This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas-- A Christmas Story

There's a Christmas story below, for any who are interested-- it's taken from my second book and is pretty nearly factual. But first...Merry Christmas to all who observe this holiday, and may 2008 bring us a year of peace, both in our hearts and in our world. It is the last year of the Bush Regime-- the end of an error-- so there's at least that to look forward to. Last night I was up in the little rural town of Atkinson, NH, at the home of my nephew Chris and his beautiful wife Regina. Another nephew, Teddy, and his lovely wife Mary, were also there, as well as my oldest sister Peg, and, of course, Fionn the dog. We had a great meal (Asian), and Mary and I got the unstoppable giggles in church over something which shall remain unmentioned, but the best part was the star-spritzed walk me and Peg took after dessert, when we seemingly had the rural Christmas Eve world to ourselves. Out into the New Hampshire country night we went, our eyes as wide as children's-- The full moon was riding up the star-mad sky-- the Cold Moon, our Algonquin predecessors called it-- with these massive, dramatic clouds storming in from the northwest as the moon's consort, and as they passed the moon they did not obscure it, but instead revealed their innards, their secret colors, their purples and mauves and off-whites and navy-blues. Mars was out riding the night sky, gleaming steady yellow-orange, Orion was hunting Taurus again while Castor and Pollux, the Gemini Twins, kept their own loving and devoted company, as they always will-- it was utterly silent. Planets and moons and stars weighing untold billions and billions of tons were lifting themselves from the east, and it was utterly silent. People can't do a thing without racket, and yet here was all this happening in silence. I love that. I was expecting shooting stars, meteors, apparitions-- it was the type of night so beautiful, so dramatic, so numinous, you could believe anything could happen-- the perfect Christmas Eve.

Today was Mass again, this time in town with my peeps-- ah yes, the devoted if not devout Catholic here (the Dorothy Day/Daniel Berrigan cut.) It's often a bore to explain one's spiritual beliefs-- as C.K. Chesterton said, explaining why he was Catholic was like trying to explain architecture to an Australian-- but I will say I love the idea of a god coming among us in human form, not as an all-powerful warrior, not as a king or queen of a royal house, but as a tiny child of indigent (sometimes I spell this as indignant-- that would be funny!) parents, born among animals, the lowest of the low. A pretty story, but more importantly, I think the idea of doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves, of feeding the poor, healing the sick, ministering to those in prison, turning the other cheek, and utterly disavowing the madness of violence (and maybe even the mania of owning things) offers one of the few solutions to a world gone half mad with violence and greed. Anyway. Merry Christmas. Here's the story. I have some great memories of past Christmases I'd love to share, but I'm falling alseep as I write this, so some other time. And I'm too tired to edit, so sorry for any typos.


CHRISTMAS EVE, and five of us were in a bar-- separately of course. Christmas can unify, they say, but not on this night-- not for us, anyway. We must have been the Newtonian equal and opposite effect for all the red-and-white happiuness that glittered elsewhere, beyond these dreary walls.

There was the bartender, watching the blare of a basketball game on the television perched at the bar's end. There was an overweight businessman three stools down from me, whose angle of slumping declination increased with each drink. On the last stool sat a senior citizen, that most forlorn of gay bar denizens, sitting in TV-light shadow. Everything he owned seeemd to have withered except his eyes-- these still burned with something. They had caught mine once in the bar's plate glass mirror, and that had been enough: I had seen my future. Provided I survived the plague, of course. Provided I survived this night.

The mid-thirtyish guy, my own age or close enough, was four stools down on my left. I had felt the bitterness of the evening falling from the folds of his tweed overcoat when he entered some twenty minutes earlier. He was still swaddled loosely in the coat, and upon his lap sat a large box done up in red and green Chriostmas foil, with a now-crushed golden bow on top. Like the rest of us, he was keeping his frozen eyes forward.

Dizzy strings of red bulbs crisscrossed the smoky ceiling. Multi-colored lights chased each other around the edges of the large plate glass mirror. Holiday music set to a frenzied disco beat thumped across the deserted dance floor behind us, mourning those who weren't here, mocking those of us who were. As the songs, and their lyrics, played on, my reaction went from amused irony to an almost sweating desperation.

The businessman shook to life to order another drink. The bartender grudgingly obliged. I got the feeling he had somewhere else to be on this night, unlike, apparently, the rest of us. I turned my eyes down in the face of his scorn, but I raised my finger nevertheless for another shot of oblivion. And yet I never could quite get there.

Maybe the holidays' nastiest trick is their command to recall, to relive, to remember. With alcohol greasing the skids, my eyes grew soft and my mind slid back thirty years, stopping at a long-ago Christmas the way a jukebox set at random yanks out a selection totally unexpected, but all to familiar. For quickly I was five years old again, and stepping out our old back door into a world made dazzling and supreme by a foot of snow the night before. It was Christmas morning in my reverie, and neither impassable roads nor a pasel of young children would stop my parents from bundling us all out to Aunt Anne's in the country. Suddenly they were all with me, i could hear their voices-- Mom's clear laugh, Dad still young and handsome-- and alive-- picking out targets for brother Bob to hit with snowballs, the girls gushing over the new clothes and dolls they'd just received, and me, the youngest at the time, shocked into muteness by the triple sublimity of it all-- Christmas Day,a snowstorm, and an upcoming ride on the numinous subway all on the same day. Everything was a kaleidoscope of delight that grew as the day unfurled like a flower, from the new snow coats of the too-tall pines to the racehorse game my mother magically produced once we were tucked into our rumbling subway seats--

--and then Aunt Anne's, a gaggle of relations hugging me, wizened old relatives to mesmerize me with their tales, strange new cousins to play with, the smell of forty different delights melding into one in Aunt Anne's kitchen: slow-roasted turkey, gingerbread, orange peel upon the fire, bubbling cinnamon cider that coated the windows as its fragrance filled the house--

--and Aunt Anne's secret stairway that twisted up to the attic, where still-wrapped presents for her favorite nephews and nieces lay before our rapacious eyes like just-discovered continents, ripe for the the plundering. And then from somewhere downstairs came the holy sound of singing, singing, and I felt there was singing throughout the Universe...

Back at the bar now. My eyes refocus and I see the young man in the overcoat, his handsome profile reflected int he mirror, staring down at nothing. His gaily wrapped package by this time has fallen on the floor, and I get the feeling it's doomed to stay there, like treasure at the bottom of a frozen sea. And he's crying. Softly, almost silently, yet somehow this sound rises above the dueling cacophony of the television and the music. And no one elese it seems can hear this but me.

But say what you will about the holidays, they do give us license, if we will but take it, the chance to do-- if not great things, then at least good things. So because it was Christmas Eve and I could get away with it, I abandoned my bar stool and approached the crying young man. I felt my breaking heart would shatter if I didn't.

I sat down on the squishy red stool next to his.

We stared forward at our own solemn reflections. He kept us his quiet crying but, Christmas miracle, we reached for each other, and our hands met and clasped halfway between the immeasurable distance that lies between any two people.

Silently we sat, ahnd in hand, staring straight ahead, the din of the disco and the drone of the television falling hard all around us, holding back the horror of this night. And still he cried.

At last he turned to me. I turned to him. We stared at each other for a moment. Then he smiled, and reached down tot he ground to retrieve his package. He handed it to me.

"Merry Christmas," he said.


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