My little town has been enduring a triple whammy since Thanksgiving. It consists of whatever the latest variant of the China-virus is called, plus the common cold, plus this year’s ‘flu, (which this year’s ‘flu-shot seemingly failed to make people immune to.) Along with a double whammy of a heavy snowstorm followed by a heavy rainstorm and floods, it created a Grinch which tried but failed to keep Christmas from coming. Christmas came.
I was so exhausted I didn’t much feel like going out on Christmas eve. I just wanted to just sit by the fire and remember. Yet I was very glad I allowed myself to get dragged out to a candlelight concert on Christmas Eve. It wiped the grumpy look right off my face. Music has a magic greater even than a warm fire’s.
This is not to say we do not have our limits. My wife is a gifted giver, especially around Christmas, and it was like pulling teeth to get her to admit she had the ‘flu and belonged in bed. Actually I didn’t persuade her. Her own body did. Nausea makes it difficult to be a good hostess.
We had lots of grandchildren visiting and every bedroom filled, and then the kids began keeling over like dominoes. However dominoes don’t bounce back, and the kids seemed to recover in roughly twelve to eighteen hours, so we tended to only have one wailing as the other five (all six of the smaller ones are under five-years-old) joyously bounced off the walls. Also fortunate was that there were always several adults hale enough to take the little crew outdoors, and enough snow left to sled upon. Some were from places where it hasn’t snowed yet, and I had a sense “Grampa’s House” will someday have a mythical quality in their memory’s, simply because the hills of New Hampshire had snow.
In any case, the Grinch couldn’t stop Christmas from coming. It came. And then, it went. This always brings down silence like thunder. My house is never so quiet as it is just after the kids leave.
And then? Well, in my opinion then it is then time to sit by the fire and soak up some well deserved rest. Nibble an eraser, get dreamy, and write a sonnet. However in my wife’s opinion it is time to face the New Year, and make some resolutions. This does tend to result in some disagreement. My plan to be lazy poetic doesn’t always go over well, but this year, somewhat to my surprise, my wife saw some sense in it.
I suppose it is helpful when a certain element of absurdity is added in, and the very ones, whom one would ordinarily gladly give to, ask for a little too much, at exactly the wrong time: The drama-queen daughter wants her dishes washed because her children are sick and she hasn’t recovered, when you yourself have just managed an entire holiday household at far less than fifty percent; or an elderly mother with poor eyesight calls up at nine at night all a-tither because she can’t find her wallet (which is under a newspaper on her table) and she wants all her credit cards cancelled; or the employees you hire to help you all call in sick and all need help, just after receiving their Christmas bonus. One wants to get grumpy and say, “Wait a cotton picking minute here! If we’re the ones helping, shouldn’t we be the ones getting paid?”
Or at least I think that way, because I can be a Scrooge even around Christmas. However, it doesn’t even seem to occur to my wife to think that way. She could be in the middle of a shower, and if her cellphone jingles with a text asking (or hinting) for help, she seems likely to rush off with soap in her eyes. I can’t really be angry at her for being such a saint, but sometimes I confess I’d like to shoot her cellphone. Instead I tend to point out the absurdity, and laugh.
And this year she sat by the fire with me and laughed. Enough’s enough. After excessive go-go-go there comes a time to stop. One needs to resolve to be irresolute.
You can't step on the gas when the pedal
Is already floored. Sometimes a "can-do"
Attitude's absurd. One wins no medal
For collapsing exhausted. Yes, it's true
That God wants us to smile and put aside
All greediness, and to cheerfully give,
But we must also put aside our pride
And confess we're mortal. Mortals cannot live
Without water. We face limits. God can
Raise the dead, but we mortals shouldn't brag
We can do such things, for that's the will of man
And not God's will. If we try it, we'll sag.
It's best to sit silent, for then you may hear
The Will that makes weariness disappear.
You are gifted, and though all the long year
You give, and need no ribbons nor bows,
So, when Christmas comes, should you feel a fear
You are in any way lacking? God knows
Who the true givers are, but exploiters
Want to make you feel guilty if you don't buy
Their trinkets. Just as bad salt grows goiters
They smog up the clean, sweet, holiday sky
Until stars aren't seen, but you're just such a star.
When winter stunts daylight, and darkness looms,
Some people glimmer. They catch from afar
The Light Who long ago defeated cruel gloom's
Attempt to slaughter all innocents. Light shifted
The minds of men from theft, to being gifted.
In these darkest days, when an orange sun
Limps through southern trees, dragging shadows
And never lifting his head, I need someone
To add to the light; someone sweet who knows
How to lighten my load; some light-hearted
Soul who remembers how to skip, how to
Lift my chin from considering departed
Summers, how to lift my eyes to the blue
And have hope. But what makes darker days
Be darker days is that person is not
Around, not to be found; low noon dismays
For too soon it sags. The little we've got
Is not enough to warm us through the long night
So we look up in darkness for Christmas time's light.
Note: For a triumph over darkness see old post from 2015 about Longfellow:
With fond farewells my family all departs
And quiet descends in my battered home
Which bears the scars of young and growing hearts.
Wistful walls are worse for wear. The young roam.
Family is a most strange worldly treasure:
The more you gather; the more it bankrupts.
It is a wealth no banker can measure
And in fact it's proof such sweet love disrupts
Our intellects. Family is a madness
To misers, because, free as mother's milk,
It gives without charging, making gladness
Even when the naughty children all sulk.
It frees you, for as families grow
You find you get more, the more you let go.
As I begin this post it is Christmas Eve and a warm south wind is picking up. The piles of powder snow are wilting as only the most fluffy snow can wilt.
A few mornings ago the thermometer registered zero at dawn, (-17 degrees Celsius), and the fluffy snow wasn’t wilting a bit. Instead a storm that didn’t even show on weather maps drifted over. The weather map didn’t even show the orange-dashed-line indicative of an upper air disturbance.
As this disturbance passed over it gave us an extra inch of snow lighter than Pablum (before you add the water); fluff so unsubstantial that you could see through an inch of it, to the outline and brown color of a dead oak leaf that landed atop the prior powder before the current fluff fell. Meteorologists would note the snow had a 25:1 ratio, which basically means a bare .04 inches of what would have been rain crystalized into slightly over a inch of snow. Conversely, such snow has so little water-content that a bright sunbeam can turn an inch into .04 of an inch, which is turning something into next to nothing.
However before the sunbeams strike, such snow is not next to nothing. It is snow atop snow, and seems like adding insult to injury. With one’s muscles already aching from removing the prior foot, even a mere inch seems like mountains made of a molehill. Tires spin when one has last minute Christmas shopping to do. The dust of fluff makes one quiver in an un-Christmassy snit. The puff of snow is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. One needs a crow to shake the snow from a hemlock branch into one’s face, hitting one in the chops like a slapstick pie, to give one a change of mood. One needs a miracle.
It is now Christmas Day and the snow is all gone. The snow now is more than next to nothing; it is utterly nothing. The storm that moved north to our west has done a magic trick with south winds and warm rain.
Perhaps that is this year’s Christmas miracle: The snow that had plows out all night long, battling to keep roads open, has been disappeared by a snow-removal which has done far more than men’s plows can (merely shove the white burden to the curbs), and has even removed snow from the hills.
The Alarmists, of course, leapt from old worry to new worry, for the brooks all rose. With the rain combining with the snowmelt, we experienced a Christmas freshet. There were flash-flood warnings, but I didn’t heed them.
I drove about after the morning-unwrapping-of-gifts and before the afternoon-feast, simply admiring the bounding brooks, all at bankful, or just above, flooding a few low parking lots and the lower spaces in riverside campgrounds, but closing no streets. Temperatures were balmy for December, up around sixty (16 Celsius), and I drove with my windows open despite the rain.
In my eyes the freshet was also a Christmas miracle. What the Alarmists forget was how worried they were about drought and low well-levels only a month ago, when our rainfall totals for the year were more than ten inches below normal. I counted it a blessing to have it pouring on Christmas, for wells were being replenished.
The Alarmists were also fretting about possible wind gusts to sixty mph (97 km/hr), and falling tree branches taking down power lines and leaving kitchens cold, just when roasts were sliding into ovens. Never happened. We did get some good gusts that made me feel foolish for driving with my windows open. Sheets of driving rain entered the driver’s side window and exited the passenger side, and I needed wipers on the inside of my windshield. It wasn’t the same as a crow shaking down a dust of snow from a hemlock tree, but made me chuckle all the same.
It is now late evening on Boxing Day, and I’m feeling a bit warm and fuzzy, even with my house in some ways trashed. I’ll be able to heat tomorrow morning without using wood, just by lugging all the wrapping paper strewn about down to the cellar stove and burning it. The ashes will likely contain heavy metals and therefore won’t go into my garden.
In the future, I suppose, Alarmists will have us all wrapping presents in white paper to avoid the hazards of heavy metals, but in the present tense I’m fairly certain the local “recycling center” will not separate wrapping paper from more ordinary paper, excessively worried about heavy metals. In fact one fellow who works at the center confided to me entire truckloads of paper, as well as big bins of plastic and glass, are not recycled at all, when the price drops too low, and instead it is all trucked south to a massive “landfill” in Massachusetts where it is buried by bulldozers in dirt. If this is truly the case, then they likely appreciate that, rather than bringing them twelve huge trash bags of paper and cardboard, I bring them a small sack of ashes which I refuse to use in my garden.
It is amazing to me the heat generated by burning twelve big bags of paper and cardboard in a cellar stove. It only lasts around an hour, but the stove glows cherry red and the wooden floors upstairs become much nicer to walk upon, as the cellar becomes much less dismal and dank. It will not last, unless I add wood to the cellar stove (which I do when temperatures drop below zero [minus 17 Celsius]). But what is most applicable to this essay is the fact such a large amount of paper, literally three trips by car to the recycling center, is reduced to ashes I can carry to the trash in a small sack while whistling Dixie. Just think of all the gasoline I’ve saved by not driving, and the propane saved by generating heat burning paper in my basement. Surely the environmentalists will be pleased…..(not).
At this point, if I was clever, I would compare the huge amount of snow-removal avoided, simply by shifting winds from north to south and changing over an inch of snow to a mere .04 inches of water, with the huge amount of trash-removal avoided by heating your home for an hour with cardboard boxes and wrapping paper. However I have feasted more than is wise, and my paunch is bloated, and therefore my mind is less sharp than usual, so I won’t display such wit.
Later —- Instead I will simply add that life could be far simpler if Alarmists didn’t make everything so difficult. For example, life is much easier if you don’t walk around wearing silly masks which do no good, according to six peer-reviewed articles in the New England Journal Of Medicine and the English medical publication The Lancet. Yet Alarmists insist upon making what should be easy be hard.
Down in Boston, Alarmists became concerned about the salt spread on roads for snow removal, which made some sense for we don’t want salt in our wells and drinking water. However Boston’s streets largely were drained by storm drains which discharged into Boston Harbor, which was salty to begin with. This process was hurried along on snowy winters by front-end-loaders which filled dump trucks which drove to the harbor and dumped the snow into the water, but Alarmists made this illegal, claiming it hurt the ecosystem. Consequently mountains of snow would build up in parking lots and along curbs, clogging drains and causing street-flooding and, in the end, melting in the spring and winding up in the ecosystem anyway. The problem made me roll my eyes. To me it seemed that what should have been done was to determine if the road salts contained any “additives” which were actually harmful, and to ban those “additives”, but instead snow-removal itself was banned, which seemed a typical Alarmist case of overkill. It made life in the city far harder, especially a half decade ago when Boston had four snowstorms in a row. Once again Alarmists were making life harder.
But one thing about humans is that they are endowed with a creativity that finds a way, even in seemingly impossible circumstances, to make life easier. Sometimes life is even made more enjoyable.
For example, over a century ago, when the snow got deep, rather than remove it they brought out massive horse-drawn snow-rollers and pressed the snow flat.
Then people would park their wagons and take out their sleighs, or, if they couldn’t afford sleighs, they’d take the wheels off their wagons and attach runners. Then people glided about, making fond memories and songs about how fun it was, until snow turned to slush and you experienced what was called “rough sledding.” In any case it was ingenuity which made life easier.
The modern example of this ingenuity was a snow-melting-gadget some clever fellow invented which drives about above roaring propane burners, melting all the snow. It uses enormous amounts of propane, and costs something like $5000.00 an hour to rent, but Alarmists couldn’t complain because all the water running into the storm drains had no salt in it. The big-city parking lots treated by this gadget were clean and dry without any piles of snow around them. The bottom line was it was cheaper than plows, plus front-end-loaders, plus dump trucks, plus court battles with environmentalists. In fact it made life easier, and the gadget was, in the eyes of some businessmen, a blessing and even a Christmas Miracle.
One definition of “a Christmas miracle” is a hardship made easy. For example, one is ill, but wakes up well. One is exhausted, but gains a “second wind.” One is hungry, but is fed. One is freezing, but finds a friendly fire. One is oppressed, but is liberated. One is sick of wearing silly masks, and has the audacity to take them off.
I actually prefer Christmas miracles of a more stunning and supernatural-seeming kind. For example, as I explained in prior posts, one year I desperately needed five dollars, and then a five-dollar-bill blew across a parking lot and stopped at my feet on Christmas Eve. That was so amazing that to this day I don’t expect anyone to believe it actually happened.
Equally stunning, to my way of viewing life, was that a bum like me could abruptly become the father of three. That was a miracle in and of itself, and I felt asking for more would be ungrateful. Here is a picture of me with my future wife and children, when I was ending my time of sleeping in my car, and beginning my time as the patriarch and provider of a family of five. All who knew me were deeply concerned, for they felt I was about to precipitate a disaster.
Soon afterwards there came a Christmas eve when all three children were crabby and in no mood to help me get them to a Christmas Eve church service, where I had to be on time because I was part of a choir and relatively important, for I had to sing a brief solo. As I ushered the whining, miserable children a bit forcibly out the front door and down the front steps I recall my wry sense of humor kicking in, and rolling my eyes to heaven and saying it was enough of a miracle that a bum like me should have such problems, and I certainly should not expect more. And it was just then I received that year’s Christmas miracle.
I don’t expect anyone to believe it happened, but what happened was this: As I ushered the resentful, fretful children down the steps I think the pompom on my hat bumped against the wind-chimes that hung at the side of that porch, and those chimes played the first notes of a carol so distinctly my jaw dropped. Just guessing, it may have been the first nine notes of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.” Whatever it was, it was far too many notes, played too perfectly, to be easily dismissed as “coincidence”, and made me feel warm all over. Under my breath I think I said something like, “Lord, that was utterly awesome, but I think I might have preferred a five-dollar-bill.”
This year I kept my eyes wide open, for I was expecting the supernatural, but, to be honest, all I saw was a foot of snow vanishing between sunset and sunrise, and that is easy to scientifically explain.
I also saw my family expanded by thirty years of living. This too is easy to scientifically explain, and Alarmists will likely complain and worry about “over population.” My immediate family now looks like this:
This picture is from less than two months ago, as my youngest son was married in California. Please notice we wear no masks. Please notice we are not “social distancing.” Especially notice the old geezer in the middle is myself, a fool who smoked for 40 years who now suffers from COPD, who everyone should be avoiding, to keep me from getting the coronavirus, but, lastly, notice I would rather die than be separated from my family by Alarmists.
I’m the one who must die when it is time for me to die, so shouldn’t anyone ask me my opinion? Do I want the schools closed, for me? No. Do I want the churches closed, for me? No. Do I want the small businesses bankrupted, for me? No. Do I want dying elders denied family at their deathbeds, for me? No. So who wants such things?
Alarmists is who. They prefer making things difficult.
Without going into a very long sidetrack explaining Alarmists, I’ll simply point out my life disproves their logic. In some ways it seems the reason for my existence. To get from there to here involves what I personally believe is a miracle, for it involved beauty I cannot take credit for.
Go back to that first picture, when my family only numbered five, and realize how alarmed me and my wife-to-be made Alarmists. We nearly instantly decided we’d marry, but only confessed to each other after ten days, but we knew people would be alarmed if we told them we were going to marry after knowing each other so briefly. So we decided to keep it a secret, until they might be more approving. Yet the absurdity is we decided to keep our secret for a further 21 days. It seemed a very long time, to us, but to Alarmists? Actually, to be honest, I think they would have only have been pleased if we never married. There would never be a picture of a family of five, let alone a picture of a family of seventeen.
Thirty years have passed since I alarmed the Alarmists. If I was allowed the time to go into the details of the struggle my wife and I have seen this post would expand several hundred, or perhaps thousand, pages, but let me leave that for future posts, and simply state I called the Alarmist’s bluff. They stated I couldn’t, but I did.
Not that I did it alone. I relied on faith, on my belief in Christmas Miracles. I knew I was just a bumpkin, but had faith in Something Higher, and look what has happened! One Christmas I’m sleeping in my car as alone as alone can be, and another I’m the patriarch of a rather large and fascinating crowd of seventeen, encompassing three continents.
Alarmists cannot point at such increase as proof of their success. In fact they can only point at decrease. Abortion is only an example. They base decisions on the premise life will be worse if there is more of it. The exact opposite is the Truth.
As a person brought up as an Unitarian, it was my understanding that all that was referred to as a “miracle” in the Bible had a scientific explanation. For example, when Moses parted the Red Sea, it likely was that he just happened to be at the right place at the right time; it was explained to me that the sea often withdraws just before the onrush of a tsunami. The Jews crossed a low area at the right time, and when the Egyptians tried to follow, the onrushing tsunami got them. Easy peasy. All explained.
There were other miracles harder to explain, such as Jesus walking on the water, and these events tended to be brushed away as exaggerations or lore. Or, if that sort of blunt dismissal seemed impolite, the miracles simply were not mentioned.
This attitude tended to be a sort of wet blanket on a lot that seemed wondrous to a child, including Christmas. It was as if some felt it was their duty to stamp out amazement. I recall the words “it’s only” were often used to dismiss the remarkable, as in “it’s only a meteor” or “it’s only northern lights.”
If I had to take a guess at what made this pragmatic dourness so strong an attitude in New England, I’d say that in the mists of the past (the late 1600’s) belief had spun out of control into the realms of hate, resulting in the witch trials New England is infamous for, and no one wanted to go back there again.
Also, because Boston had stood at the forefront of modern medicine for over a century, one nudged against a conflict caused by modern medicine challenging some traditional attitudes towards healing. Healing was formerly a wonder largely in the hands of God, but when “germs” were introduced as a new idea (around 1830) the idea that germs existed seemed to challenge God’s power and authority, (not that cleanliness wasn’t stressed, in the Bible.) A hundred years later the discovery (actually a rediscovery) of antibiotics completely amazed people, to a point antibiotics were called “miracle” drugs.
Up until that point the prognosis wasn’t hopeful for sufferers of certain bacterial infections such as staff, tuberculosis, or syphilis. Whereas blood poisoning might kill you swiftly, (a president’s son died from a blister on the heel he got playing tennis, in roughly twelve hours), slower bacteria such as tuberculosis often caused a long and miserable death. Syphilis basically rotted the brain, adding madness to the prolonged misery. People nowadays can’t imagine the sudden change brought about by penicillin, especially when it was new and bacteria had no resistance. Hopelessly doomed people became well over night. It was as if Christ walked through a hospital, laying His hands on people and making them instantly well, only rather than a marvelous Man it was a little pill. There was a huge surge of hope and gratitude, and no one even thought of suing the doctors (for a while). Nor did people seem to remember to thank God.
Antibiotics didn’t cure viral infections, or cancer, but it was assumed a new pill would come along and cures were just around the corner. Anything seemed possible. In a sense there was faith, but now the faith was in pills (and vaccines) .
This belief-in-pills reached its most ridiculous levels in the field of psychology, where belief-in-God was described as a neurosis or fixation, and the agony and ecstasy of spiritual search were explained away as being due to hormones and dopamine levels. Some of the pills handed out to doctors and by doctors as free samples are now known to have had horrific consequences, and are banned, but at the time the cure for a housewife’s depression was “mother’s little helper” and amphetamines, and suburban women walked around with eyes like locomotive headlights.
Children are observant and not as foolish as some think, and I was aware some housewives (including my mother) sometimes behaved a bit oddly, without understanding the connection to pills. But children accept a lot they are told without question, and I did learn to scoff at “non-scientific” beliefs at some early age without even thinking about it. I felt a lot of childish wonder, but it was largely about the latest scientific discoveries. Both the scoffing and the wonder seemed to largely come from my father, who was a surgeon.
Walking in the woods with my father was, for me, an experience in heaven, for he had a tremendous awareness of the interrelations between various plants and animals, (what is now called “ecology”, though no one used that word back then). He saw, or seemed to glimpse, a Whole, a sort of Oneness, and, without ever hearing the word “God” mentioned, I was enchanted and enthralled. (I never said “it’s only nature.”) Unfortunately these walks were few and far between. One reason the suburbs were so insidiously empty was because all the Dad’s were gone, being workaholics elsewhere. This physical divorce between the workplace and the home eventually effected marriages.
When divorces went from being very rare to quite common in the late 1960’s it didn’t make wives happier, and it only made the suburbs worse. It was around this time my mind began to grapple with the possibility something was missing. What was missing was obviously “Dad”, but there was something else, a sort of “spirit”, and it was especially noticeable around Christmas.
It did not occur to me I was on any sort of spiritual search. The very word “spirit” had negative connotations. “Spirit” seemed linked with superstition, and also with being childish, with a belief in a sort of Santa Claus. Instead, when I thought at all, I felt I was scientific, and after something science hadn’t discovered yet. Rather than an unscientific word like “miracle” I preferred the word “coincidence.” I had noticed a glitch in the data that might suggest an undiscovered element, a sub-atomic particle, an unseen gravity (such as a “black hole”, which was just then being considered as a possible explanation for oddities noticed through telescopes.)
It was a very empty and gray time, as I remember. At age fourteen I spent a lot of time slouching around with a young Jewish pal nicknamed “Skeeter”, mostly grouching about how unjust young females were and how they should smile at us more, but also talking about other topics, including God. I recall talking about a media report “God is dead”, and deciding He couldn’t be dead because God was a concept, and a concept has no pulse or heartbeat, and therefore can’t be alive, and therefore can’t die. Also the media confidently announced scientists had “created life in a test-tube” (actually they had strung together a molecule resembling DNA), and both Skeeter and myself became depressed by that news, because if man could create life then God seemed strangely useless. Why this depressed us I’m not sure, but then, we could be depressed by just about anything at age fourteen, and these sullen moods tended to alternate with zany moods where Skeeter and I bounded about like deranged gazelles.
When we were in slouch-mode we tended to walk with our hands thrust halfway into the front pockets of our jeans and our shoulders sharp and cynical. I tended to suggest things we might do to make the dull town more interesting, and Skeeter tended to supply the brakes. We did manage to go few places we should not have gone, without being caught, and did get in trouble at times, but those are stories for another evening. For the most part we walked and talked and did nothing. I often would scorn him for doing homework and getting good grades, and regaled him with tales of all the fun I’d had while he worked, and sometimes the tales I told were even true.
One secret crime I can now confess. The statute of limitations is up, after fifty years. There was a mysterious person in town who would sneak into the church, even after they began locking the doors to stop him. This person wildly rang the bell, for from ten to thirty seconds, often in the dusk before the sun was up in the morning. Skeeter could hear the bell, and knew it was me, but Skeeter kept the secret. He was a friend I could trust, and I told him other secrets I held close to my heart, which I told no one else.
As Christmas approached one year I began to ventilate to Skeeter all my mixed feelings about Christmas. As a Unitarian I was amazingly uneducated about what the holiday actually celebrates, because one thing about Unitarians of that time was that they didn’t need to go to church unless they felt like it, and in my parent’s case that was never. Or, to be more accurate, when I was small they did go on Christmas and Easter, and we did say grace before our meals, but they eventually dropped such archaic traditions. (Perhaps it only follows that their divorce manifested soon afterwards.) In any case, the reason-for-the-season was never talked about, and I was therefore learning in the dark. (Come to think of it, I learned about sex the same way. Back then some things were simply not discussed.)
It is really amazing what an ignoramus I was, but one thing about being fourteen was that I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know, and pretended I did know. Often this involved keeping my mouth shut and trying to learn by listening. Not that I always learned much by listening.
Besides my Jewish friend Skeeter I had a Catholic friend nicknamed Baffles. Like Skeeter Baffles was a good student, but he was so good I could never hope to lead him astray in the manner I led Skeeter astray. He wouldn’t go out walking under streetlights after dark with me. He was more moral than I was, and I think I was jealous, and with the weird logic of youth this made me want to make him jealous back.
What I liked to do was horrify Baffles by telling him, each morning at the bus stop, what I’d been up to the night before. He largely scorned my tales as fabrications (and some were). After all, Baffles had known me since first grade, and could recall me arising for show-and-tell and speaking of the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton I vividly described finding in the woods behind my house. But he began to doubt less, once Skeeter could vouch for me. I think he didn’t keep my bragging to himself, and people in my neighborhood began to be more careful about drawing their shades, once they knew a couple of Peeping Toms were on the loose, for some of our scientific research did border upon voyeurism. However there were no sex-education classes in school back then, and how else was a fatherless boy to learn? In like manner, how was a boy who never attended Sunday School to learn about God?
One time I told Baffles I’d sneaked into the Catholic Church with my big sister, and we had drunk holy water from a porcelain sink by the entrance. With eyes like saucers Baffles told me I was not only damned, but just plain gross. Another time Skeeter told Baffles Jesus was a Jew, and there was a terrific argument at the bus stop.
This sort of discussion didn’t seem to be getting me very far forward, in terms of my religious education. At one point I decided to sit down to study the Bible myself. I lasted around five chapters into Genesis, and was defeated by the first “begats”. Yet I did notice some change in mood, when I made the attempt. I liked the highfalutin language, the “thee” and “thou” of King James. Although to me Genesis didn’t make as much intellectual sense as dinosaurs did, I sensed some change in the atmosphere. I also noticed it when I crept into the church to ring the bell in the pitch dark before dawn. I decided perhaps it was just a superstitious fear, such as the creepy feeling I got when walking by a graveyard after dark, but as a young scientist I parked the observation with the data I labeled “coincidence”.
As soon as you start talking about a “change in mood” and “atmosphere” you are in fact broaching the boundaries of science and entering the landscapes of art, but I hadn’t yet discovered poetry. Instead, when my heart felt unscientific stuff, I tended to express myself by lying. I’d brag about something I hadn’t actually done, and then feel ashamed about my dishonesty. It can be rough, being fourteen, especially when the only prayer you have heard was sung by a rock group called the “Animals.”
I didn’t get much understanding, even from Skeeter. I think that, if I had felt understood, my life would have been different. In the half century since I’ve noticed that after I’ve had a good talk with someone I have less of an urge to write. It is when no one listens that the yearning for fellowship undergoes metamorphosis, and a mere garrulity becomes poetry. In my case the process went through an intermediate stage of fabrications.
I suppose this occurs because, when your heart aches but you lack the ability to find the words, you enter the landscape of the subconscious. When you have awareness but lack words you are in an ambiguous state, wherein you have awareness yet lack awareness. You have the awareness of a mood but not the awareness of the words, and the mind produces a dream, rich with symbols, which is factually untrue. When one states, “My love is like a red, red rose”, it is a baldfaced lie.
For some reason I don’t understand I was uncomfortable with lying. I didn’t go to church, so there was no religious reason not to lie; perhaps it simply wasn’t scientific to be inaccurate. In the years since I’ve met others who live lives full of lies, and they never seem the slightest bit troubled, but my lies disturbed me. I lied, and didn’t understand why I did what I did.
One time I was midst a self-created anguish over some girl I never had the courage to talk to. I’d gone to a high-school dance and never dared even speak with her, let alone ask her to dance, which begs the question, “Why did you go to dances?” (Good question. I dreaded them beforehand, was miserable during them, and felt humiliated afterwards.) Rather than going home after the dance I went on a long walk in the night, feeling the adolescent ache of one who wants to communicate but hasn’t a clue where to begin. I wanted to be noticed, and invented a story I wanted to impress people with. In my story I was set upon by hoodlums “from the next town” and fought a brave battle, but was knocked down and lay unconscious in the snow. To make my tale seem more true I put a tiny scratch on my face with a rock. Then I went and lay in the snow under the bedroom window of the girl in question, imagining I’d be discovered at dawn and….and then what? Comforted? I think that was my original scheme, but after laying in the snow ten minutes I began to question my own wisdom. After fifteen minutes I scientifically concluded snow is not a good bed-sheet to spend a night upon. I got up and walked home, (leaving an odd angel in the snow), and as I walked I muttered to myself about what a liar I was. (The word used back then was “phony”).
The next time I trudged with Skeeter he heard a lot of talk on my part about how I wasn’t going to be a phony any more. This likely made him wonder. He knew I was a liar, but also that sometimes I did what he didn’t dare, such as ring the church bells at four AM. He didn’t know which things I was saying were complete balderdash, and which were true. He likely should have bluntly inquired, “What were you doing that was phony?” He didn’t, which I appreciated, because that allowed me to be mysterious and keep him guessing.
The problem with strict honesty was that it stifled the urge to speak the unspeakable. The first tender shoots of poetry were stomped upon, as the hyperbole involved wasn’t absolutely true. Also there was no poetic mush involved in the idea of manhood back then. Rather than “coming out of the closet” about any tender feelings, one was suppose to be tough. I felt deep shame about crying at movies, and would spend time after a movie sitting in the dark, composing myself and drying my eyes, rather than revealing to anyone I had blubbered. It did occur to me that I might be being dishonest, denying my emotions in that manner, but when I became determined to be honest my determination made a fist. Pictures of me at the time show an unfriendly face, which I thought was manly. Mush wasn’t anything remotely desirable; and rather than “get in touch with” emotion I tended to feel it was wiser to “get over it.”
This denial wasn’t working very well, and was in some ways like a scab over a volcano, which was one reason I blew off steam pacing through the night with Skeeter. As we discussed how phony some people were and how unjust life seemed, Christmas approached, and puzzled me. Certain things made no sense in a world where toughness was seen as a virtue. One thing was that people who were greedy and selfish 51 weeks a year suddenly were giving. Not that small children weren’t greedy, but older folk (and at age 14 I was becoming one of them) became demented with generosity. What was that all about?
Another thing was the attempt on the part of families who were dysfunctional 51 weeks a year to be functional. This was especially painful to me because I never wanted my parents to separate, and now there was a lot of awkwardness and pain surrounding the holidays, wherein we came together without actually coming together. In my case we walked down to visit with my Dad at the Unitarian minister’s house. It was the first time I’d had anything to do with that minister.
The idea of nice things like generosity and togetherness are difficult to accept for people going through a divorce, even when custody, child support, and property are not contested. In my parent’s case every thing you can think of was contested. Even their individual sanity was contested. It was not a situation conducive to Christmas spirit, and in fact was tantamount to scientific proof Christmas was humbug, a farce, and phony. I had every reason to sneer and be a cynic, but at the same time I felt I was suppose to be tough; I was suppose to walk around smiling as if nothing was wrong.
And then there were all the lights. I had always liked the lights, and as a small boy used to stand close to them and gaze until mesmerized. The bulbs were bigger back then, and I especially liked the green ones. In a way difficult to describe it was as if I was peering into a crystal ball, and saw entire landscapes, but they were made of moods, like Beethoven’s music. But I was young and naive then. Now I was older, and peered at the darkness.
Even in the darkness I couldn’t escape the carols. They were everywhere, and all sung about stuff that made no sense. After all, as a Unitarian, Jesus was seen as a liberal politician, not all that different from Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. Jesus had been assassinated like Gandhi, while King and Kennedy were still alive and making speeches, and there was no big fuss made for the Birthdays of Gandhi or King or Kennedy. Why such a fuss for Jesus?
Last but not least was that I had, parked in my file of scientific “coincidences”, data which suggested that unlikely mood-events could occur on Christmas. One had occurred just the year before:
One of my most miserable pre-Christmases occurred in my boyhood, back in 1966. My parents had separated, but divorce was rare back then, and very difficult even when both parties wanted it. My father didn’t want it, but had vanished from the household and was fighting to save his marriage from afar, as my mother fought for freedom. My mother felt I ought be protected from the details of their dispute, but I found it a sort of hell to have my father vanish, and have no explanation given.
This silence concerning the truth had been going on for a year and a half, and had made me a crazy boy, and now I was thirteen and just starting to also go crazy with hormones. The misery I felt peaked during holidays, because holidays reminded me of better days, back when I was part of a happy, functioning family. During the dark days of December 1966 I found myself in a sort of private war. It was invisible to others, but very real to me.
We had gone from being very rich to abrupt poverty, (by the standards of a wealthy suburb,) and I had no money, but had decided I would fight back and give presents even though I was broke. I struggled to make hand-made presents for people, though my carpentry skills were undeveloped and I had no father to instruct me. My fingers were bleeding and bandaged from my blunders.
One project had me on the verge of tears and rage. I was endeavoring to make a pair of tiny hearts, as earrings for my mother, out of red cedar wood, but such wood splits very easily, and over and over, just when a small heart was nearly done, it would split in two and I’d have to start over. I only finished on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and trudged off to a gift shop a mile away to buy the metal fasteners that would turn the wood hearts to earrings.
For several days we’d been in a mild flow from the south, and the snowless landscape was grey under a dull sky. Life seemed very unfair to me. Other boys seven hundred miles to the west had a white Christmas, as a modest low swung north to the Great Lakes, but we were on the warm side and the weathermen on all three major Boston channels had said there was no chance of a white Christmas for Boston. The snowlessness seemed like insult heaped onto injury to me, and while I didn’t exactly give God a tongue lashing, I was extremely pessimistic about my good deeds ever gaining me any sort of reward.
However my irascible temper lashed out against the darkness by giving gifts, which must have won me a point or two upstairs, because all of a sudden nice things started to happened to me.
When I walked into the gift shop and timidly asked for fasteners, my pout and bandaged fingers must have touched the lady who ran the shop, because she took me under her wing and proceeded to not only sell me two fasteners, but to take me to the back of her shop, (where she repaired jewelry and watches,) and showed me how to glue the fasteners to the wooden hearts, and then got me a tiny box with a cotton square on the bottom to hold my earrings, and even wrapped them for me. I walked out of there in a much better mood, with the bells on the door jingling behind me, and then stopped in my tracks. Big, fat snowflakes were lazily drifting down from the grey sky.
As I walked home through the snow it seemed absolutely everyone was smiling. The snow was lazy and seemed harmless, but then it grew more steady and swirled, and when I arrived home my poor mother was going through one of her attacks of worry, as my older brothers had gone Christmas shopping in her car. Fortunately I only had to be a thirteen year old male soothing a 42 year old woman for a short while, before my brothers appeared through the snow with her car unscathed, and all was well.
We headed off on foot to Christmas Carols outside a church a half mile away, and for some reason, perhaps due to the snow, rather than the usual thirty people showing up, a hundred-twenty-five showed up to sing in the increasingly heavy snow. Just as we finished there was a flash of lightning, and long, deep, horizon-to-horizon roll of thunder.
As I turned to walk home, with the thunder still rolling, a thirteen-year-girl who I secretly adored but whom I had no chance of dating, (as I was not only thirteen, and broke, but also a half-foot shorter than she was,) glanced my way with her face awed by the thunder, and when she saw me watching her, she smiled an abrupt smile at me that just about knocked me flat on my back in the snow. And at that point I decided miracles actually could happen, and life might not be so bad, after all.
There was more lightning, and we had around seven inches of snow before it tapered off at midnight. The weathermen were embarrassed, but did give the freak event a name. It was dubbed “The Donner and Blitzen Storm.” Likely it was a “vort max” that “phased” with a “frontal low,” but, as it wasn’t a huge blizzard and set no records, record books don’t mention it much. However guys and gals over sixty, who lived between Portland Maine and Philadelphia back in 1966, all seem to remember it. It was a Christmas miracle, private and personal, but given to many.
Having this sort of unscientific data in my memory-banks didn’t help me make sense of things. After all, I could dismiss it as “only a mood”. It had occurred back when I was only a kid, a whole year earlier. I’d grown a lot since then; a whole half foot. I was suppose to be beyond such silly, sissy stuff.
Yet as I stomped down streets with Skeeter, our shadows shrinking and lengthening and shrinking again in the pools of streetlight-yellow, on a December night of chilled fog, we muttered about our moods, using a scientific instrument fourteen year old boys own called a moodylator, (also called a “heart”, by the unscientific). And abruptly I smacked my fist into my palm and said that this year would be different; this year I was going to get to the bottom of a mystery; this year I was going to figure out, for once and for all, what all the fuss about Christmas Spirit was about.
Skeeter then had the unusual experience of being a Jew hearing a Unitarian wonder about what Christmas was all about. As we walked through the foggy night he told me a little he knew about Jesus I didn’t know. (It tells you something about Unitarians, when a Jew knows more about Jesus than they do.) Somehow what he spoke was utterly dissatisfying. I can’t recall what the factoids actually were, but they struck me as being mere trivia, and my moodylator was going berserk, sensing something different.
As Skeeter and I trudged on through the cold fog I began to repetitively mutter, with increasing exasperation, “I just want to know.” I got louder and louder, until Skeeter got a little alarmed and told me to shut up. I then lost it, and bellowed, “I just want to know!” and then turned away from the street and dashed off into the darkness, down the slope of a snow-covered field. The cold fog rose like a wall of black before me, and behind me I could hear Skeeter’s voice crying, more and more faintly, “Come back! Come back!”
Now it is fifty years later. Sometimes, as I write tales about me and Skeeter and Baffles, I wish I could hop in a time machine and go back to that time and appear in my own story, a sixty-four year old man giving a fourteen year old a bit of advice.
I can’t do that. Only God can be the Creator, appearing in the story He has written. And actually that is the unlikely event that the Christmas Story describes. It is a wonderful tale, even if you don’t believe it is possible, and it amazes me that so many are growing up today and do not know the tale. For some reason some feel telling the tale is politically incorrect, and that Christmas should be celebrated without mentioning what it celebrates.
And what is that? Well, the world was becoming dark, and into the dark there came a Great Light. That is enough to begin with. If you happen to know a fourteen year old who spends a lot of time walking and scowling, do me a favor, and just take the time to tell him the Christmas Story.
One of the more surreal bits of history is the start of World War One, which we now can see, with 20-20 hindsight, was a complete disaster for Europe, especially the Victorian royalty. At the start, the English and German thrones held two grandsons of Queen Victoria, and the Czar of Russia was married to a granddaughter. The entire slaughter could have been avoided if the family had been a bit more functional, and had put their foot down on the lesser powers who were starting the war up. However the English royal family referred to the Kaiser of Germany as “that dreadful cousin Willy”, and when push came to shove they seemed to think of war as a sporting event. In September 1914 the public was assured, “It will be over by Christmas”. The first troops marched off on prancing horses in absolutely gorgeous uniforms with feathers and shining helmets, as if they were off to a jousting tournament in medieval times, and not on their way to meet machine guns.
By Christmas many were waking up to the realities of modern warfare, but the leaders, who sent others to die charging machine guns, still seemed to hold the idea that the dying troops were like football players put on “injured reserve”, a sad aspect of a jolly good sport. They decided to hold a Christmas Truce, when they could meet with their fellow officers on the opposing side, toast the holiday with fine bandy, and exchange helmets.
However the troops refused to be left out, and they too fraternized with the enemy, breaking ranks to drink, sing Christmas Carols, and play soccer with their sworn foe.
Armistice Day football match at Dale Barracks between German soldiers and Royal Welsh fusiliers to remember the famous Christmas Day truce between Germany and Britain PCH
You can hardly blame the troops. After all, they had been promised the war would be over by Christmas, and it was Christmas. What’s more, they proved the war could be over, if only the leaders would behave sanely. However the leaders did not. They banned Christmas truces for the rest of the war, by which time the royalty of Germany, Russia, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire had lost their power, and Britain was greatly weakened. In the view of the English poet Wilfred Owen it was as if Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son, and then, when God offered a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket, to be used instead of Isaac (or Ishmael if you’re Muslim), Abraham had refused the substitution, and insisted on killing his son.
PARABLE OF THE OLD MAN AND THE YOUNG
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, And took the fire with him, and a knife. And as they sojourned both of them together, Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father, Behold the preparations, fire and iron, But where the lamb for this burnt-offering? Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, and builded parapets and trenches there, And stretched forth the knife to slay his son. When lo! an angel called him out of heaven, Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him. Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Wilfred Owen was machine-gunned dead a week before the war ended. His mother got the news even as all the church-bells were ringing, rejoicing that the “War To End All Wars” was at long last over.
So now here we are, 101 years later, and are we any wiser for all the horror we have seen? Sadly, I think not, for we seem on the verge of a new slaughter between the Islamic and the non-Islamic. The royalty on either side may be different, and may not focus so much on their lineage, but they are as brainless.
It seems proof that money cannot buy happiness. Who has had more money than the Arab states, with their oil revenue, but do they use this surplus to make happiness, or to brew hate and war? And, when you look at the West, has money led to reason, or to greater greed? When you look at Hollywood, has money and fame led to goodness?
The good people, in my humble opinion, continue to be the troops in No Man’s Land, which in modern terms are the slums, and the factories, and fast food restaurants, and rural wastes, and any place the helpless abide. They yearn for leaders, but the leaders are fools. They yearn for guidance, but the guides are lost. They yearn for teachers, but the teachers only parrot nonsense. Who is there that will help them?
Basically, they have to count on themselves. If you want to see kindness and not hate, or generosity and not greed, or purity and not lust and gluttony, you are more liable to see it among the poor, for, while they have the same bad qualities all humans own, they have no where else to turn but to each other, for goodness.
This is a disgrace to all others who claim to represent goodness. Why don’t the poor trust them? Because the poor have seen all Temples, Churches, Mosques, Parliaments, Thrones, and Madison Avenue Agencies be too caught up in their greedy battles for power, wealth, and acclaim (and even mere self-gratification) to be free of the all-pervading perversions that make them liars, and liars can’t represent Truth. The poor can’t turn to them.
Truth doesn’t die, though people ignore it. It whistles in the bitter winter winds the poor endure, as the rich close coal power plants for falsified reasons. It smiles with the sunshine of unexpected thaws. Perhaps this is why so many talk so much about the weather. The weather, at least, is not a liar. It is what it is.
Autumn is ending with kindness for the eastern USA and much of Europe, as mild winds have surged from west to east. It is a Christmas miracle for many poor people, to have heating bills be so low. Of course, Global Warming fanatics manage to make misery of good news, by suggesting it would be far better if the poor were cold, but the Truth ignores them, and temperatures over most of Europe are far above normal, (as is shown in the anomaly map Dr. Ryan Maue makes possible from GFS data at the Weatherbell site).
This warm surge may be followed by a second even stronger surge, and perhaps a third, which is a kindly truth for Europe, at the very start of their winter, although the end of winter may be very different. However a weather pattern that is kindly for the poor of one area may not be so kindly for other areas, and in this case you should look to the bottom right of the above map, where temperatures are below normal in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Now, before you get too caught up in the oncoming war between the Islamic and non-Islamic, and snicker “it serves them right”, I should mention cool weather is a cause for celebration in some of those lands. The poor, who cannot afford air conditioning, don’t need it.
However Turkey is too far north, and as the milder air rams east it is like a plow that shoves some Siberian cold north to the Pole, but other Siberian air south, where it is part of a backwash or counter-current that brings amazing snows to Turkey. The poor there can’t be too happy, as hundred of villages are cut off.
Now, when an area is hit and buried by snow, people tend to slip and fall down in the snow. We can chuckle about the situation because, just as the warm sun falls on rich and poor alike, the snow can make a young, strong, healthy and relatively wealthy guy lose his dignity. However suppose the person slipping and falling is a poor and elderly woman. It is not so funny, then. And who will stop to help her? The young, strong, healthy and relatively wealthy guy with lots of dignity? Or a scrawny, little Red Riding Hood?
This is not an example of Christmas Spirit, as Turkey is a Muslim nation, and they don’t celebrate Christmas, but I like to think Jesus would smile at the above pictures. In like manner, I like to think that Mohammad would smile at how I behave, though I do not live in a Muslim nation.
For it is not the prophets who are to blame for hate between peoples. Nor is it the poor.
The ones who bear the blame are obvious. They need not be named. They rule with greed, hate and lust, and attempt to inflame such irrational reasoning in the people they lead. However perhaps the poor are reaching a point where they will simply feel enough is enough, and be sick of it.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow saw his share of darkness during his time on earth, as we all do, and had to fight the battles we all fight to light candles in the darkness. Especially sad was the loss of his first wife, while he was touring Europe with her, when they were still in the blush of first love. He recovered from that to find a second love, and for a time enjoyed a happy marriage with six children, five of whom survived, before tragedy again struck him.
His wife was sealing up a letter with sealing wax, as was usual in 1861, when her dress caught fire, and despite her husband’s desperate efforts she was so badly burned she died the next day.
That was such a blow that Longfellow had not the heart to write any more poetry. A great darkness decended upon his life, made worse by the onset of the civil war. Then into that darkness came news that his eldest son, seventeen-years-old, had run off to join the army.
The son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, was severely wounded in the battle of New Hope Church (irony), with a bullet passing so close to his spine paralysis seemed likely. Longfellow hurried south to see his son, who clung to life despite all the problems with infection in those days before antibiotics, and Longfellow brought the teenager north to try to nurse him back to life.
Perhaps it was having to fight for a son’s life that revived the old man’s poetic powers, but, while facing the darkness of December and a Christmas made black by the ugliness of war, Longfellow produced this poem:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, And wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
The defiance of despair in the face of cruel fate, which manifests in this poem, is one of the most beautiful qualities of the human spirit, and in my humble opinion is proof there is something good in mankind, despite our amazing capacity to make misery when we could make peace.
(The son did survive and walk again, though he did not recover enough to rejoin the army, which he wanted to do.)
This is my favorite version of Longfellow’s poem put to music:
December has been snowless so far, and I’m rather enjoying it. Last year we’d already had enough snow to shovel, and I was numbering the storms. Even though a warm wave was in the long range, and it turned out we had a green Christmas (with bluebirds and robins in the yard as the yearly Christmas miracle), it also seemed down in my bones that we were in for a test, and spring would be a long time coming, and I was right.
This year has been kinder, (though I feel the end of the winter may have a lot of snow). I actually am rotor-tilling the spring garden, and we’ve gotten some late house painting done. Considering I work a lot more slowly than I used to, I like having extra days to be ready for the time the snow clamps down and life becomes more limited.
I don’t relish storms the way I once did. Perhaps this simply goes with aging. I’m in the driver’s seat, don’t want to skid, And have burdens enough without raging Winds and whirling snows. When you’re young the blows Fall on others, streets are cleaned by magic, Hot water comes from the shower and flows Over you, and you need not get tragic About how you must cut wood to heat it, Nor even think much about food on the table. So the ease gets boring, and to defeat it Youth makes problems, challenges it’s able To feel vain about conquering, until years Teach that life’s best without brewing such fears.
One thing I deal with every day, because I run a Childcare, is the problems modern parents have doing something as normal and natural as to have children and raise them. To me family seems more like a “given”, than a “problem”. To call family a problem is like calling the ground we walk upon a problem. Family is simply there, and it is amazing to me the degree some are able to make it not be there.
Often both parents work, and their child is dropped off at Childcare at 7:00 AM and then not picked up until 5:30 PM. To me it seems so much time is spent working to pay for a house that hardly any time is left to make it a home.
The kids seem to get especially homesick during the dark days of December. Perhaps the homesickness happens because the all-pervading, ever-present Christmas music is so suggestively sentimental about home, with songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas”, but I also think it is during the dark days that a warm hearth, and keeping home fires burning, becomes especially meaningful. During the long days of summer the outdoors is welcoming, but during the early dusk of December a warm place by a fire, (hopefully with cookies and cocoa), becomes a solace to the human spirit, especially if you are a little child, in a big and sometimes frightening world.
Parents sometimes seem to spend even less time at home around Christmas, as they work overtime to afford presents, and then go to malls to shop for the presents, seemingly quite unaware that small children can have just as much fun with a cardboard box as what comes in the box, and have a deep craving for the parents themselves.
What the kids seem to need most is the interactions. But parents get fooled. A kid who has been happy for hours may throw a fit as soon as the parent arrives to pick them up. It is as if the child has been saving all sorts of grievances up, and dumps on the parent the moment they appear. The parent is fooled because all they hear are demands for chocolate and dolls and bikes and computer games and what-have-you, but that is not what is really important to the kid. What is important is the interaction. What is important is the parent. Parents need to be told this, because they too often tend to feel their child only cares about stuff, and not them.
I get to see what the parents don’t, which is that sometimes a child is homesick and sulking, and is asking over and over, “When is Mom coming?” or “Is it soon that Dad will be here?”
During these dark days I often build a bright and cheery fire in the pasture, as much as for the light as for the warmth, but today the final kids were not all that cheered by its flames.
What I heard from the kids was basically, “I want to go home,” over and over. To a certain degree I could distract them with gathering wood, and making an especially big fire, and stirring the coals and making showers of sparks rise into the purpling sky like fireworks. But, as I thought, watching the kids, I got to thinking about how “I want to go home” is such a powerful part of Christmas, even when one gets old like me.
She was dying but didn’t really know it And as I visited her the past seemed More present than the present. She’d show it By how she saw me as one dimly dreamed About, while her childhood home’s least detail Was vivid. It made me think about how We launch from the nest, yet strangely fail To ever leave it. Her old, care-worn brow Had ever fretted over slung arrows Of worry, and yet now mere memory Soothed and smoothed it. I wonder what narrows Our lives, and what it is that sets us free? For the farther we wander and restlessly roam The more we are yearning to find a way home.
Of course, I don’t subject small children to my sonnets. (I’d likely get arrested for child abuse.) Instead I decided that, if I couldn’t beat them, I’d join them, and I started to sing songs about wanting to go home. There are a lot of them.
They liked “Sloop John B”, though you would think children couldn’t relate to sailors getting thrown into jail for being too rowdy in Nassau. However kids always surprise me with their ability to regurgitate adult music that you might think was miles over their heads. (I knew one small girl who, at age four, had what was seemingly a photographic memory, when it came to country music she heard on her father’s radio, and, in a sweet, piping voice, would sing about picking up babes at a bar.)
Abruptly a memory came back to me of the first Christmas after my own parents split up, and of how at age eleven I memorized a song miles above my head, that was a hit on the radio at that time, and could belt it out at the top of my lungs. The kids liked it as much as “Sloop John B”.
We are experiencing a truly kindly spell of late December weather, if you are an old coot like me, and have grown less fond of cold with time.
Not that I can’t remember being young and hot, and walking with a girl I was trying not to fall in love with, (and failing), and being warm through and through, though it was so cold the snow on the road squeaked as we walked over it. Also I can remember being desperate for snow, for I was running a lunch-counter at a cross-country ski area. However those are memories, and the reality is the present, and the Christmas present was mildness for an old coot, this year
What was really remarkable was a finger of warmth that reached the tops of the hills where I lived, but not the valleys. Indeed it was 43° atop Mount Washington, at 6000 feet, and only 40° at sea-level at the coast at Portsmouth. It was 39° in the Merrimack River Valley at Manchester 40 miles to our east, and 38° close to the Connecticut River in Keene 40 miles to our west, while here temperatures spiked up to near 60°. (57° in Jaffrey, 7 miles to our west.)
You can dimly see the finger of warmth in this temperature map, poking up into south-central New Hampshire (and also all the way north to Burlington, Vermont):
On Christmas morning the sun came out and the breeze felt like April’s. Because we had the stoves going before the warmth came north, it was actually hot in the old house. I stepped out onto the porch and instantly remembered a Christmas back in my youth (1965?) when it was so mild I was running around outside flying a new toy helicopter barefoot. I dedcided to stay outside to enjoy the mildness, figuring it wouldn’t last, as a front had come through to bring us our sunshine and clearing.
Temperatures did drop a little, but not much, and I could do my chores without gloves or a jacket. My middle son was out with bird-watching gear, and announced by cell phone that a small gang of bluebirds, and a male and female cardinal, were by the house. I hurried, but didn’t see them, yet could hear them off in the distance, which seemed very evocative and symbolic of something just beyond my ken. (My son’s pictures:)
There was something so summery about bluebirds and cardinals being about on Christmas morning that I decided it must be my Christmas miracle this year, and a auspicious sign.
Then I sat back to wait for the cold to return, as it surely must. A warm wave in the winter is like the water drawing down on a beach; you know the water draws back further for the bigger waves. However though the cold has rushed down to chill western cities like Denver, it is taking its time coming east: (The first map shows our Christmas storm passing well north, with us on the southern mild side, and the second map shows two days later, with the east still spared the arctic air plunging into the west.) (Click to enlarge.)
The radar map shows snow along the battle lines between the cold west and the warm east:
This battle line could brew up some big storms, as it works its way east, before the cold air eventually engulfs the entire USA. However for the moment we get a pause, a time of peace. The wind has died and the winter sun shines. Bluebirds are about. Obviously it is time for a sonnet.
I awoke to how wonderfully fashioned Is a winter day, though the low sun is weak. Faintly flavored, as when tea is rationed And one sips a thin cup, one should not speak Or one may miss the taste. The breathless air Is hushed; the sole birdsong is over a near Hilltop, and is the scratchy cry of a rare Christmas bluebird: Very faint; very clear. I tell my noisy brain to be quiet. I’m tired of its racket, and how it squints At silence like bats in sunshine. “Try it,” Speaks the silence. “See My fingerprints On every bough; with each breath you draw See it takes no thought to wander in My awe.”