’s book.”  Louisa lamented in her journal, “Never liked girls or knew many except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”


Think Andre the Giant.  Put him in a full bodysuit of Kodiak hair.  Add a Diana Ross wig of disco proportions.  Eyes that are blizzard white, fangs sharp as icicles.  And feet the size of Wyoming.

That was my Bicentennial Christmas wish, whispered in late November to my mother over a bowl of Lucky Charms. 


Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone, and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army.  We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly.  But I am afraid I don’t.”  And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

                                    --Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


Often, when I can’t write, I go to my shelves, pick up a book—usually one that I’ve read many times—sit down, and begin reading.  Sometimes it’s poetry—Mary Oliver (“We shake with joy, we shake with grief.  What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.”).  Sometimes it’s writing about writing—Richard Hugo (“Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.”).  And sometimes it’s an old friend—Charles Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time . . .”).

This December, I turn to Louisa May Alcott (“Jo was the first to wake in the gray dawn of Christmas morning.”).


When she could no longer avoid it, Alcott surrendered, hunkered down at her tiny desk in Orchard House in May, 1868, to try to write her book for girls.  It was high spring outside, with apple blossoms bursting in trees like fireworks.  Yet, Louisa reached back to the happiest winter memories from her troubled childhood:  Christmas in Concord.  Cold.  Snow.  Frozen ponds and warm woodstoves.

The writing came easily to her, although she observed in her journal, “I plod away though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.”  Instead of the murder and blood of the stories she normally sold to pay bills, her new work was simple, straightforward.  When she sent the first 12 chapters to her publisher in June, she recorded in her journal:  “He thought it dull; so do I . . .”

Alcott hated the ordinary, always craved the wild and unpredictable, saying, “. . . I must have been a deer or horse in a former state, because it was such a joy to run . . .”


I was a wild child, with a spirit that flashed like a comet between reading and tobogganing, poetry and pine sap. 

Bicentennial year, a documentary titled The Mysterious Monsters was released.  Narrated by actor Peter Graves, it featured scientists analyzing footprints and film, listening to audio recordings, trying to prove the existence of a race of gargantuan hominids tramping through the forests and mountains of the United States.

The same year, on The Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors had an encounter with one of these creatures in the form of wrestler Andre the Giant.  In the bionic universe, Bigfoot was not some missing link, hiding in the caves of the Pacific Northwest.  No, Andre the Bigfoot was a robot built by sexy alien scientists studying our planet.

 Alien or ancestor ape, though, it made no difference to me.  At nine years of age, I was in the throes of Bigfoot fever.  I searched for footprints in my backyard; made bait piles of blueberries and dandelion greens; listened in the night for neanderthalic howls and moans.


 Jo March to her mother:

"You don’t know, you can’t guess how bad it is!  It seems as if I could do anything when I’m in a passion, I get so savage.  I could hurt anyone and enjoy it.  I’m afraid that I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me.  Oh, Mother, help me, do help me!”


I have spent most of this pandemic year trying to understand the meaning of suffering and loss.  A friend whose mother died alone in a nursing home, without familiar hands to hold or ease her into eternity.  Another friend whose adopted son is African American and feels the knees of police on his neck.  My own mother, viral refugee in a nursing home, her memory slipping away like snow in July.  I wonder if she remembers the pecan pies I baked for her every Thanksgiving.

Suffering is huge and dark, forages through backyards, lumbers down midnight streets.  This year, it peers into windows, knocks on front doors, holds out a palm as empty as tundra, waits for an offering that will satisfy its hunger.


Alcott biographer Susan Cheever says this about the writing of Little Women:

 There are two kinds of masterpieces:  those that use great leaps of the imagination to bring extraordinary scenes and adventures onto the page, and those that reveal the ordinary.  The latter show us in a fresh way the very things we have known all along . . .


. . . The day she sat down to write during that May of 1868, Louisa seemed to shift from being an artist pushing toward meaning to being an artist able to relax and discover meaning—the way Michelangelo purportedly said that he discovered his statues embedded in the marble he carved.


Another Christmas Day in the March household:

Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort that is.  Half an hour after everyone had said they were so happy they could only hold one drop more, the drop came.  Laurie opened the parlor door and popped his head in very quietly.  He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up, though he only said, in a queer, breathless voice, “Here’s another Christmas present for the March family.”


I had no clue what I would do with an eight-and-a-half-foot tall, six-hundred pound monster.  I never got beyond the imagined morning when my family would be greeted by the feral stink of hair and sweat and urine as they entered the living room, my Bigfoot gnawing on the mantle or clumsily pawing my mother’s manger scene.  Like most kids wanting a pet for Christmas, I didn’t think about upkeep—the house breaking and grooming and midnight walking.  Not to mention elephantine piles of Bigfoot manure on neighbors’ lawns.  No, it was all about wishing and wanting.


Alcott finished her book for girls on July 15, two-and-a-half months after she began writing.  402 pages.  She sent the manuscript off to her publisher and wrote in her journal on August 26th:  “Proof of the whole book came.  It reads better than I expected.  Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds that will be the reason of it . . .”

Alcott carved something extraordinary out of the ordinary.


There are ways to tame suffering.  To quiet its wild heart.  You have to invite it inside.  Make a nest of blankets for it in the corner.  Put a bowl of water close by, a plate of cooked hamburger mixed with rice.  Sit on the couch and be quiet.  Wait.

Eventually, it will come to you, let you run your fingers through its mane.  And you will find that, in its stiff fur and jet blue gaze, there is warmth.  Comfort.  Suffering is ordinary.  Part of every day, like sunrises or the croak of crows.   Its darkness studs the pines and yellow grasses of winter, makes them spark and glow like fireflies.


Mr. March returns home to his little women on Christmas Day:

. . . and in his place appeared a tall man, muffled up to the eyes, leaning on the arm of another tall man, who tried to say something and couldn’t.  Of course there was a general stampede, and for several minutes everybody seemed to lose their wits . . .  Mr. March became invisible in the embrace of four pairs of loving arms . . . Never mind what happened just after that, for the full hearts overflowed, washing away the bitterness of the past and leaving only the sweetness of the present . . .


Bicentennial Christmas, Santa did not deliver an Andre-the-Giant-sized gift down our chimney.  Instead, I received an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom.  Thick as the family Bible, the book held hundreds of photographs.  Lions mauling a zebra carcass.  A hooded cobra ready to strike.  A killer whale breaching arctic waves in pursuit of a seal. 

Near the back was a section titled “Mysteries of the Animal Kingdom.”  In those pages were illustrations of the sleek plesiosaurs of Loch Ness and loping snowmen of the Himalayas.  And, of course, Bigfoot.  Wide as a grizzly bear and twice as tall.  Below his image was a question, if I remember correctly.  Something like “Long Lost Cousin?”


Louisa May Alcott/Jo March on writing:

She did not think herself a genius by any means; but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh.


Give yourself up with entire abandon.  Want will never disappear.  It may hide in mountain caves for long stretches.  Survive on mushrooms and pinecones.  Eventually, though, it will get hungry for something more.  Come to you like an out-of-town relative, a father home from war.

There is a present under the Christmas tree right now.  Four days from Christmas Eve.  It’s for me.  I have no idea what’s underneath its silver paper and green bow, and I don’t want to know.  It could be an ugly tie or the Nobel Prize in Literature.

My wife is addressing Christmas cards.  My son is screaming at his computer game.  My daughter is watching TV in her bedroom.  All healthy.  Safe.  This is what matters most.

My little family.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

December 24: Christmas Eve, His Magic, "Feasts of the Holy Family"

Greetings to all of my beautiful disciples on Christmas Eve!

It has been a long day of wrapping and writing poetry and baking cookies and watching Christmas movies.  I just finished putting together the last of my presents.  They are wrapped and ready to go.

It is now almost 3 a.m., and I am sure my son will be climbing out of bed in about four hours.  I need to get to sleep, to let let Santa come and do his magic.  

Saint Marty wishes you all  peaceful and safe Christmas Eve night.

Here's another old Christmas essay, this one from last year . . . 

Feasts of the Holy Family

by:  Martin Achatz

I come from ham people.  My wife, from turkey people.  Christmas Eve, the air in my childhood home steamed with the smell of ginger and smoked meat.  When my mother opened the oven door, basted the ham with Vernors, I remember how it sat in the pan, its back studded with cloves, looking like some animal still alive, just hibernating in the hot cave of the stove.  And, as I nestled in bed, while other kids had visions of dancing sugarplums in their heads, I dreamt of the ham rooting around the presents under the tree, the way I once saw a porcupine root through a deadfall of pines for sweet, white tree flesh to eat.

My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a family that flowered with onion and celery and sage on Christmas day, the turkey dozing in the oven, the way Great Grandma Cor napped on the couch during Lawrence Welk.  The potatoes boiled on the burner, fogged the windows with starch and the smell of earth, dark and loamy as the day they were dug up by a farmer with hands ridged, furrowed, and hard as winter fields.  When dinner time came, the turkey emerged, skin brown and warm, ready to feed the 5,000.
A gentleman to Ebenezer Scrooge:  “ . . . a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth.  We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices . . .”
Christmas of 2006, my daughter turned six-years-old, and my wife and I were separated.  Most nights, after getting my daughter to fall asleep, I would sit in the living room in the dark, like Scrooge.  Darkness was cheap, and I couldn’t bring myself to turn on a lamp and shed any light on my life.  I hadn’t dragged the boxes down from the attic to set up the tree or decorate the house.  Hadn’t taken my daughter around the neighborhood to see other homes dripping with icicle lights and candy cane paths.  I preferred that year to edge my way along the crowded paths of Christmas, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.

Two weeks before the holiday, my daughter and I were driving home from her ballet class.  Her cheeks were flushed pink; her braids, curled tight as cinnamon bread.  She was humming some Christmas tune.  “Silent Night,” I think.  Finally, my daughter, from the seat behind me, said quietly, “Daddy, are we having Christmas this year?”

In 1729, Jonathan Swift published a satiric essay in which he proposed the following solution to end overpopulation and hunger in his native Ireland:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Swift died in 1745, just four years after an Irish famine killed around 20% of his country’s population.  The epitaph on his memorial stone in St. Patrick’s Cathedral reads in part:  “Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift . . . Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart.”
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” 
--Mahatma Gandhi
When I made my First Communion in second grade, I was told by my Catechism teacher, Mrs. McDonald, that I was about to participate in a great feast.  “You’re eating the Body of Christ,” she said, her eyes large and blue as jellyfish behind her horned rim glasses.

To prove her point, Mrs. McDonald told us about a monk from Lanciano, Italy, who doubted the Eucharist was the actual flesh of Jesus.  While celebrating Mass one day, the monk witnessed the Host in his hands transformed into a disk of meat, and the wine in the chalice thickened into drops of blood.  These specimens were preserved in a monstrance for twelve centuries.

Mrs. McDonald stared at us all for several seconds in silence, as if she had just pulled a full ham or turkey dinner out of her wool hat.  “You’ll never be hungry again,” she said.

Years later, I read about this miracle once more.  In 1970, a professor of anatomy was allowed to perform tests on the preserved relics from Lanciano.  He determined that both specimens were human in origin.  The blood was type AB with “the characteristics of a man who was born in the Middle East region.”  And the piece of flesh was “consistent with that of myocardium, endocardium, the vagus nerve and the left ventricle . . .”

It was a piece of broken heart.
In 1675, Bishop Francois de Laval of Quebec added the Feast of the Holy Family to his diocesan calendar.  Prior to this time, the Catholic Church had separate feast days for Mary and Joseph and their Son.  This feast, however, would celebrate all three together as a model for Christian parents and children.  On October 26, 1921, Pope Benedict XV added this feast day to the Latin Rite general calendar, to be commemorated by all Catholics as a way to “counteract the breakdown of the family.”

Since 1969, the Feast of the Holy Family has been celebrated on the Sunday following Christmas.  On this day as a child, I would sit in the church pew and listen to Monsignor Spelgatti speak about this wonderful feast of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  For 30, 40, or 45 minutes, he would list the virtues of each family member, working himself up to a heated conclusion about marriage and birth and sacrifice and the Body of Christ.

As I listened, I would imagine Mary and Joseph starving in Nazareth during a famine of Biblical proportions.  I imagined them eying their young Son like a Christmas ham or turkey.  Jesus, well nursed and chubby, would make a wonderful fricassee or stew.  They would place Him in a pot, add root vegetables, cumin, and turmeric.  And they would put that pot over a fire to simmer.  It would be their First Communion.
“The day hunger disappears, the world will see the greatest spiritual explosion humanity has ever seen.”
                                    --Federico Garcia Lorca
A person can live without oxygen for around five to ten minutes.  Without water, three to eight days.  Yet, people have been known to live for up to 70 days without food.  As the body undergoes starvation, it begins to eat itself, breaking down fats and muscles.  At the end, death usually comes from cardiac arrhythmia.  The starving person dies of a broken heart.
Hunger comes in many forms.  At Christmas, I hunger for my mother’s baked ham, even though she’s 88 now and time has eaten away her memory of clove and ginger ale.  My wife hungers for her mother’s laugh, even though her mother’s place at the dinner table has been empty for 26 years.  Addicts hunger for Jim Beam or pills or cheap motel rooms.  A man standing outside Walmart in December dusk holds up a sign that reads, “Haven’t ate in 3 days.  Hungry.”  The holiday season my wife and I were separated, 25,000 people died from hunger on Christmas day as I scooped mashed potatoes onto my daughter’s plate.  That same Christmas night, I hungered for the warmth of my wife’s body as I climbed into my empty bed.
When the Ghost of Christmas Present first appears to Scrooge, the ghost is seated on a cathedra that might have ended an Irish famine:
. . . Heaped up upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam . . .

Yet, in the midst of all this plenty, there is want, hiding beneath the Ghost’s robes, clinging to his legs, hungry for scraps of ham and turkey bones.
“For now I ask no more than the justice of eating.”
                                    --Pablo Neruda
My wife and I worked things out following that dark December 25th in 2006.  She came to me on the following Valentine’s Day.  I fed her a grilled turkey breast sandwich while we watched It’s a Wonderful Life, because we hadn’t watched it together on Christmas Eve the way we normally did.  We talked about Christmases past and Christmases yet to come.  I felt like George Bailey lassoing the moon, Bob Cratchit opening his front door to find a turkey larger than Tiny Tim on his doorstep.
The Ghost of Christmas Present rebuking Scrooge after the Cratchit family’s meager Christmas feast:  “. . . Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die?  It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child . . .”
In 2007, the Feast of the Holy Family fell on December 30.  I stood in front of the crèche at St. John’s that evening, stared at Joseph and Mary, the donkey, cows, sheep.  And the Christ Child, a plate of gold behind His head, lying on a bed of hay in a trough, ready to feed the hungry world.
“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive.  There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.”
                                                --George Eliot
New Year’s Eve, 2007, my wife, daughter, and I stayed up until midnight.  As the ball dropped in Time’s Square, we tumbled outside, sprayed each other with cans of Silly String.  We screamed, “Happy New Year!” as loud as we could, until the neighbor’s front porch light flicked on.  Then I carried my daughter inside, kissed her forehead, put her to bed.  Sang to her.  Said prayers.
In the first hours of that New Year, I went to my wife, fell into her.  Kept falling.  We devoured each other, ended the famine in our home.
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
                                                            --Mother Teresa
Nine months after that Feast of the Holy Family, that New Year’s Eve, our son was born.  Another hungry mouth in a hungry world of ham people, turkey people.  Feasts and famines.  A world where one infant can feed multitudes of broken hearts. 

As I held my son to my chest, looked into his face, I felt hollowed out and filled up.  Hungry and satisfied.  Want, keenly felt.  Abundance, rejoicing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

December 23: Old Chirstmas Essay, Christmas Eve Eve, "Just Like the Ones I Used to Know"

I wanted to share one of my old Christmas essays tonight.  It's about Bing Crosby and my dad.  And the power of memory.

Saint Marty wishes you all a Merry Christmas Eve eve.

Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

by:  Martin Achatz

1.  Remembrance in the Bible

I have considered the days of old, the years of ancient times.

I call to remembrance my song in the night:   I commune with mine own heart:  and my spirit made diligent search.  –Psalm 77:  5-6 (KJV)

2.  A Confession

I listen to Christmas music all year long.  In the middle of August, when dusk sneaks in around ten o’clock at night.  In May, when the world is all lilac and “Pomp and Circumstance.”  In October, when pumpkin and zucchini appear on doorsteps.  In the dead of winter, when the moon gilds snow with silver light.  I listen to Nat King Cole crooning about chestnuts.  To Judy Garland hanging a shining star.  To Bing Crosby dreaming of ones he used to know.

3  3.  Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby

Harry Crosby was born in 1903, twenty-four years before my dad.  He was old enough to be my dad’s dad.  Yet, for some reason, I’ve always thought of them as contemporaries.  I imagine them playing stickball just off Gratiot Avenue in Detroit on one of those July days when every breath tastes like gasoline and asphalt, my dad calling to him, “Knock it into next week, Bing-o!”  Or sitting at the Woolworth’s lunch counter together, watching a pretty, red-headed waitress shovel French fries onto plates.

Harry and my dad shared the same triangular features.  High foreheads.  Hawkish noses.  Wedge chins.  Harry’s face was softer, kinder.  My dad’s is more severe.  Yet, they could have been brothers.  Of course, Harry Crosby grew up in Spokane, Washington, at the turn of the twentieth century, and when Harry’s recording of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became an anthem on Armed Forces Radio for homesick troops during World War II, my dad was a fifteen-year-old kid in Michigan, shoveling snow instead of singing about it.

4  4.  A Definition from Merriam-Webster

Nostalgia:  pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.

5  5.  Pleasure

Smell and taste are strong memory triggers.  Marcel Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, describes eating a madeleine with tea:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.  An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin…

6  6.  More Pleasure

For me, it’s baked ham.  When I smell or taste it, the brine of its meat and ginger of its skin, I experience that same detachment Proust describes, like I’m dangling at the end of some ribbon of time.  Stuck between now and then.  It’s December 24, and I’m in bed, my mother’s Christmas ham in the oven, filling the house with clove and Vernors and heat.  It’s December 25, and my father is spreading thick mustard on homemade bread, adding warm ham, making a sandwich.  My brothers and sisters drink Faygo cream soda.  Rosemary Clooney sings in the background.

7  7.  Sadness

In 1928, about ten years before he wrote “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin lost his three-week-old son, Irving Jr., on Christmas day.  Berlin never got over his death.  Every year, on Christmas, he and his wife went to the cemetery, stood by their son’s grave, thought of all the might-have-beens:  days at the beach, school programs and dances, birthdays, graduations, partings and reunions.

8  8.  More Sadness

This Christmas will be the first since the death of my brother, Kevin.  In May, I sat in the funeral home, watched my parents mourn.  They looked like Russian immigrants, newly arrived on Ellis Island, not understanding the process of admission.  They sat.  Listened.  Nodded.  Got their papers stamped.  Passed through the gates.  New citizens.  Just yesterday, I caught my father staring at my brother’s picture on the wall.  My dad looked tired, poor, wretched, tempest-tost.

9  9.  Arizona or New York or Beverly Hills

Nobody knows where or when “White Christmas” came into being.  Irving Berlin’s daughter, Linda Emmet, once said, “I believe it was written in either 1938 or ’39, possibly in Arizona, possibly in New York or perhaps in both places.”  Jody Rosen, author of a book about “White Christmas,” said, “Possibly over Christmas in 1937 when he was separated from his family for the first time in Beverly Hills…”  When Bing Crosby originally recorded it, he turned to Berlin and simply said, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving.”

“White Christmas” is a song without a home, written through loneliness and longing for something temporal, like a snowflake on your tongue.

1  10.  A Little More Pleasure and Sadness

For my wife, it’s pumpkin puff pancakes and eggnog.  The cakes were thick, orange, seeped in butter and maple syrup.  The nog, sweet, golden, freckled with cinnamon or nutmeg.  My wife’s mother started the tradition, everyone sitting around the breakfast nook, tired, eating, drinking.  Roy Orbison on the record player, singing about pretty papers, pretty pencils, ribbons of blue.  My wife’s mother has been gone twenty years now.  But, on Christmas day or the day after or the day after that, my wife will sometimes make pumpkin puff pancakes, and we’ll sit and eat and talk about her mother’s laugh.  The waterfall of it.  How it would leave her breathless and weak.

1  11.  An Abridged List

Bing Crosby didn’t take much credit for the success of “White Christmas.”  He said, “A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully.”  It has been recorded over 500 times.  Some of the other jackdaws who sang it include:
  • Elvis Presley (Irving Berlin thought Presley’s rendition was a sacrilege)
  • Mantovani
  • The Drifters
  • Ernest Tubb, backed up by The Troubadettes
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
  • Bob Marley
  • The Beach Boys
  • Barbra Streisand
  • The Partridge Family
  • Slim Whitman (sans yodel)
  • New Kids on the Block
  • Neil Diamond (a rocking do-wop version)
  • Boney-M
  • Rockapella
  • Crash Test Dummies (a Halloweeny bossa-nova arrangement that frightens my six-year-old son)
  • The Moody Blues
  • Twisted Sister (heavy metal with a screaming guitar solo)
  • Rascal Flatts
  • Andrea Bocelli (his recording hit the Portuguese and Hungarian Singles Charts)
  • Boy George (think funky, dance-club Irving Berlin)
  • Cee Lo Green
  • Keith Urban
  • Iggy Pop

1  12.  In the Field for Soldiers

Bing Crosby still holds the Guinness record for the biggest-selling single ever.  Fifty million copies of “White Christmas” worldwide.  Bing once tried to explain the song’s popularity:  “I sang it many times in Europe in the field for soldiers, and they’d holler for it.  They’d demand it.  When I’d sing it, they’d all cry.”

1  13.  A Dream

There are bombs exploding.  Mortar shells whistling.  I can hear gunfire in the distance.  I’m four or five, wearing an army uniform, and I’m surrounded by other GIs.  They all look weary, wounded.  My brothers and sisters are among them.  A rocket sails overhead, and we duck, cover our ears.  My brother, Kevin, is in the mud beside me.  He smiles at me.  Then, somehow, the battle sounds fade.  Quiet descends.  And in the quiet, a music box plays, like wind chimes on a clear December morning.  My dad stands up in front of us.  Or is it Bing Crosby?  I can’t tell.  He sings in a deep baritone.  “I’m dreaming…”  Kevin is listening.  I’m listening.  My other siblings are listening.  The war is gone.  We’re all together, thinking of baked ham.  Homemade bread.  Cream soda.  Deep.  White.  Christmas.