Santiago knows he has to stay strong . . . Now, he thought, I must think about the drag. It has its perils and its merits. I may lose so much line that I will lose him, if he makes his effort and the drag made by the oars is in place and the boat loses all her lightness. Her lightness prolongs both our suffering but it is my safety since he has great speed that he has never yet employed. No matter what passes I must gut the dolphin so he does not spoil and eat some of him to be strong.
No matter what, the old man realizes he has to eat in order to finish the battle with the fish. He has to be stronger than his adversary. That's what life's all about, I guess.
For the past two days, my adversary was a Christmas blizzard. It started on December 23 and pretty much raged until early Christmas morning. According to the National Weather Service, we received about 27 inches of snow. The worst part, however: the winds. Sixty to 70 miles per hour at times. There were hip-deep drifts in my driveway yesterday afternoon. All the Christmas Eve church services but one were cancelled. (Catholics never cancel. They just wrap a rosary around their fingers, get in the car, and let Jesus take the wheel.)
Despite all this, Christmas came. On Friday, as the storm was really ramping up, my wife's side of the family gathered for an Italian smorgasbord and gift exchange. Christmas came. Last night, I drove through the snow-clogged streets of my little hometown and played the pipe organ in the church I grew up in. My wife and son sang "O Holy Night" together, and one of my best friends came up to the choir loft and celebrated with us. Christmas came. And today, it was presents and family and games and Christmas movies. Christmas came.
Christmas always comes.
I know that I have been mostly absent from this blog for a good portion of the year. I have been struggling for many months with sadness and anxiety. At a time when writing about my thoughts and emotions in blog posts would have been therapeutic, I just couldn't do it. Most times when I got home at night, I found myself too exhausted from just . . . functioning.
Yet, this December has been full of blessings. My daughter turned 22 years old at the beginning of the month, and we had a wonderful, late party for her on her birthday. She has become such a beautiful, caring, poised young woman. Blessings. My son has been thriving at his new school, winning awards and maintaining all A's. I haven't seen him this happy in years. Blessings. I have a wife who struggles with mental illness, but she never gives up. She gets out of bed every morning, goes to work, and loves us all fiercely. Blessings. I have a job I love at a library, and friends who care about me deeply. Blessings.
I did a fundraiser this December for the U. P. Poet Laureate Foundation. For a donation of seven dollars, I wrote personalized poems for people to give their loved ones for Christmas. When I conceived the idea, I thought I would receive, at most, ten or 15 requests for poems, mostly from friends and family. After all, we're talking poetry, the subject that drives fear into the hearts of most school-age kids and causes PTSD (that's Poetry Traumatic Stress Disorder) in adults. How many people want the gift of poetry for Christmas?
The answer: 44 people. That's right. In the space of about 17 or so days, I wrote an entire book of poems. And it was a blessing. People entrusted me with their stories of love and loss and grief. It was both an honor and a huge responsibility. I'm not sure if I rose to the occasion every time, but I tried the best I could. And over the last 24 hours, people received my poems as Christmas presents. Blessings, I hope.
Despite my ongoing struggles, I was able to write those poems. I was able to write my annual Christmas essay, as well. I struggled with that project for close to five months. False starts. Blazing inspiration that quickly fizzled. Frustrations. The essay slowly took shape. I recorded it on December 13 for Public Radio. I included it in my annual Christmas letter. It seems to have had strong impact on many people this holiday season. Blessings.
As the above passage from The Old Man in the Sea touches on, when facing a difficult adversary (a really big fish, a blizzard, a half-year depression), you just can't give up. And there are blessings all around you.
This Christmas night, I give thanks for all the blessings I received this December. They have been multitude. We are past the solstice. The planet is slowly tipping back to light, and I will embrace each extra second of sun in the coming days. Because darkness never wins.
I wish all of you a blessed Christmas.
Saint Marty's Christmas essay . . .
letter will not be easy to write. Or is
not easy to write. Or wasn’t.
I guess it all depends on when you’re reading it, what path of time you’ve
traveled in order to receive these words.
this letter is just a thought, flashing from one synapse in my brain to another
as I sit beside my sister Rose’s hospital bed, listening to her lungs take one-two-three-four
more bites of air before shutting down quietly, the way autumn shuts down when
that first snowfall pixilates the world into winter.
maybe I’ve already written this letter, left it on my dining room table next to
a plate of thumbprint cookies and mug of eggnog on December 24th,
the hard work of scratching words on a piece of paper done. Because I can’t imagine a world where you and
your sleigh aren’t called to flight by my sister’s belief. How she would spend hours conjuring you with
pen each Christmas Eve, starting with that initial incantation: “Dear Santa.”
am surrounded by Christmas Roses. From
eight-month-old Rose in my stubborn mother’s arms: a baby with an extra chromosome facing a
world that doesn’t believe in her. To
the Rose who can barely speak, her brain plaqued with Alzheimer’s, whose
Christmas gift to me is a smile after a forkful of baked ham.
shuttling back-and-forth this year, watching Christmas in time lapse, Rose
growing old and young again, budding and blossoming, withering and dropping
petals, then retreating to seed and promise in the universe of our mother’s
matter what theory of time travel you believe or don’t—Einstein at the speed of
light stretching a second into a century, Rod Taylor saving Yvette Mimieux from
the clutches of the Morlocks in The Time
Machine, or Emily Webb haunting her childhood in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—we’re all subject to the
passage of minutes and hours and days and years. Our lives all episodes in The March of Time newsreels, Westbrook
Van Voorhis narrating each breath and war, each plague and Christmas ginger
know in these Santa letters, authors usually proclaim how good they’ve been
over the past 365 days and then provide catalogues of Christmas wishes, from
the material to the ethereal. New
iPhones and Nintendo DS5s. World peace. Good health for an ailing mother. That’s how it works. Has worked.
Will work. Wishes are just
alternate universes for each wisher.
Ones where the wisher has traveled backward or forward to change some
string of time. Stop grandpa from
smoking two packs a day. Say “yes” to
that boy in high school who asked you to the Holiday Formal. Buy your son that God of War computer game. Hold
your dead sister’s hand one last time.
I know that, in one of these threads of time, you’re reading a note left for
you by one of these Roses on Christmas Eve.
She’s been a good girl. She
always is. Was. Will be.
And she wants new ballpoint pens to write letters with. Stationery.
Hubba Bubba bubblegum, as many packs as you can spare. Another Santa reads that Rose misses our
father and mother, hopes God is letting them win a few hands of gin rummy. To a third Santa she writes that I wouldn’t
let her drink another Diet Coke after dinner, and maybe he should take one
present away from me.
all of these Christmases, you exist/did exist/will continue to exist for me
because all the Roses still exist—providing the plutonium for Marty McFly’s
DeLorean, phone number for Bill and Ted’s next excellent adventure. Through all the years of her life, Rose’s
belief in you never failed. Never
fails. Will never fail. There was/is/will be cookies and milk left on
the dining room table for you every Christmas Eve as sure as the moon turns
Teal Lake silver on August nights and geese chase the sun across the country
when frost pinches the air toward winter.
the play Our Town, the main
character, Emily Webb, dies in Act III, ending up in the town cemetery,
surrounded by ghosts. One of those
ghosts is her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs.
When Emily declares she’s going to travel back to a happy time in her
life, Mrs. Gibbs tries to talk her out of the idea. Emily remains determined, so Mrs. Gibbs
cautions her: “At least choose an
unimportant day. Choose the least
important day in your life. It will be
reached that point in my letter where I’m supposed to tell you what I want for
Christmas. I want a time machine, like
the one Rod Taylor rode, past to present to future to present again, with its
upholstered Victorian chair, spinning sundial, flashing lights, and throttle
stick capped in crystal. So I can return
like Emily to the least important day of my life. Emily chooses her twelfth birthday. Maybe I’ll choose my twelfth Christmas.
had been snowing for several days, but the snow stopped that morning. The sun came out, making the world so white
it was hard to look at. My dad, young
and flinty as steel, sat in his chair, sipping his third cup of thick, black
coffee. My mother, her hair only slightly
peppered with gray, was in the kitchen, pulling the ham from the oven, its back
studded with cloves. On the couch, Rose
ogled the gigantic pile of presents spilling across the living room floor,
trying to find ones with her name on it.
Slowly, my other siblings appeared, pulled by the smell of the ham or
the voice of Willie Nelson on WJPD, twanging, “Pretty papers, pretty ribbons of
blue . . .”
all look so young and beautiful and happy.
Yet, they don’t know it. It’s
just another Christmas for them. Another
of my mother’s gingered hams. Another
December filled with snow. Another
December 25th when Rose asks over and over, “Can we open presents
now?” Just like Emily in Our Town, I can’t look at everything
of me wants to hold each one of them for a long, long time. Tell them how this life we know goes so fast,
and we never really look at each other or notice all the little things of each
and every day.
Rose. Somehow, she saw and knew what we
all didn’t or couldn’t know. The smell
of coffee. Our mother’s homemade
bread. The clock chiming on the dining
room wall. Old Hank Williams songs on
the radio. Dad spreading mustard on his ham sandwich. Mom humming along to Judy Garland. The furnace ticking one, two, three times
before rumbling to life. The poinsettia
from Midnight Mass sitting in the middle of the dining room table, surrounded
by plates of spritz cookies and snickerdoodles.
Going to sleep at night, and waking up to the gift of another day. The tinsel and wrap of each and every
moment. Rose knew. Believed in a world where reindeer can fly
faster than starlight.
that’s my real Christmas wish this year.
I don’t need an H. G. Wells time machine. A nuclear-powered DeLorean. An omnipotent Stage Manager with a pocket
watch. I just need a Christmas Rose to
remind me how truly wonderful the world was.
Is. Will always be.
a cookie. The good kind—peanut butter
with a Hershey’s kiss pressed into its center.
They were always her favorite.
I’ll sit down, put that cookie in my mouth, feel Rose’s arms reach
across time to wrap around my shoulders.
I’ll hear her voice in my ear, asking if she can have one more Diet
Coke. Because it’s Christmas Eve. And Santa is coming to take her to the North
Pole, where our mother and father are waiting for her to open presents.