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.
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.
Post a Comment