28 December 2006

Ho Ho Ho - the Joke's On Me

Well, in all honesty it was a good holiday. For me that means really quiet and uneventful. Rare is the day when I can read accumulated newspapers, listen to music, and not generally care about things. It's what's left of the old fashioned sabbath at its best.

Of course, lots of folks have an extended holiday - like my 10th grade son. I, on the other hand offered to do two weddings this week, thinking that it would be a slow week. Well, that's where my hubris got me. What was I thinking? A week before Christmas a elder member died and the widower wanted to see me. That was on the 26th. On Wednesday I did a private christening, which is is not a lot of work but not nothing either. Last Friday a marvelous retired minister here died unexpectedly and so I went to visit his widow today. This evening I did a wedding rehearsal. Tomorrow I do that wedding and the rehearsal for the second. Saturday I do the second wedding. And then, surprise, it's Sunday again.

Every seven days it comes. Damn.

Of course next week I have to officiate at the two memorials. And I am thankful the late president was not a former member here. Actually he did worship here now and then when he was younger. And he did speak here when a member of Congress. A shiver of dread spread through me at the news, but reason told me these plans have been in place for a while. I would have known by now.

I do plan to watch the cortege go by, maybe even pay my respects at the lying in repose. Not often that one can get a close look at such a notable moment. Our last day in the sun, here in GR. Then back into the murky middle that has been the world of most smaller cities in the nation.

Somewhere in the next two weeks I have to pay taxes and bills and endure what will be the real arrival of winter. I feel a little more sympathy for those folks who decamp to the south at this time. I love how winter looks. But each year the cold penetrates a bit further, the skin dries a bit more, the effort is a mite greater.

In the morning I look to see the time of sunrise and sunset. So far it is pretty much where it has been. But somewhere in the middle of the season I will see that the sun begins to shine before 8 a.m. That will be a good day.

My dear departed colleague, his memory is a blessing, was a son of Punxatawney PA, ground zero for Ground Hog's Day, the midpoint in winter. Perhaps he will bless us with a shadowless day in honor of his return there.

More later, for sure.

21 December 2006

Short Day, Long Life

Welcome winter solstice. Today, actually this evening, we reach the perigee of periodicity, with maximal dark and minimal light.

That’s only for us northerners. Lest I appear to be hemispherically chauvinist, folks in Rio and Buenos Aires and Capetown and Sydney are lolling in mid summer. I once chanced upon a poem called Christmas in Africa that noted the cultural dislocation, noting the blazing heat of the day instead of ‘earth was hard as iron, water like a stone.’ Whenever someone bemoans the lack of snow I am tempted to remind them that Bethlehem is more like Palm Springs than St. Paul. We forget how much of Christmas is really yuletide, the cultural and pagan elements that have nothing to do with the religious feast at all.

Enough pedagogy. Back to the sentiment…

… Only once in my life did we spend Christmas vacation on vacation. My memory is unsteady about some details, but somewhere are around age 13 we decided to see Williamsburg VA, which was a long day’s drive from our Baltimore home.

The story actually begins before we went, when on Christmas Day my father left with my two younger sisters to take the overnight train from Baltimore down to the colonial peninsula. I envied them, but fair being fair, my brother and I had traveled with dad another time – to Cincinnati and back. This was the balancing occasion.

That meant mom and my brother and I were by ourselves for Christmas dinner. We went out. I know it’s done more now, but back then (mid 1960s now) it was rare. The three of us got dressed up and went to a better sort of place with table cloths and stuff like that. It was odd, as we were used to the raucous gorging of years past. And of course being only half the family the usual din and uproar was gone.

The next day we tore out in our two tone 1962 VW bus with the canvas sunroof. I do not remember that journey as much as the ride home. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

We stayed at the famed inn and I remember the vast steaming breakfast tables of food at the hotel and the cold that had suddenly descended with the holiday. The visit to those restored houses and places made an indelible impression, showing me the allures of history and its proximity more than its remoteness.

Wendy and I later took the boys there over the summer, when the heat was as thick as the cold. Aaron was but a boy and Steve was a toddler requiring a stroller which does not travel well over those authentic gravel and sawdust paths. Aaron was not impressed then, but a few years later, over an election day weekend when his school was going to DC for a trip, he and I went on our own and he truly enjoyed it. So did I. Someday, before Steve is gone I should enjoy doing the same with him. But it seems less and less likely.

What I remember most of that exceptional holiday was the ride home. A storm blew up, sending ice and snow before us as we traveled north. My mother, who preferred to drive, clung to the bus-like steering wheel, peering ahead into the lowering gloom as night combined with the flakes to make the passage slow and fearful. Her cigarettes came one after the other, and her manicured nails began to dig into her hands instead of being relaxedly extended.

Then the wipers failed. This could have brought us to a crashing halt except that in the 1962 VW bus, the wiper motor was a simple affair that was accessible directly under the dashboard. Reaching under it one could manually move the blade by twisting the end of the rotor. It was hard but it could be done. I was appointed the task of sitting in the front seat and moving each wiper every few seconds. This meant bending down and twisting my shoulder a bit to get some leverage. Not a comfortable position, especially with a set belt on, but it could be done.

Some hours later, near midnight, we rolled and slid our way up our tiny inclined driveway. My hands were stiff a cold because the rotor was metal and gloves reduced my grip. All the years later, though, that hardship sharpened my memory of the whole trip.

Sometimes a difficult and even painful thing can serve as a welcome prod to good memories as well. These stories I have recalled have all had a sorrow or a pain in them, but this does make them unhappy memories at all. Far from it. Many Christmases passed without moment, indistinct one from another, the predictable pleasures and repetitive joys making them unremarkable. They might as well have never happened.

Those that stand out have a difference, be it sad or funny or odd, and so many years later I am deeply grateful to have them so keenly in my mind. So I wish you a poignance along with your peace, to seal the day and the season within you and give you cause to tell stories when the winter days grow weary and the heart droops.

20 December 2006

Da Bella Napoli, via Brooklyn

And yet another contribution. How cool is this? Like I said, memories are the coins we keep as change...

... Hi Fred,

Thanks for the clump of coal. It helped me remember a time when I could believe and see. I was maybe 5 or 6 and it was the night in which "La Befana" (Italian's version of Santa Claus is a little old lady with a broom that delivers gifts on Epiphany day, the 6th day of January).

I fell asleep that night with memories from that day in which my grandma and aunt shared stories about the Befana with me. They showed me a little miniature Befana that my grandma kept by her bedside. They told me that it's been in our family for generations and that on the night of Epiphany she comes to life and brings presents to all good children and lumps of coal to all the naughty ones, especially those who try to peek.

So I fell asleep determined not to peek. Yet something woke me up in the middle of the night and I couldn't resist. I opened just one eye very slowly and from my bed I could see the hall way entry door. Right by the key whole, 10 feet away from me I see a little old lady come right through the key whole and turn big right before my eyes. At this awesome sight I quickly closed my eye. My heart was racing and I was scared she had seen me peek. Few seconds later, I felt a knock on my head, but I wouldn't dare to open my eyes, I had to fall asleep.

Of course that morning I jumped out of bed found a lump of candy coal on my pillow and an Italian version of Easy Bake Oven on the floor of my bed. I ran to my parents bed with the candy coal in my hands and said "I saw the Befana, I saw the Befana." Up until now I've shared this story only with children because I know they can believe before they see. Most grown ups all think it's a dream. So this holiday season teach your children and the child within you to believe.

Don't stop believing! It's what dreams are made of!


19 December 2006

Take That, Richard Dawkins!

Having mis-represented the religious bete noir du jour as David instead of Richard Dawkins in my other blog, it seems only fair to give a fellow traveler some column inches here in compensation. A dear colleague sent in her yuletide recollection to share. It seems her young son had a spiritual crisis at a very tender age. But I'll let her tell the story...

... Hi Fred,

It seemed like a long time since I had connected with you. So I search for you, find your blog--and what! you are giving me a lump of coal! Bah Humbug!

loved your sad story. I remember living through that pain of materialistic hopes dashed at Christmas, and so made the point never to ask my kids what they wanted Santa to bring them for Christmas. Santa brought them things, but as a total surprise. And I think it did help make the thing a whole lot more fun.

I have several memories to share, but I'll post this one that always makes me smile as a first offering. We were living in Chicago, and my son Peter was about 3. We lived in a tiny urban house, and certainly didn't have a fireplace, chimney or mantle. Peter was okay with hanging his stocking on the doorknob as we had done in previous years, making no comment about this 'irregularity in Christmas lore'. After he went to sleep on Christmas eve, I snuck a bright red tricycle into the house and "under" the tree.

In the morning, he was up early, eager to see what surprises Santa had brought. He raced to the living room, and shouted "A Tricycle! A tricycle! Wow! Santa brought me a tricycle!" There was a brief pause, and then I heard him call out "How'd he get THAT down the chimney!"

Happy Christmas,


18 December 2006

You're Getting a Lump of Coal!

Well, here it is but a week before Christmas and only one of you has sent in a yuletide memory. I know how hard it is to remember. All month I have been straining to recall. Most of the eyars between 1970 and 2000 just run together because they are so similar. How odd that we collectively pine for the season and lavish our time and energy and money on it but cannot recollect them - and memory is after all the only coin we get to keep as change.

For some reason the story in my heart this morning is especially sad....

... My eldest son, now a college graduate, was perhaps seven. We were living in Austin, Texas, the place we dwelled the shortest amount of time in my checkered career.

Christmas in Austin is different than in New England where we had been for ten years. The weather gets sharp so there is a taste of winter in the air; but snow is exceedingly rare. The landscape is sharper too, with lots of cedar and cactus and hard yellow soil eroded from the limestone bedrock that was a great prehistoric sea. You can feel a bit of the arid loneliness in the original Christmas story, in contrast with the snowy pagan cheer our anglo culture prefers.

And there is the Spanish influence as well, with its Catholic love of the posadas, the mariachi inflected songs, the luminarias and other folkways that feel more honest in many ways than the manufactured and marketed forms that permeate our WASP ways.

But my story has nothing to do with this at all. It is simply about the desires of a seven year old for a robot. The Saturday television shows he loved seemed all about transformers and robots and other Japanimation inspired creatures. This was all he wanted, well not all but chief. The choices, however, were sparse. Santa's helpers went high and low, far and wide, to find something that met his requriement that it actually walk.

Glorioski if we did not finally happen upon a black plastic thing about foot tall that inched along and whose eyes behind its visor blinked red and whose arm raised to fire a ray gun or some such weapon.

Here comes the sad part. I knew that he wanted something that did far more, but also knew that telling him about it would tamper with his delicate faith in the power of Santa. He had already braved the Santa skeptics on the playground and manfully retained his faith. He came home bloodied in spirit one day, asking us if it was or was not so. Shades of Virginia!

What would be the better choice - crush his spirit now or on Christmas morning when the toy he was already imagining proved to be less than marvelous. We chose the latter. I truly found the thing awful. It was cheaply made despite its elevated price, and thus would not last long. The gap between reality and hope was vast. Something about buying it made me feel tawdry and low, as if I were caving in to something less than honorable, but I saw no better course. He would see in that instant how misplaced his hopes had been.

The morning came and he tore at its glittery wrapping. We received the great benediction of his ecstatic face, realizing this was his heartfelt desire. So far he was pleased. We raced to release it from all the cardboard and clear plastic. Unable to resist, he pressed various buttons and sure enough its eyes lit up, he growled mechanically, and tried in vain because we had a plush rug, to walk in his lumbering way. His arm rose up and sparky lights appeared at the muzzle of his pistol.

He was happy as it turned out. And the toy lasted a long time. What made it sad was that its charm was short lived. It was fun for a day, and for part of a day thereafter, and by spring was gathering dust on a shelf. Now and then it came out for a moment of poignant reiteration, but the passionate hope so invested in the weeks before Christmas evaporated quickly. A few years later his younger brother discovered it and enjoyed the same brief romance with it. And then it resumed its position among the artifacts of our growing past. My curatorially gifted wife preserved it in good order for many years. It finally left us, I think, as we departed Brooklyn and both were well beyond boyhood.

What makes this sad for me is how we live in a world where children are taught to desire things to answer their needs. Few of the toys I gave or received lasted in my life or memory much beyond the week after Christmas. I was not disappointed directly, but their joy was very short lived. Somewhere in my life, somewhere around ten or eleven, I began to wonder what could possibly equal the promise of Christmas? The great build up seemed ievitably to lead to a let down.

This is what I wanted to spare my own boys, even as I knew I could not. There is a horrid despair when the world proves less marvelous than you believe it is, when the magic is shown to be a ruse after all. Must we all want the false before we want the true. Is heartbreak really the only way to wisdom?

Maybe so. That does not ease those hardest moments of life when a child discovers the brutal facts, the first of which is the scandal of Santa. I still wish the story was true, sometimes, and count among my dearest possessions the clear memory of when it was true when I was a boy. Everyone should remember a time when all things were possible.

13 December 2006

A Crack Opens

Had a whirlwind trip to NYC this last weekend to take part in a ceremony of installation. But I also had just enough time to walk the holiday sights of Gotham, including for the first time sitting through Evensong at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, a church so high that even the pope would get a nosebleed. And if it was not perfect, no mortal ear or eye could tell...

... Christmas morning 1959, maybe 1960. All my brother and I wanted this Christmas was a ge-yu-ine Steve Canyon jet pilot's helmet. For those too young or old, Steve Canyon was a character in the funny papers who was a fighter pilot in the US Air Force. He was square jawed and blond and every bit the poster boy for Aryan excellence. But we did not see that irony then. All we knew was the jet planes were cool and they were selling helmets just like his with the flip down sunvisor and other cool things.

Sure enough, there were two roundish packages under the tree. We scrambled fast to prove our hopes, and there they were.

But wait, there's a problem. The visor, the coolest part, has a crack in it. I see a note in the box. "Dear Weldon," (I was known by my first name then) "so many little boys wanted this toy that there were only just enough. One of them had a crack in the sun visor and because you were the oldest, I knew you would understand."

I did understand, but that did not make it feel better. And upon re-reading the note I saw that the writing was familiar, rather feminine, if you will forgive me for saying.

Some Christmas gifts give more than they realize. And not always what we want...

08 December 2006

Anonymous Really Was A Woman

Finally, someone sent me a lovely personal story of their own to share. It came as a comment, but instead of punoshing it as an appendage to my story, it should have its own place.

Herewith, signed "anonymous" but clearly from a woman. Thank you for sending it and may others enjoy this gift as much as I


"... Growing up in a household with a mentally ill mother did not allow for great Christmas spirit to come flowing from our family. Yes, to the outside world we appeared as the wholesome catholic family that volunteered at church, and acted as useful members of society. That being said, I can tell you of my favorite activity of the holidays.

I have worn glasses since the first grade, and I discovered soon after that I could take them off to see our christmas tree in a whole new way. Seeing the blurry, large colored lights on a dark field of green boughs was simply magical. I would stare for what seemed like ages, squinting and turning my head to get the best effect. Time seemed to have stopped while I created tiny worlds of light people at play within the tree branches.

Looking back, I can see that this was a creative coping mechanism for escaping an environment of chaos. Sounds pitiful, but wonderful all at once. I still practice this ritual every christmas, but now it is to reflect on a little girl that lived through the tough times, only to find an adult that has grown strong both mentally and spiritually. Finding the beauty in any situation is truly the meaning of holiday spirit."

(Note: I shall be away from the keyboard through the weekend. Feel free to send stuff. I would love to find my email box stuffed like a stocking with your memories. But non of them will appear until Tuesday of next week. Merry, holy, happy...)

02 December 2006

Fame Is Not What is Used To Be

Holy Mackerel?

When i checked my stats for this week 206 people had come by on Monday, yes two hundred and six.

That's the good news. The bad is news is that on Tuesday it was 20. What happened? If you know tell me. If I am going to get fifteen minutes of fame I would like to know.

The other bit of bad news is that despite all the traffic no one, not one of you, sent in your own Christmas story to share.

Come on people. I need you to make this work. Dig down and find it. We all have them. Christmas eve, Christmas morning, the day after, Advent, Hannukah, whatever stands out.

I'll do one more to keep the ball rolling.

Yuletide Story 2...

... It weas the evening of the big day, when all the gifts had been opened and the dinner cooked and served. There is something unique about Christmas evening. All the energy of the last month simply vanishes and leaves in its wake a boredom I remember from childhood. How could it not with all that intensity built up for so long and focused on such a narrow slice of time.

In my boredom I remember something going on at church. Not a church event, though. In our Brooklyn neighborhood there are many single seniors who most years would have their holiday dinner at the local senior center. But this year they were unable to provide. At a clergy meeting the month before, when we found out, my rabbinical buddy says his people would love to cook (what else is there to do for a Jew on Christmas Day?) but had no place big enough to serve. I said we had the kithcen and dining room but not enough people to serve.

Peanut Butter and Chocloate collide.

So I go over that evening to say hello and thanks. The kitchen is full of the remnants of ham (actually smoked turkey rolls) and other foods. Guests are nibbling desserts and drinking coffee while someone is playing carols on the piano. Indeed, not only is it a member of the synagogue who is playing the carols lustily, the most vigorous singing is from the other members.

I chuckle with amusement and my rabbical buddy says under his breath, shrugging, "We love Christas Carols; they're great. But tell me when we else we can sing them?"

O. Henry could not have written a better story.

01 December 2006

Close Encounters Of An Elfin Kind

Yuletide Memory 1

A water main broke last night, and so the city was out outside digging and whacking through the wee smalls. I awoke now and then when the hammering or thumping was loud enough. They were in a double hurry because we all needed our water turned back on and a storm was coming. It arrived just as they were finishing. I heard the sound of rain turning to sleet – that rat-a-tat sound of ice on windows and rooftops and falling through bare branches and landing on the cold ground. My first yuletide memory begins with that sound...

... “All is calm, all is bright.” I am awake in my bed, one of two in a room I share with my younger brother. Some sound has roused me, but in the fog of sleep I cannot tell what it is.

It is Christmas morning, but only officially. To me, at six years old, it is the middle of the night. Everyone is asleep.

Has Santa been here yet? I know I must not go downstairs. Something dreadful awaits the child who sneaks downstairs in the dark of Christmas Eve.

Suddenly cold and lonesome I creep out of my bed and into my parent’s bedroom. They are sound asleep and yet somehow rouse enough to let me slide under their warmer blankets. Mom sleeps on the doorway side of the bed, naturally. I slip in next to her.

Awake I wonder whether Santa has been here and how long it will be until morning. A window pours moonlight onto the bed. It was sleeting and snowing when we went to sleep and now the sky is clearing. Wind whistles past the house, a frightening sound any other night but this. But I am wide awake wondering if Santa has come or not.

Scratch, rattle, scrape. Something is on the roof! What else could it be?

I force my eyes to close lest I see. And then it is morning.