Saturday, December 25, 2021

December 25: A Genuine Answer, Christmas Day, "How Lovely Are Your Branches"

Merton looking for a sign from God . . .

I looked, and the answer practically floored me. 

The words were: “Ecce eris tacens.”  “Behold, thou shalt be silent.” 

It was the twentieth verse of the first chapter of St. Luke where the angel was talking to John the Baptist’s father, Zachary. 

Tacens: there could not have been a closer word to “Trappist” in the whole Bible, as far as I was concerned, for to me, as well as to most other people, the word “Trappist” stood for “silence.” 

However, I immediately found myself in difficulties which show how silly it is to make an oracle out of books. As soon as I looked at the context, I observed that Zachary was being reproved for asking too many questions. Did the whole context apply to me, too, and was I also therefore reproved? And therefore was the news to be taken as ominous and bad? I thought about it a little, and soon found that I was getting completely mixed up. Besides, when I reflected, I realized that I had not put the question in any clear terms, so that, as a matter of fact, I had forgotten just what I had asked. I did not know whether I had asked God to tell me His will, or merely to announce to me what would happen in the future in point of fact. By the time I had got myself completely tied up in these perplexities, the information I had asked for was more of a nuisance, and a greater cause of uncertainty than my ignorance. 

In fact, I was almost as ignorant as I was before, except for one thing. 

Deep down, underneath all the perplexity, I had a kind of a conviction that this was a genuine answer, and that the problem was indeed some day going to end up that way: I was going to be a Trappist. 

But as far as making any practical difference, there and then, it was no help at all. 

I continued to walk in the woods, in the pastures, and in the old tank lots at the wood’s edge, down towards the radio station. When I was out there alone, I would go about full of nostalgia for the Trappist monastery, singing over and over Jam lucis orto sidere on the ferial tone. 

It was a matter of deep regret to me that I could not remember the wonderful Salve Regina with which the monks ended all their days, chanting in the darkness to the Mother of God that long antiphon, the most stately and most beautiful and most stirring thing that was ever written, that was ever sung. I walked along the roads, in Two Mile Valley, in Four Mile Valley, in the late afternoons, in the early evenings, in the dusk, and along the river where it was quiet, wishing I could sing the Salve Regina. And I could remember nothing but the first two or three neumes. After that, I had to invent, and my invention was not very good. It sounded awful. So did my voice. So I gave up trying to sing, humiliated and sorrowful, and complaining a little to the Mother of God. 

Merton is looking for some kind of definitive answer from God about his vocation (or non-vocation).  He asks a question and then jabs a finger into the Bible to find an answer.  It's sort of like using the Bible as a Magic 8-Ball--that childhood oracle in the shape of a black ball filled with liquid and a tiny icosahedron die imprinted with 20 possible answers to a Yes or No question.  Of course, God doesn't yield up answers that simply.  Merton learns that.

Life isn't a series of easy answers.  At least not in my experience.  Since I was very young, I have been bouncing from question to question.  Answers weren't even on my radar.  In fact, I'm not even sure I wanted to know the answers to the questions that were driving me.  Perhaps if I did have the answers, my life would have been easier, although I doubt.  I would simply have found more questions.

It is Christmas Day, and I've been absent for a very long time from this blog.  I think I've been looking for some answers, but I'm not really sure what the questions are.  When you think about it, the Christmas narrative is full of questions.  Joseph questions how Mary got pregnant.  The shepherds question why angels appear in Bethlehem skies.  The magi question where the star is leading them.  Herod questions the magi about a newborn king.  And Mary questions what she has done to deserve to be the mother of God's son.

The big difference with the Biblical narrative is that the answer was born in a manger 21 centuries ago.

This Christmas, I have been struggling for most of the Advent season with feelings of darkness.  Because of the death of my mother.  Because of all the loss and struggle of this pandemic.  Because Donald Trump is still a free man.  Because my sister, Rose, has Alzheimer's and is almost non-verbal now.  Because I haven't won a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize.  Because people think getting a vaccine is a political choice instead of a medical necessity.  Because good people get sick.  Because death sometimes comes in a snowstorm two days before Christmas, and it just doesn't make sense.

On top of all that, I have not been a good blogger this year.  My life has seemed out-of-control, verging on chaos, and my writing life has suffered because of that.  I have written some poems.  I released two spoken-word albums.  I won an award for arts advocacy.  In short, I've been pretty busy in very good ways.  However, every night, I find myself exhausted by about 9 p.m., and when I get home, I can barely summon up enough energy to change into my pajamas.

So, the answers I seek range from the practical to the metaphysical.  How can I eliminate stress from my life?  What is the meaning of my life?  You get the idea.  Small things--how do I carve out time to write every day?  Big things--why do human beings seem to thrive on hatred and intolerance?

I guess we're all magi, in a way.  Seeking out answers every day of our lives.  Following our own stars.  We may be 21 centuries removed, but, in a lot of ways, things haven't changed all that much since that first holy night.  The world is still full of flawed creatures who haven't learned anything about love and tolerance.  

As many of you know, I lost my mother this past October, a few days before Halloween.  My mother knew a few things about the cruelties of the world, having raised a child with Down syndrome at a time when most doctors recommended institutionalization and abandonment.  She followed her own star for her whole life.  My annual Christmas essay was a tribute to her . . . 

How Lovely Are Your Branches

by: Martin Achatz

This is a true Christmas story, or it isn’t. It was told to me by my mother 65 or 70 years after it occurred or didn’t occur, at a time when my mother’s memory was a silver trout slipping downstream in the rush of winter thaw.

Memory is like that. It runs away from us like a swallowtail in a field of goldenrod or a toddler chasing waves on a lakeshore. The swallowtail keeps plucking the air with its wings, forever searching for some old song sung by kids in Sunday school or hummed in the ear of a lover on sticky summer nights. The waves keep rolling to a distant, unseen Canada.

My mother was born in 1931 in the Motor City on a late June day. It may have been one of those city days where the streets seem to sweat, or it may have been gray, full of Detroit River mist and auto factory smoke. Second oldest of four sisters, she grew up in the time of the New Deal and “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” She was eleven when her father, my Grandpa Edgar, died of stomach cancer. Near the end, she would bring him bowls of chicken broth or vegetable barley, tell him, “Mommy says you need to eat.” He would spoon down the soup for her, kiss her, possibly tell her she was a good little nurse. When she carried away the empty bowl, she would hear him throwing up in the bucket beside his bed. When she told me this, 50 years later, I could see in her face that she still heard that sound in the anvils of her ears.

But that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about Christmas trees.

Come November and December, Grandpa Edgar sold Christmas trees in his front yard. At least that’s where I imagined he sold them. I remember my mother telling me this detail 15 or 20 years ago. So this is a memory of a memory of something that may have happened. Evergreens sold from a makeshift forest in front of my mother’s childhood home on Hilger Street, walking distance from the Detroit River’s industrial waters flowing from Lake St. Clair down to Lake Erie.

In the 1940s, at the start of World War II, Christmas trees were in short supply. No men to harvest greens. No space on trains to ship them. I don’t know how Grandpa Edgar got his trees. Perhaps he had a buddy with a truck who picked them up at the rail yard. Or maybe he drove out of the city to some farm with that buddy, where they spent the day sawing trees and sipping schnapps. But I’m sure my mother remembered the smell of pine in her bedroom at night. Maybe dark sap in the creases of her dad’s knuckles.

I would guess Grandpa Edgar didn’t sell trees in the last years of his life, when sugar and rubber and gasoline were as scarce as snow in July. No, the story I’m about to tell you happened before the London Blitz and Pearl Harbor, after the shanty towns and soup kitchens of Black Thursday. My mother was probably old enough to buy penny candy by herself at the corner store, young enough to believe her father would live forever.

I assume it was the late 1930s, when trolleys still plied Detroit streets and platoons of factory workers marched by my mother’s childhood home mornings and evenings on their way to and from work. And my mother probably smelled smoke from their Luckies, heard them complain about sore backs and the price of a bottle of Goebels.

I also assume it was a couple days prior to Christmas, when Grandpa Edgar’s trees were discounted from their seasonal price of 75 cents to “Make Me an Offer.” There may have been ice on the ground, frost etched on glass. Or it may have just been a December of cold, dry air, the kind that makes nostrils bleed after 15 seconds.

I like to think Grandpa Edgar had just sat down to a plate of boiled cabbage or liver and onions. Something that filled the house with an effluvium that could be smelled from the front porch. His little girls were probably sitting around the table with him, forking at their dinners with the enthusiasm of the condemned. Maybe Grandpa Edgar said something about starving children in China or India, and my mother imagined tiny faces pressed against the dining room windows, licking the panes.

I’ve only seen one or two pictures of Grandpa Edgar, ten or so years ago. Before that, he was the ghost of a memory, spoken of only when family trees were assigned in grade school. His branch remained fairly bare of buds or shoots, as if his entire line had been raked up and burned with the leaves of autumn. Going through an old photo album, my sister found him, standing in a field of dirt rutted with tire tracks. Behind him, what looked like the wreckage of a spaceship and a silo or well. He was dressed in dungarees, work boots, and a denim shirt. It looked as though a pack of cigarettes sat in his breast pocket. His hair was dark to black, his face weathered and craggy like a marble bust of Jefferson or Hamilton.

Perhaps there was a knock on the front or back door. Maybe a voice called out from the porch, “Mr. Edgar?” Or maybe my mother had been assigned lookout duty in the tree lot, in case any customers showed up while Grandpa Edgar ate dinner. My mother never really said. But, at some point, someone showed up, looking for a tree. Or maybe someones, though I doubt it. Because this narrative makes more sense to me if it was just one man or woman in a thin winter jacket standing on his doorstep.

Let’s say it was a man with sunken eyes, bristled chin. Let’s also say he was holding a worn fedora in his hands, wringing its brim with his fingers. He had the look of a man who hadn’t eaten for a couple days, or who had divvied up his portions between his children (maybe a boy and girl with chronic colds) because he could tell they were slowly starving. These details are all imagination because my mother never said whether it was a man or woman, alone or with children. And, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that it was December twenty-something in nineteen thirty-something. Times were Depression lean, and Christmas dreams were simple as oatmeal.

Grandpa Edgar met the man (or woman—again, it doesn’t matter) at the door. Edgar was probably wiping his mouth with a napkin, the cabbage or liver floating around him like a vision. He squinted at the man as if he was staring into the sun. Let’s say he knew the person in front of him because he knew everyone in the neighborhood. Let’s also say he greeted the person by name because I like to think that’s the kind of guy Grandpa Edgar was.

“Henry,” Grandpa Edgar nodded at him. I choose “Henry” because I like the name, and it seems like the name of a man who would be tree shopping a couple days before Christmas during the Depression. “What can I do you for?” Grandpa Edgar might have said.

The man probably stood there, unable to speak. He knew what he had to say, but the words sat on his tongue like ice, cold and heavy and pressing behind his eyes like a headache. Maybe he opened his mouth and closed it again. Perhaps he did this a couple times and then simply nodded at the remaining Christmas trees, dark and green, leaning against the house.

And Grandpa Edgar nodded back at him. A small nod, not so much affirmation or permission as understanding. An unspoken exchange from one father to another.

Henry went and picked out a tree. Not the biggest or tallest. Not one with cones still nestled in its limbs. He picked one that he could imagine in his home, its needles filling the pot belly heat of the rooms with the promise of light and coming spring.

He nodded at his choice, and Grandpa Edgar nodded back.

Henry picked the tree up in his arms, swung it onto his shoulders, and stumbled off into the darkness of night and memory.

When my mother told me this story so many years later, I never questioned it. Even though she couldn’t remember my name, knew me only as the nice man who fed her pecan pie and tapioca pudding, I could tell this memory was as vivid as stained glass to her. That she could still feel her father reaching down, picking her up as Henry disappeared into the December shadows. Or moonlight.

A month or so ago, just before All Souls Day, my mother slipped into memory. Her last day, I sat by her bed, held her hand, mapped its papery skin, knobs of bone with my thumb.

I think she did the same thing with her father that night so many Decembers ago. She pressed her fingers into the palm of his hand, felt its callouses and splinters. She held on and on, not really understanding why she didn’t want to let go, not understanding the physics of memory. How it floats down river, vanishes for a lifetime, and then blazes forth again.

Like a Christmas wreath in a winter window, a shadow that may be your father or grandfather or mother standing behind it, or not standing behind it. On the threshold between what we know and what we remember.

Here is what I know: in her last moments, my mother sat straight up in bed, as if hearing a knock on the door. Here is what I remember: she drifted back into her pillows, her face glowing like a candle in the green boughs of Henry’s tree.

Saint Marty wishes you all blessed and merry Christmas, full of wonder and starlight.  

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