Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, perhaps for most, it is some sort of recognition of the birth of the baby Jesus. Some may think of Him as a sweet child born to a poor couple when they were engaged in a long journey, who found shelter in in a stable and used an animal trough as the infant’s first crib. They would, of course, at some level be right. Others might think of that baby as the King of Kings come to earth to begin the mission of redemption. Those who believe this have embarked on their own journey, the journey of faith. For others—thought they are not others per se, since they can indeed be a part of either of these groups—Christmas is a time to remember. It encompasses the recollection of bygone Christmases, special rituals or practices that our parents or grandparents, were we lucky enough to have them, carried out.
Perhaps they built a Christmas yard and, as my mother Elaine would do, make up a story to suit the way she constructed the yard that year. Perhaps Christmas for them involved inviting someone over for Christmas, an older couple or a single old man, like Mr. Charles Miller, who lived across the parking lot from us in New Hope (see pp. 108-114 in the Curious Autobiography; Billboard Magazine, Oct. 29, 1938, p. 12). He loved coming to our small apartment for Christmas breakfast, loved having the fellowship and conversations with us. He had been famous for composing Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, which had been a Broadway score. He was, when we knew him as our neighbor, a pensioner, a widower, I imagined at the time, probably in his early seventies, though he seemed older than that, as he suffered from some degeneration of the spine and was slightly hunched over. Mr. Miller seemed old, even smelled old to me, though I was but a lad at the time. As far as I could tell, he was more or less a recluse, or at least reclusive. He rarely had a visitor, rarely went out. But Christmas morning was something he truly looked forward to, and for at least four or five Christmases in the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Miller was a fixture at our Christmas breakfast. He loved to recall his days as a musician, composer, and, oddly enough, as a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Browns baseball team of 1912. I don’t think Mr. Miller spoke to too many folks so, when he made his annual Christmas morning visit, it was for him truly a joyous day.
For me even as a child, that family tradition, even if somewhat short-lived, as we would move away in a few years and I never saw Mr. Miller again, gave Christmas day real meaning, a real sense of caring for another person. I remember the value of those days, the human value, itself analogous in its mercy to the mercy that the innkeeper must have shown for that young couple with a baby some 2000 years ago, and the mercy that the baby showed and shows to all humanity.
So, if you celebrate Christmas, I think you would do well, in whatever way you celebrate it, to remember. For that is a human thing, whose intrinsic value is highlighted by the transcendent mercy that showed itself in humility in a manger of old, far away, yet nearer, perhaps, than we might think. Merry Christmas!
It is that time of the year to be thankful. At Christmas it is time to be merry. At Easter, a time to … well, that depends on your perspective. After all, these are arbitrary dates. Easter moves around every year, so its arbitrariness is self-evident. Actually, so does Thanksgiving. But Christmas, well, that one’s nailed down at least.
But the fact that we attach a certain set of feelings to each one of these holidays, if we even celebrate them at all, well, that’s either nostalgia (e.g., my mother was, after all, always quite cheery at Christmas, or thankful on Thanksgiving, etc.) or it is merely the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black Friday is the day I always, like a lemming rushing to the sea, go out shopping for no real reason than force of habit.
But let me get back to the arbitrariness of the dates and the concomitant emotions adhering to those dates, or rather holidays. If the dates are more or less fluid and not really fixed on the calendar—indeed, most historians would not attribute the historical date for the birth of Jesus to December 25—I would here like to introduce an alternative way of thinking, and maybe even an alternative way of living. First, with all due respect to nostalgia—and I think it should sans doubte be accorded some respect—what if we really did decide to keep Christmas cheer all year round and try to be merry every day? And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try to be thankful every day? And what about Easter? Well, that’s not so easy to define, but one adjective that comes to mind is hopeful—so hopeful it is. And what if we should try to be so every day? That would actually require us to master our emotions and marshal them, each and every day, to address the circumstances of that day. And, I admit, that would be hard. It would require of us generous forgiveness, lavish kindness, faithful optimism.
But just imagine, for a moment, the possible outcome? We could be fun to be around (merry), gracious and generous (thankful) and optimistic (hopeful), the last of these at least within realistic parameters. That might just make us pleasant, affirming, even likeable. Now there’s an idea for Thanksgiving this year. I, for one, am going to give it a try.
Christmas Excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes (pp. 108–114):
Simply being the neighbor of Mr. Charles Miller—the cowriter with Johnny Gruelle and Will Woodin of Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, music that had made him famous some forty years before I knew him—helped me, if not to remove, at least to assuage the pain of some of the blotches on the escutcheon of my character. Mr. Miller’s deliverance came not by any words he said, though his words were kind, but merely because Sheila and I made Mr. Miller the object of our annual “Christmas ministry.” This sounds strange, I realize, because, as I have explained earlier, both Sheila and I (especially Sheila, but also I, if only incidentally) were practicing Jews. Yet I had recalled and now imitated my father’s various ministries to persons of poor fortune, many of which had been performed under the auspices of the church, of course.
Harry always went further than the mere parameters of any ministerial mission. If the church’s holiday ministry were to bring a poor family a Thanksgiving turkey, Harry would size up that family when he brought in the bird, accompanied, in accordance with the normal Jakesian attitude of generosity, by a full range of fixings and fresh bread and good Welsh Hên Sîr cheese. Having guessed the sizes of the children’s clothing, he would then go straight out to the army/navy store on Wyoming Avenue—for he loved to buy his clothes in that particular store—and buy ample amounts of clothing for the family. He would then put it in a box and leave it on the porch of the family so that they would find it when they came home. Indeed, Harry loved to use porches to give unexpected presents. On the occasion of my son’s fifth birthday, for example, Harry sent the excited lad out of doors to get the paper. Upon returning, my son delightfully discovered, hard by the front door, a shiny red bicycle with training wheels.
Such were the days of joy when we lived in my father’s house. But I return to Mr. Miller, whose special breakfast we served, every Christmas from 1968 to 1971. This gentle little old man incidentally provided me with a baby step toward redemption, not by works—lest I should have boasted, which, I confess, I did—but by the infusion of grace, through faith that had not yet come to me, but was en route, if coming in a slow boat. Among his rich and varied accomplishments, Mr. Charles Miller had briefly played professional baseball when he was twenty years old for the 1912 St. Louis Browns. […] Mr. Miller and I lived just behind Rob and Rich’s store, and we slowly became friendly. Mr. Miller was virtually a shut-in by the mid-1960s, when he was already an old man, and Sheila and I invited him to Christmas breakfast. We knew he was not Jewish, and, though we were, we knew that he should not spend Christmas Day alone. Added to this was the fact that he clearly enjoyed our company. So, each year on Christmas Day, I would prepare him pancakes and bacon, though Sheila meticulously avoided eating any—nor would my son. I perhaps snuck a piece or two during the preparation of the unclean meat, but, I rationalized, this was only to ensure that it was properly cooked so that we would not make Mr. Miller ill.
The delightful old man therefore offered Sheila and me a good excuse to celebrate Christmas, something I had sorely missed ever since quasi-converting to Judaism in 1964. I had always loved the story of the wise men, and, nearly as much, I wistfully recalled Christmas carols, with their eternally optimistic message of hope for humankind. Besides, having Mr. Miller over gave me an excuse to set up the Christmas yard, which I had loved to do since childhood. The Christmas yard, in turn, provided a reason to get a Christmas tree, which afforded me the opportunity to trim the tree and decorate the apartment, and of course to send out Christmas (and Hanukkah) cards, which gave me a pretext for celebrating both holidays, though emphasizing Hanukkah, of course. And celebrating Christmas allowed me again to create a space for my parents in the holiday season, because they could then visit us, mutely rejoicing in my gradual return toward Christendom with every Christmas present they gave their grandson. Perhaps to deemphasize the material aspect of the holidays, I would always tell my son in advance of Christmas specifically what Harry and Blanche had bought him, and then instruct him to act surprised on Christmas Day.
“Why, Mother, why?” he would ask.
“Because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“No, not that. Why,” he would inquire, “do you tell me every year what they bought me in advance?”
“So that you can act surprised,” I would say with a mildly aggravated tone.
“No,” he would say, “I mean, why don’t you just not tell me so I can actually be surprised.”
“Because, if you were not to like what they bought you, you would not want to hurt their feelings, would you?”
“But Mother, in that case I could just act like I liked whatever it was that they bought me. Besides, I always do like what they buy me.”
“Just shut up and act surprised. More tea, Mr. Miller?” I said on Christmas morning, 1968, changing the topic of conversation.
“Yes, that would be fine, thank you.”
“What was it like writing all that music, you know, for the Raggedy Ann musical?”
“Well, it was exciting. We were in the big town in those days, in New York, I mean. Johnny Gruelle and I would go to the apartment of one of our closest friends, Will Woodin. Locking ourselves in for the whole weekend, we would just compose, and we would compose for hours. I mostly wrote down the musical scores while Johnny worked on the lyrics with Will, though we all worked on all of it together. I was the purest musician, and Johnny was the storyteller, while Will, whose true gift lay in keeping the finances, did a bit of both. Those were great days, and I was able to quit my job at Harms music and start my own business. There were tough times, as well, because in the midst of all our activity the stock market crashed and the whole country suffered in, well, you know, Elaine, the worst of times. My company survived, but just barely. Still, we had a lot of fun in the midst of the storms of life.”
“My mother spoke many times of those years,” Sheila said, “often with tears in her eyes.” This was a fitting statement, for I thought I saw a bit of moisture coming to the eyes of Mr. Miller himself, whether it was merely his age or the nostalgia that the moment afforded us all.
“Yes, those were hard times, but Christmas always got us through, not simply because it was, and is, such a hopeful season,” Mr. Miller explained, “but because the sales of my musical scores did much better during that season of the year.”
“Did you write more music with Johnny Gruelle and Will … what was his name?” Sheila asked.
“Yes, we did work on a few more pieces together. But Will—Will Woodin—was only a musician on the side. His day job was that of a financier, and had our compositional trio stayed together, I’m sure Miller Music Co. would have made it much bigger than it did, for after leaving Harms—a name I always thought was too foreboding to have lasting success—I set up my own music business. And Will, well, boy did he make it big! Having garnered quite a name for himself in the financial world, he was tapped by none other than President Roosevelt to be the secretary of the treasury. This occurred during the critical years as America struggled out of the Depression. So fine at what he did was Will Woodin! About the same time Johnny had been having some health issues, so he moved to the warmer climes of Florida, which spelled the breakup of our team. Ah, but we had some great days in New York in the late twenties and early thirties.” He paused reflectively and added, “You know, my dears, I have no regrets, no regrets at all. It really was a wonderful life.”
“Mr. Miller, did you really play pro baseball?” My son piped in. “Mom said you did.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, stretching forth the neatly wrapped box that his old and wavering hands had brought with him, “I have a Christmas present for you, son. You open it, and I will tell you about my not-so-stellar baseball ‘career.’ ”
My son opened the box to find within a beautiful new baseball mitt. Mr. Miller explained the gift: “It’s a Rawlings infielder’s mitt, signed by Eddie Mathews. You know Eddie Mathews, don’t you? He was the famous third baseman of the once Boston, later Milwaukee, and lately Atlanta Braves.” He paused as my son turned the mitt over in his hands, sliding it on his left hand. “Mathews, you know, took Milwaukee to the World Series championship in ’57. What a fine long career Eddie had! He finally retired, playing his last season with the Detroit Tigers, just this past year,” Mr. Miller said smoothly, though it was clear that he was carefully reviewing the details of Eddie Mathews’s career in his mind even as he spoke.
“You can use this mitt for any infield position, except first base. I think you’ll turn out to be an infielder, son; I just have a feeling. You have a good baseball look to you, and a good baseball name.”
“Wow, Mr. Miller,” my son said, “I never had a mitt before.”
“Break it in well, my boy, and put plenty of oil on it. Oil’s the best stuff for a new mitt.”
So the next day my son went to Ristorante Villa Vito and oiled his mitt with a generous helping of Signora Favoroso’s olive oil, in which she had been soaking three cloves of garlic. For this reason his mitt always smelled more delectable than those of the other boys.
“My baseball career, I’m sorry to say, was, unlike Eddie Mathews’s, very short lived. I only ever played one game, coming up to bat twice, and grounding out both times. But my moment of fame, such as it was, came on a diving play in the infield. I was the St. Louis Browns’s new shortstop, young—if you can imagine it—energetic, and known for my glove. You know what I mean by ‘glove,’ don’t you? It’s baseball talk for fielding ability.
“Now I wanted to show the manager, George Stovall, that I could really play. The Browns had been terrible the year before and were not doing so well even for George, who had just taken over his managerial role, and was thus trying all kinds of things to get the team on a winning track. He wanted a good defensive unit, and when he heard about my fielding capabilities, he put me out there at shortstop in the seventh inning, hoping for my defense to help the team close out that game with a win. This was important because we had lost more than a hundred games in 1911 and we were on a similar trajectory that year. So here I was, fresh to the majors—I had only been called up at the end of June—playing what would be my one and only game on August 19, 1912, against the crosstown rival St. Louis Cardinals.”
“Oh, the nineteenth of August. That’s my birthday!” I piped in.
“It was the bottom of the ninth, and, as I said, I had batted twice already, to no avail, but now I was in the field at my shortstop position and ready to help our team close out this game with a win. A runner was on first, and there were two outs. Crack went the bat, and the ball went toward our third baseman at a clip. Lunging to his left, Jimmy—Jimmy Austin—snagged the ball and then zipped it toward second where I had to reach for it. The ball was thrown low, toward the legs of the base runner in full slide. I caught the ball, and tagged the runner, but I heard a loud popping sound as I tagged. Nevertheless, I managed to get the ball out of my mitt cleanly and fire it off to first base, completing the double play and getting us a badly needed win.”
“What was the popping noise?” my son asked.
“When I looked down at my arm, I saw my hand just hanging there by the skin. The wrist bone was completely severed, and the pain was, well …” He paused and lifted his left hand, pulling up the sleeve of his old man’s cardigan sweater to display the slightly misshapen limb. “I could never play baseball again. But as you can see, over time it healed, if a little crooked. That’s why I pursued my second love, music, and became a musician. And, thus, my life healed, too.”
It was time for cheese now, and I brought out my cheese plate, thanking God without words that Mr. Miller had forced me to keep Christmas, if not in my heart, at least in my home. It’s funny, I thought to myself, how Christmas is like the pungent smell of certain types of cheese. It has a kind of buoyancy, an annoying obstinacy. I later realized that Christmas shares that characteristic with Welsh Presbyterianism. Though we had eaten breakfast less than an hour before, Mr. Miller indulged in a sizable hunk of Hên Sîr cheese on a Carr’s water biscuit.
“The face on that cheese plate is, for all its luster, rather disturbing, Elaine,” Mr. Miller said, as I served him a second piece of the flavorful Welsh cheese. “Would it be possible, do you suppose, to turn it round the other direction?”
First, let me say that rambling on about words that start with “C” is unlikely to be quite as ridiculous as suggesting that one should vote based on the latest trends in syllables, whether more or less of them. Yet that’s precisely what I suggested a week before the presidential vote. And apparently the notion of a more syllabically flexible presidential name prevailed, because someone named Donald John Trump was elected, whose name has but a grand total of a slender four syllables, even with the middle name; yet when one adds a “The” to the front his name—and many have called him “the Donald”—one then gets the expanded version of five syllables. And that, my friend, is greater syllabic flexibility than Hillary Clinton could offer, even with her maiden name inserted.
Then, a few days after the presidential vote, someone offered me a safety pin so that I could indicated to anyone who saw me that I was “safe to talk to” about the election results. I think the idea was to comfort those who were afraid because the Donald had been elected. Of course I declined the offer of the safety pin, for I learned in college that my best interlocutors were my professors who were more like Socrates than unlike him. And then, just as she offered me the safety pin, the question of “What would Socrates do?” (WWSD) occurred to me, and I decided that it would be better to play the Socratic gadfly whenever possible. As such, I would, I thought to myself, challenge that interlocutor to courage, not safety. But then I’m not keen on safe spaces, as I think they can be dangerously deceptive. The world is not a safe space; heaven is. To try artificially to make a heaven of earth—ask John Calvin sometime how that worked out in Geneva—would certainly involve misleading someone, likely to their detriment. And thus I declined the safety pin. I told the person I was not “safe” and that I did not want to be viewed as such. Another person, with whom I was walking at the time, laughed audibly, and the disillusioned safety-pin-donor went on her way.
But that is off the topic, as the first word is not challenge but “courage.” For courage is what we need in this dark world and wide. Courage to press on, courage ever to seek the best, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Courage well applied, involves transference of that courage also to those around us. And that may involve challenging someone to courage. And that is why I declined the safety pin.
The second C-word is “Christmas,” of course. I was reminded of Christmas today when I heard some carolers in a hospital in Houston singing quite beautifully Christmas carols. Of course, properly, the C-word should be an A-word, “advent.” But as advent leads to Christmas, I think it is safe to use the more definitive, if syllabically identical, term.
The third C-word is “cancer.” By cancer I do not mean the astrological sign “Cancer,” nor do I mean the Latin word cancer, which actually signifies a “crab” or “crawfish,” even though a crawfish is much more like a lobster than a crab. Rather, by cancer I mean just that, cancer, the destructive and debilitating disease. And I mean it because I was in Houston this week in a large hospital complex known as M.D. Anderson. There I saw some noble souls battling cancer with courage, and doing so just now in this Christmas season. None seemed to me to be feeling sorry for himself, none seemed overly concerned with the fact that that her hair had fallen out. One and all, so it seemed, presented the face of courage, of confidence, yet another C-word—the “plus one” of our title. And that confidence and courage were not the regular kind that many of us have. Rather this was a case of courage and confidence in the face of the imminent danger of cancer.
Those folks’ confidence may have derived from them being in the midst of such a vast medical complex, imposing in its size, rife with competent research doctors, kind nurses, and a wonderfully caring staff. Or, perhaps, it came from the fact that they saw so many like themselves walking around—still walking, still living, still fighting cancer. Or it may have been generated by or at least fostered by the Christmas carols they heard being performed in the lobby, carols of hope and renewal, of God caring about mankind so much that he became a baby in a stable. Or was it something that was infused in them from a spouse, a friend, or maybe even God himself? In any case, courage and confidence went together there and seemed to me to take some of the fear out of the word cancer.And I wish you all but one, of course, of these C-words, this advent season. If you happen to have the one I certainly don’t wish upon you, then I firmly hope that the other three will be there to help you stand against it.” If you’re fortunate enough never to have the Latin crab or crawfish eating your body away, then I pray that you’ll know those other three for whatever challenge, whether health related or not, you might encounter. And I know that these good C-words—courage, confidence and Christmas—exist (to which we could add others like care, comfort and compassion), for I saw them in the faces and heard them in the voices of some quite ill, but in many ways very healthy, people in Houston in a hospital called M.D. Anderson.
The day after anything is the day after something. It’s too late for me to write about the something. For that something is Christmas, and that was yesterday. Even before that, last week, someone wrote to me privately about the last three blogs, “I don’t get it,” he wrote, “Christmas Yard? Is there a message here?” Well, I might say charily, there is. Yet I can’t expect everyone to get it. With such a story about a fictional place I could only hope to create a small window into the interior of Christmas, as if, standing for a moment on a snow covered street, one should unexpectedly cast a glance through the fog of one’s own breath in the crisp winter air to see into, ever so briefly, the home of a family not personally known to the viewer but perhaps long admired, wondering from afar, “What goes on in that family? What does a family like that do? How to they construct their family time?” This would be especially true if one comes from a family where time is never or rarely construed, where there isn’t a plan or a modus operandi in place for carrying on as a family, but merely a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance. I shall return to these familiar phrases, modus operandi and vivendi, in a moment, with a gentle adjustment of them both.
First, let me offer an apologia (“afterward”) about the tripartite series about a town called Christmas Yard, if you happened to have read it, in case anyone else might have had the same reaction as the aforementioned reader. The point of that story is to direct the reader’s attention and affection toward what, quite incidentally and indirectly, a family might be (or at least become) and, by extension, what any institution consisting of people might best encompass, whether that institution be a church or a town or society at large. One might deduce that this is my goal by effecting a contrast of the two churches in the last installment of the story. More generally, one can see this goal fleshed out in the combination of Elaine’s deep sense of social justice and my own still-in-progress sense of grace, especially when that kind of grace, sometimes known as charity, in fact, also dovetails with social justice.
But today I am writing about the day after anything, for there are rarely ditties or songs, blogs or essays written about the day after things; only those written about the event itself or anticipation of it become well known. To wit, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (not the day after), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (not is heading back to the North Pole). Even non-Christmas songs like, “Until We Meet Again,” look forward, not back. It is safe to say that the day after anything, especially something that you’ve been looking forward to, could be a letdown. I have a friend who worked for years to get his PhD, and even the day he got it, as it turned out, was, to his mind, anticlimactic.
Another friend of mine’s daughter will be married in a few days. He recalls, not so many years ago, a moment in time when they shared at an event that likely no longer exists—for it is no doubt now deemed sexist or exclusive of fatherless families—called “Dads and Donuts.” He told me that he recalls that day vividly, how much it meant to his daughter and more especially to him to go and have a little breakfast with his beloved child when she was, I think he told me, just in the fifth grade. He explained to me that he was so moved by that day that he thinks of it often as he prays for her, and that he will remember it fondly till the day he dies. And now she is to be married and start a family of her own.
For her, the day after she gets married will be the day after the biggest party nearly anyone has in their whole life. Afterwards, there will be, of course, a bit of letdown. But here’s where this term that I said I wanted to come back to is relevant—modus operandi—or really, modus gerendi would be better. There are a few Latin terms here that sound as if they come straight out of an old law book or at least an old grammar book. But lest they should become for you, owing to their erudite tone, somnolent or soporific, it will be useful, both for us on this day after Christmas and for my friend’s daughter on the day after her marriage, to reflect upon them for a moment, as we reheat a piece of pie for breakfast or just relax and read the newspaper (or this blog).
For today is the day to put that old terminology into practice. Let’s start with the familiar modus vivendi, which may in fact be the way that any given family may have spent this past year. The implication of that Latin phrase, which, though it means “manner of living,” is most often simply a reflection of a live-and-let-live posture: “that’s fine, I’ll work around that, provided it doesn’t intrude too much upon my personal space.” Thus, modus vivendi really signifies a way of coping, or at best coexisting. While at times, of course, this has to be done, that is no way to conduct family.
Then there’s modus operandi. It’s a stronger term, probably too strong for how to manage one’s family, as it reflects a way of operating, the way one functions. “That’s his modus operandi,” someone might say, and certainly is the expression that detectives often shorten to “M.O.,” meaning the signature or trademark of someone, usually a criminal. And that’s not really a great way to conduct family, either.
That leaves us with the rather scarce modus agendi (or modus gerendi), both of which are so infrequently used that the former is automatically changed by the spell checker to agenda and the latter just underlined in red. But these archaic-sounding terms—and the latter is better—are what one really needs to know how to do to conduct family. The former means “way of doing” the latter “way of conducting” or “managing,” and thus the latter is a bit better, because one doesn’t “do family,” one “conducts” or “manages” it.
Which brings us back to the notion of the day after, a day that might be one of reflection, especially if it’s the day after Christmas, when one is reflecting on how one didn’t do Christmas well—it was just aboutripping into presents, putting up with your child’s ingratitude or worse sarcasm, and laughing too often inappropriately or at least uncomfortably at your own husband’s crude joking. What was so inappropriate that mere laughter made you uncomfortable? Nothing, really, but—yes, there was something: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, but perhaps “it sure didn’t seem that way.” Maybe for you Christmas day seemed to encompass everything bad about the season, playing itself out as materialistic, greedy and snarky; simply put, perhaps it felt empty. No, this was not my Christmas, but if yours should have been something like it . . . .
Here’s where the observation about the day after Christmas and my friend’s daughter’s immanent marriage finally dovetails. It is, on this day after the holiday, as will be on the day after her ceremony, not the time to think about what went disastrously wrong or just had to be tolerated. Now is the time to change the expression from modus vivendi, upon which most Christmas celebrations (and marriages) are based, to modus gerendi. It is time, not next year, next month or even tomorrow, but today, to start managing your family. That way, when Christmas comes next year, it will be special, not just an excuse to binge spend and ravenously tear off pretty paper. It will be a time of joy and wonder not because its story is unfamiliar, but the opposite, precisely because the story is familiar, for you’ve prepared for it spiritually all year long.
For that to happen, a change in thinking must come, for the time to structure your days and measure carefully each moment begins the day after, which happens to be today. After all, that is the central aspect of that revolutionary but perhaps archaic-sounding idea that the Bible calls metanoia: a changing of one’s thinking. The little-read but profound Roman poet Perseus once wrote, vive memor leti; fugit hora (“Live mindful of death; time flies,” 5.153). Few have ever penned better advice. With each moment comes the opportunity to draw another breath, formulate a fresh thought, craft a better phrase. What better time than the day after to turn in a new direction, one very different than the present empty, unmanaged course?
It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas this year, for it’s the day after. But it’s not too late, with a bit of Divine inspiration and guidance, to begin to manage one’s time, to conduct family, to produce a very, very happy new year, or in my friend’s daughter’s case, a new family. Blessings on that project, dear daughter, and on you, dear readers. May you find your modus gerendi, remember forever your own personal version of “Dads and Donuts” or “Moms and Muffins,” and, finally, Dominus vobiscum, which, more or less, is Latin for “Happy New (and Every) Year!”
It was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?
“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”
“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”
“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”
“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”
“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”
“Then I am on God’s side.”
“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.
It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.
Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.
“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)
The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.
Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”
“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”
Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.
* * *
Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”
“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”
“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”
If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.
In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Along time ago, my mother, Elaine Jakes, gave me a gift. It was Christmas time, the first Christmas in New Hope, Pennsylvania, whither she had migrated from Shermans Dale, a tiny hamlet near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital. Though she had gainful employment in Shermans Dale teaching fifth grade in Blain Elementary School, with all due respect to the “Mustangs” mascot, she had left that dale because, frankly, she didn’t like it.
And neither did I. I didn’t like being isolated from other children—we had moved from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia where there were plenty of other kids to play with on my block—and she didn’t like how the unrefined attitude of the rural townsfolk could manifest itself. It seemed a place, to my mother, devoid of the grace that she had grown up with and, at the very least, admired in Kingston, where her parents had a church home and a true home. To me, it was simply a place devoid of other children.
Yet soon she moved to and dwelt in New Hope, and there she and Sheila celebrated Christmas, even though by then we were Jewish. I think that the reason for this obviously non-Jewish celebration was not simply because my mother had been raised in a Christian (Welsh Presbyterian home) and had never quite given up on the notion of Christmas but also because an aged and quite lovely pensioner, Mr. Charles Miller (erstwhile briefly professional baseball player and composer of the musical score for Raggedy Ann and Andy), lived right next door to—or rather, just across the parking lot of—our downtown New Hope apartment at 14 West Bridge Street; and he was alone for Christmas.
Elaine and Sheila’s inner goodness could not brook such a situation: he simply had to have Christmas breakfast, and thus we should celebrate Christmas, at least for Mr. Miller. Of course, I did not argue, because that should mean that I would likely receive not simply Hanukkah gifts but also at least something for Christmas, as the situation dictated.
And so it was the festive occasion, with Mr. Miller enjoying a lavish Christmas breakfast of pancakes and bacon (sic) and me sneaking a piece or two of bacon myself and, better yet, receiving the undo reward of an extra holiday gift or two. But the greater gift was not the gift of the gifts but the gift of Elaine’s storytelling, for she took the opportunity to set up a Christmas tree—Mr. Miller simply could not come to a house adorned merely with Hebraic Hanukkah decorations. It was not that I had to put my dreidel away or not don my yamaka. The shamash and the first candle (to the far right) of the menorah would burn brightly. Though technically, since in 1967 the first day of Hannukah was not until the 26th, it should have been lit the next night, Elaine moved it up to Christmas day for Mr. Miller’s sake.
Thus, far from hiding it, we would put on display the polytonal multi-culturalism of our curious household, while at the same time celebrating Christmas for Mr. Miller, though perhaps more than simply for him, for Elaine ever adored Christmas: in reality, the celebration of Christmas would be for us all. And one important aspect of that celebration occurred the night before, when we hurriedly set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas yard, something of great fun and greater consequence for a young lad, for it involved storytelling. And that is a gift that lasts.
The story of the Christmas yard, which begins in this blog and will have three more installments this month began with hastily placing a number of small houses inherited from her grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Evans, made of thick paper and covered with glitter paint on a small platform beneath the Christmas tree. Now I think many a family may have a similar tradition. Elaine did not simply create a small yard, a replica of a town where “Santa” comes, but she created a town that needed social justice, a town that needed grace. She did not articulate it in those terms; that I will do. Rather, she created the town and its environment and thus deserves credit here for seeing that these would be the very issues that dogged our society then and continue to dog it now. So, what began with Elaine, who even on her long journey toward personal grace was acutely aware of her own and the world’s need for it, continues here. And now, the story of the Christmas yard.
Under a large tree lay a small town, small enough, but also big enough. It was small enough for anyone to know nearly everyone else. The fresh pine scent of the large tree that loomed over the town—a tree decorated once a year by the townsfolk to celebrate Christmas, though not all of them went to church or even believed in God—pervaded the town, particularly after its denizens had climbed the tree to adorn it with bands of colored paper meant simply to make the tree look more festive. Small boxes meant to represent presents, all neatly wrapped, dangled from its branches, which were themselves bedecked with garlands and tinsel—the old fashioned kind made of actual tin alloyed with lead—that gleamed in the bright moon’s light.
There was no particular year for the setting of this Christmas or this town, though one could tell by examining closely the style of the small replicas of automobiles that the year that the artificial yard beneath the Christmas tree was meant to represent must have been something like 1940, or perhaps 1945 or, in any case, thereabouts. It was a time a long time ago now, not quite a century, but certainly a long time. It was a town that never existed, but really did exist, or at least exemplified what existed, and showed the potential for what humankind might strive toward or, perhaps better stated, be receptive to.
But I leave that aside for now to get back to the Christmas yard and what made it unique, beyond the obvious fact that it was the subject of Elaine’s story, Elaine’s unending gift of storytelling. And so, to get back to it, I shall merely repeat the gist of her story. It began with not simply the lay of the yard into two sections—the poor section and the rich—or even the dichotomization of the Jews and the Christians (which from the Jewish perspective were gentiles) or other races. It began rather with a pastor, appropriately named Reverend Griffith, out for a walk.
Now though the Reverend Griffith of her story bore the same name as the Reverend Griffith in whose church she had grown up, Elaine made it quite clear to me that this Reverend Griffith was not the historical pastor, who in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920 delivered the keynote address at the Presbyterian General Assembly encouraging all Presbyterians “to live out Jesus before the world.” No, the character in the story, she said, was “based on” that Reverend Griffith, but was not him. Of course I had deduced that already, as the Reverend Griffith before me was a leaden figurine about 2 inches tall. Yet that is what she said, as she opened her story.
Christmas was in the air, just a few days away, when Reverend Griffith was, as he was every Monday evening, out for a walk, when a lad of about nine years, whom Elaine called David—“It’s the name I wanted to name you,” Elaine quipped, “but your father wouldn’t let me”—recognized him from a distance and ran up to him.
“Can I help you carry those packages, Reverend?” he asked politely.
“May, not can, David… and no, no need; I’m just about my errands.”
“Can I come with you, then?”
“May, not can, David… and no, you should stay near your home, my friend, as I’m going about the entire Yard.” The town was called Christmas Yard, and the residents often shortened it to the “Yard,” sometimes with an adjective inserted between the article and the truncated name proper.
“But Christmas Yard is a small town, and I’ve been everywhere in it. I know it all so well.”
As David was an only child without a father, the reverend thought it better not to take him along. “I’m off now, and you stay here. Is your mother home? You should stay home.” And having given the lad this final directive, off went the right rector with his packages bundled with string and brown paper tucked under his left and right arms. Indeed, the nine-year-old David was perceptive to notice that the promenading pastor could have used some assistance.
Yet, Elaine was careful to note, David was a curious lad. He just had to know where the reverend was going, so he surreptitiously followed the pastor. How I loved it when my mother used adverbs to which none of my other friends had regular access. Thus did she surreptitiously cause my vocabulary to wax.
David noticed that the reverend took his many packages not to the public crèche—for they were legal in those days—where there was a collection bin for presents for the poor. Rather, reverend Griffith carried them a long way, to the extent that anything in the Yard was a long way off. He crossed over the railroad tracks, passing over a small completely-wooden bridge beneath which was a glistening ice covered pond (represented by a small mirror) hemmed by a snow made crisp with frost, and approached what was perhaps the smallest house in the Yard, though it was not uncomely. There dwelt the Pínqióng (pronounced “Pin-chiong”) family, Elaine said. Mr. Pínqióng worked in a factory outside the yard, under the nearby divan, and Mrs. Pínqióng made cookies and biscuits for the Yard’s only restaurant, the Golden Pump. Though they were very poor and barely made enough to buy the ingredients to make the cookies to sell, you might nevertheless smell Mrs. Pínqióng’s baking throughout our own home sometimes, Elaine said, during the Christmas season. That was the first house where the reverend stopped.
After a few minutes the good pastor came out with a few less packages and proceeded to cross over by two streets to Mr. Umaskini’s house. Now Mr. Umaskini lived alone. Though his name sounded Italian to me, I could see from the figurine who represented Mr. Umaskini that he was a person of color, so I asked if that was in fact the case. Apparently, I could tell from Elaine’s response, David had asked the reverend the same question when he had emerged from Mr. Umaskini’s modest home, shaking hands with him on the porch, and indeed, Mr. Umaskini was, as David thought, of African descent, and, like the Pínqióngs, poor. Reverend Griffith then proceeded to the house of another poor person, this time a Welsh woman named Mrs. Llymder, and then to the very small house, nearly a hut, of the Armut family, German immigrants.
“Why did you go to the houses of those people?” David asked after the Reverend espied him following and signaled for him to come along for the remainder of his mission.
Detecting something perhaps a bit more than mere surprise in David’s voice, Reverend Griffith responded, “Because they’re people.”
“Do they go to your church?”
“No they don’t. Not yet.”
“Why did you visit them then?” David wondered aloud.
“To bring them packages.”
“What was in the packages?”
“It’s not so much what is in a package as it is what it means,” the reverend responded cryptically.
“What did it mean?” the curious lad kept probing.
“You mean, what does it mean?”
“Why do pastors always have to sound like philosophers?” the precocious lad queried.
Their conversation went on a few more minutes in this vein, with David never learning what was in the packages or quite ascertaining precisely why the peripatetic pastor had gone to the houses of folks who were not his own parishioners in the first place. He deduced that it had something to do with Christmas, with the true meaning of Christmas.
And this is where the story of the Christmas Yard begins, with a unique expression of love by a Welsh Presbyterian pastor for those different than himself, those who did not belong to his flock. But it will not end here. It will continue, as did (and does) Elaine’s story. I hope to find you curious about what comes next, next week. For now, goodbye, in the truest sense of that word, and though it is still a few weeks away, Merry Christmas to you, in the most expansive sense of that expression.
Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.
That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.
Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.
That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.
But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.
Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.
Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”
“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”
“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”
He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.
“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”
“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”
“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”
“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”
He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”
I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.
“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.
Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.
As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.
My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.
Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?
And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.
No, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.
The topic of this week’s blog may appear, at first blush, a bit unlikely, for perhaps you’re wondering who would be so pretentious as to blog about the meaning of life? I must be kidding, right?
But I’m not. Rather, it donned on me (the meaning of life, I mean), when I saw a picture of a sheep named Christopher in the news. According to the Associated Press article, the poor fellow was lost for several years in the Australian scrubland—a land I had never hitherto known existed—and, when his wool was removed, it yielded roughly 89 pounds of the stuff. The article said it was about half the body weight of the animal. That’s a hefty animal and a lot of yarn. Such an amount of wool apparently can provide one sweater each for thirty people.
And that’s when it donned on me: I’d stumbled upon the meaning of life. And it’s not merely because I like sheep and can, thanks to Elaine Jakes’ having bought a farm (ch. 9 of The Curious Autobiography) when I was but a teenager, do a near perfect sheep voice imitation. Wherever I go, sheep are seriously impressed when I make a bleating sound (which, I’ve been told, echoes all too well the female mating-call). Nor is it because I happen to have been to Reykjavik, where I’ve seen and smelled some of the finest woolen sweaters in the world, sweaters that themselves still rather smell like sheep. (As I was but a student at the time, I hadn’t the money to purchase one; besides, it is normally far too hot in Texas to wear one). Nor is it because it is a Welsh family tradition to celebrate Easter with a meal of lamb. Nor is it because I am interested in metaphoric vocabulary derived from animal behavior: bull-headed (rather Minotaurish, isn’t it?); creepy (centipedish); catty (how fitting is that one?); jackass (need I say more?); mule-headed (definitely referring to the mentality); piggish (if you’ve seen a pig eat, you’d understand); rabbity (perhaps my favorite); birdlike (a bit too obvious, though “featherweight” is rather nice); squirrelly (entirely self-evident); lion-hearted (too little used any more); and, of course, sheepish. Yet I need not mention that one. And obviously none of these, nice as they are, sheds any light on the meaning of life. Rather, only this heavy-laden sheep does.
Now before I should dare divulge life’s meaning we need to consider something about sheep that is sometimes deemed offensive and certainly, among the most vociferous of sheep-rights activists, politically incorrect in the telling (non rectum reipublicae dictu). No, I do not mean to say here that sheep are stupid. That is a cliché; besides, to tell the truth, sheep have actually come out better than expected on their aptitude tests. There is no sense in perpetuating a false stereotype.
Besides, I would prefer to rehearse some interesting facts about sheep of which one might simply be unaware. First, even after many years, they have a remarkable memory, like elephants; they can also show emotion more readily than many other animals. And, apparently they can remember (or they know instinctively) which medicinal plants to eat when they are ill. Finally, they can even recognize (or at least mother ewes can) the bleat of their own offspring. In other words, sheep may not seem very much like us, but in many ways they are.
Which brings us back to the meaning of life. Before we can state in a mere blog in 1500 words or less what the meaning of life is, we must establish that sheep, like humans, no matter how stupid they may seem—and if one reads the news, it is not difficult to discover that we humans, even to our fellow human beings, can seem very stupid—are in fact not unintelligent. They are, in that sense, humanlike. I shan’t be sheepish about stating it plainly: a sheep can provide a very apt metaphor for a human being.
Unless we bear that in mind, we can’t discover the meaning of life, nor can we understand William Blake when he writes:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Blake, in his second most memorable poem—“The Tyger” being the most memorable, though “Jerusalem” is my favorite—long before the sheep intelligence study of scientists here tells us the same thing that the scientists have confirmed, namely that sheep are very much like human beings. When he writes “By the stream, and o’er the mead,” it is hard not to detect an allusion to the green pastures and still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, a poem that perhaps needs no introduction for most readers .
Both poems, Blake’s and King David’s, point in the same direction. They point toward the meaning of life. They suggest it, without quite stating it. But the oversized wandering Australian sheep perhaps says it better than even the psalm or Blake, or any scientific study about sheep, even the I.Q. test on which the sheep—and I assume there was more than one of them, for otherwise the results could be skewed, if Albert Einstein sheep happened to be the sole test-taker—out-performed, presumably, cows, goats and gazelles. And so it is that the sheep in question, the living Chia-pet king of wooliness, Chris, by his mere presence said, when he wandered back in sight of humankind, “I need help. Can you please shear me?”
And that is the answer to the riddle, “What is the meaning of life?” As without help Chris would surely have died, crushed under his own coat, the answer must be that we need each other; that we must help each other. We were born to do that. We reproduce, look after babies and care for our families simply to fulfill that unspoken charge. Many of us will be blessed to care for (sic) aging parents for whom we are privileged to do that. If we are living correctly, our lives won’t so much be about ourselves as about others. We will take the time to sheer each other’s wool, to gather it, to make sweaters for the poor; we will take the time to love each other from the heart. The world tells us “You, and you alone, matter, and you can do whatever you want in this moment.” But then it turns right around and says, “Get with the system, do the trendy.” The unstated premise is simply that so long as you stay current and don’t look back to the past or forward to the future, you’ll be okay.
But Chris the wandering sheep tells us something else. He says, “Remember me.” He says, “Help me.” He says, “Let me have a future, don’t let me die.” He also says, and Blake says it for him (and for the tiger), “The one who made you, made me; we are in this thing called life together.”
Yet I don’t mean to imply mere mammalian reciprocity. Again, the world might just settle for a bit of that. But Chris’ story is different: he is not offering reciprocity but is providing a metaphor for the relationship of the human and divine. Chris needs our help, and the mere fact that he exists demonstrates to us what we were made for and that we, too, have needs that only someone higher than us, in our case much higher, can fulfill. Our existence, our pathos, sorrow, grief, wretchedness, and—dare I say it?—sin shows our deficiency in the same way the Chris’ wool shows his ever-waxing need. How ironic, then, that Blake’s little ditty suggest, too, that the lamb should be, like King David in his youth (or a still greater king), a child.
You may yet be wondering about the meaning of life. In case I haven’t been clear, I shall be now. It is, from one point of view, denying yourself to serve others. From the other point of view, it is, simply put, acknowledging how wooly life can get. Blake says the rest; if you don’t like Blake, take heart, you’ll get another crack at it: Christmas season is just around the corner, the stuff of another blog—rather a series of blogs about life once upon a time in a little town beneath a great arbor. In the meantime, whether with a ringer’s precision or snagger’s compassion, he who has Wolseley’s to shear, let him shear.