Tag Archives: christmas

Waiting on Miracles

25 Dec

Greetings from the tail end of my annual whirlwind Christmas tour. As usual, it included the raucous, loving excess of Maloney Christmas in Chicago, the still quiet of Schuettler Christmas on a snowless plain in Wisconsin, and a small blended gathering back home in Duluth. I had designs of putting out a short Christmas story on this blog, but this time of year is always horrid for diligent writing effort, and while I’ll continue to plug along on the story, it’s far from ready.

This holiday is exhausting, and I enjoy the travel rush and have relatively few people to buy for. For whatever reason, organizing myself for the whole giving and receiving side of Christmas gets harder with time. As someone who leads a largely secular existence, I have some questions about what this holiday really offers for the non-churched aside from an excuse for rampant commercialism, over-the-top decorations, and a lot of corny nostalgia that I have less patience for every year. That leaves me with some great parties and family reunions, but I don’t think there’s any need to confine those to late December. Something, clearly, is missing.

So, to find some meaning behind what this all means for me, I’ll settle for a quote from the woman I’ve been quoting a lot lately, because somehow a Jew who never had kids can best encapsulate Christmas:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion of Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Merry Christmas.

Advertisements

Gateways, Past and Future

7 Dec

Now that I am the proud owner of my very own fake Christmas tree, I’ve inherited some of the old ornaments that used to decorate the trees of my childhood. Amid the collection of silver balls, apples, eight-year-old Karl’s favorite cartoon characters, and Oscar the Grouch in a trashcan made out of a film canister (remember those things?) sits this ornament, with its rather bold claim:

20161205_202905

Gateway to the world? I guess we do have a big port and all, but this sounds like it’s straight out of that 1800s copy that called Duluth the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas” or whatever delightful hyperbole this city’s founders used. I couldn’t tell you where the ornament came from, or how long we’ve had it. And in spite of that, it’s still my favorite.  For me, it’s true. This city was my gateway to the world, and now I’m back here to make sure it remains a gateway to the world for generations to come.

The routines of Christmas always help to recall the past, and this history makes otherwise inane tasks warm and fuzzy. The music often tires me by mid-December, yet I’ll crank a recording of the Duluth East rendition of “Little Drummer Boy”—it somehow becomes tolerable when there are 800 people playing and singing it at once—any number of times this month. I find gaudy light displays tacky, yet I trim my own apartment with a bunch of strings of lights. I’m not much of a shopper and am now at a point where there are few affordable material things that I wouldn’t just go out and buy myself if I really wanted them, yet I feel duty-bound to participate in that side of things, at least to some extent. I’d add long car trips to the list, though I’ve learned over the past year that I actually enjoy long car trips on their own merits.

It’s easy to tire of all of this, and there’s an understandable instinct to withdraw from it at times. As an introvert, I’ll certainly have my moments this season. But participation in Christmas requires recognition that this holiday, whether in its religious form or even its secularized variants, is bigger than oneself, and as such requires surrender of oneself at times. We should always value in carrying something forward from the past, and perhaps—perhaps—losing touch with that past has played no small part in creating our present political moment. Credit Dickens for understanding how those Christmas ghosts past and future can loom over us, make us stop and think about what where we’ve come from, and where we’re going to end up. The opportunities to gain perspective on events great and small never end, and some of the more important revelations I’ve ever had have been somehow tied up in this holiday.

This blog has become politics-heavy over the past month, and it’s time to shake that up a bit. All these worries about affairs of state that matter so much distract us from things that endure; things that matter not just now, but mattered for our ancestors, and will matter again for our descendants. Also, it’s hockey season. It’s time to start another cycle.

Memories on the Moraine

26 Dec

I’ve made my annual Christmas road trip across Wisconsin, to the rolling hills on Milwaukee’s exurban fringe. Here, I spend time with my grandmother, who soldiers on in a decaying old house, and my uncle, who now has eight cats living with him in the garage. (They’ve got nothing on their neighbors, who burn sticks and toss rocks about to learn what the spirits are telling them.) We peck at the vats of food as we stomach and exchange basic pleasantries, and I go for long runs up and down the Kettle Moraine, off to an old stone church in Saint Lawrence, resolute as this little crossroads of a town fades away. My dad and I retreat to a hotel before we get too deep into the sentimental goo of It’s a Wonderful Life, and I’m left clattering away on this keyboard in the dark when the internet fails yet again.

The life I live day-to-day is distant from rural Wisconsin, but I have roots here. I also have roots in a city with Rust Belt memories, even if my own childhood was fairly isolated from them; not far to the north of Duluth lie towns where the mines are once again in dire straits. This isn’t really my story, but it’s always been peripheral to it. I grew up on an island of relative comfort, surrounded by an America that looks nothing like the yuppie cities or affluent suburbs that were homes to most of my current friends, and could well define my own future. But I can’t avert my eyes from these places, which come to define more and more of the American experience. There are stories here, stories worth telling and passing down, and a tale of decline has its own tragic bent with real psychological implications. As I sit in a slumped chair coated in cat hair and delve into George Packer’s The Unwinding, it’s not hard to draw connections between foreclosures and dying industrial cities and the story of a family on a little Wisconsin farm.

Philosophically, I’m a child of reluctant modernists, from Hannah Arendt to Octavio Paz; people who never ceased to see flaws in modernity, but recognized that they had little other choice. They see all the flaws in placing faith in rationality, whether it purports to run an efficient economic market or benevolent government work. At the end of a year that was a rousing success personally, it’s hard not to look at the tumult about and feel justified in this pessimism about national or global solutions. Despite an ego the size of a small state, this is why I’ve never felt comfortable chasing a traditional road to status. I may yet find my way there, but it won’t be without reservations and escape routes. I lack the necessary trust.

There’s a certain fatalism here; an intimacy with death, and an appreciation for how fleeting our windows of joy may be. I can appreciate aesthetics and revel in certain creature comforts; I eat well and drink well and value few things as much as a journey to some exotic locale. But while they refresh and inspire, they are forever in the shadow of something more profound. An appreciation for loss makes one realize how valuable it is to keep ties going, how much we cannot whitewash the past. This is why I go back to Wisconsin at least once a year. Memory runs too deep, and I cannot swear off a part of who I am.

It is just one part, though, and I’m no slave to memory. I must channel it, and even if I can’t make it all right, I can at least draw inspiration. Perhaps the whole premise of these cozy middle class lives missed something. No, comfort alone won’t quite do: I need more. I’m still working out what this fresh channel for ambition means, and naturally, it will never abandon its roots. But there’s a newfound energy in these runs up and down these hills, one that wasn’t here when I wrote my first sad elegy in this same bland hotel four years ago. The project born that night is starting to come full circle.

So this Christmas season, I’ll offer up something other than a clichéd wish for peace: a wish for continued pursuit of excellence, in all that we do. We don’t have much time; before long, it’ll all be memory. Time to get to work.

A Cyclical Christmas

24 Dec

I don’t really know what it means to be “home for Christmas.” I never am. Christmas is always part of a journey, one that usually involves a stint as an interloper in someone else’s holiday, or, lately, a sterile hotel. (I suppose it’s a step up from a manger in Roman-occupied Judea, but still.) Trying to make all these disparate threads make sense has become a sort of routine. But routine breeds comfort, familiarity, and no one really seems to mind my intrusions, wherever they may be. I’m always on the road this time of the year, and that is my tradition.

Lately, it hasn’t been just a journey to one place; it’s been a cycle between two different worlds. Just over 100 miles separate these two worlds, and the loose trappings of Christmas, somewhere within the Catholic tradition, are at the roots of both. Beyond that, it is a study in dualisms, twinned within me.

First, Chicago, its crush of humanity making Minneapolis seem quaint and tame. Here, a sprawling family unites en masse every year. It’s not without its skeletons, of course, and the march of time takes its toll. But the cycle goes on, the young carrying forward the best gifted to us by the old. Everyone comes together for a great Christmas festival, cramming the house full by the dozens, the well-earned merriment coming to fruition. We gorge ourselves, we down glass after glass of wine, and then we all settle around the piano and shamelessly belt out all the carols, loving every second. After the party, there’s some time to explore the city, see friends old and new, eat well and live well. A whirlwind caught up in the dream, my mission, if I can be so ambitious as to claim one: entwining the fabric of family with the fabric of a city, vibrant and full of life.

A brief train ride north, though, and the other side of the cycle. Here, things are quiet. No more frenetic energy, no more loud noise; just a couple of us with Grandma in that same old house, chancing the occasional word, little that hasn’t been said before. I read, I write, I dodge all the cats. Before long I’m out on a frigid trek down the country lanes of eastern Wisconsin, up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine, out to the old stone church in St. Lawrence on Christmas Eve. That nostalgic pastoral scene so dear to my grandmother, if it ever truly existed, is fading away into the fog; the land slowly emptied or turned to exurban sprawl. I won’t have much reason to come back here after she moves on, though I know I will all the same.

It may not be my future, but it is an integral part of my past, and I must understand it, and pass it along, such as I can. On my run through the mists this year, I recalled the words of Fr. Thomas King, the late Georgetown Jesuit who, in his final Christmas Mass, gave the only homily that this unbaptized, intrigued-but-never-fully-inspired cultural Catholic has bothered to retain. In the midst of all the insanity of our lives, he preached, it is these escapes into the wilderness that bring us peace. It is that call inward that allows us to make ourselves whole again, bringing union with something far greater in that paradox we call faith. That thought in the wilderness has proven a great spark, and the most important thing I ever wrote, the foundations of the pieces that taught me who I was, spilled out in one of those dull hotel rooms not far off. Even here, I find myself, and through it, something much bigger than myself.

Roots are tangled, even for us white bread Midwesterners. Mine are a messy trinity with a handful of other currents feeding in: one part Chicago distinction, the American Dream made real; one part Wisconsin farm boy at the end of an era, trying to make sense of the past. One very large dose of Duluth at my core; perhaps small parts Mexico and, yes, part Washington as well. And yet it all holds together easily enough, all with its place. I suppose that’s where I’m at home, making those connections all one. The cycle goes on. A Merry Christmas to all.

A Patient Christmas Message

25 Dec

I’m back in Duluth this evening after my annual Christmas circuit south through Chicago and rural Wisconsin. It’s a trip that includes raucous family parties to more intimate connections to long hours alone on the road, a pattern that suits a person who needs some of everything in his life. Aunts and uncles, wine, cousins, lots of food, more wine, grandparents, beer, an old college friend, Brandy Alexanders, trains and planes and automobiles, presents, more wine…and then, later on, some time to sit back, relax, write, and read. My reading choice this time around was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; I’ve written some about my connection to this author before, and the theme in this book—a family coming together for one last Christmas in its hometown—seemed all too fitting. But despite its incredible potential, the book disappointed; Franzen’s characters just aren’t real enough to inspire any deep connections. It succeeds on many fronts, but it does not work as the thing it sets out to be above all others: a portrayal of family life.

Tolstoy wasn’t off the mark with his opening line in Anna Karenina: “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Families are troublesome, and remain so because they never follow the same pattern. Hence the conceit of a novel like Franzen’s: the design just can’t be universal. To quote another notable author, Flannery O’Connor: “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”

And so family life becomes easy pickings for novelists, especially ones like Franzen who are trying to say important things about the human condition. (He just takes a bad path in trying to get there.) There is no greater engine of supposed “irrationality,” no greater challenge to the strictures of efficient economics, than the ties that bind people to one another. For those who are always asking why things have come to be the way they are, there is a tendency to fixate on the shortcomings of family members, to blame parents or more distant relations for passing along their own foibles, for failing to explain certain things to us, and for any number of possible failings. Many who come from less-than-ideal families are quick to disown them; many who come from strong ones don’t realize how lucky they are. Wounds fester and grudges linger, long after people would have moved on in relationships not bound by blood. Maybe they constrain us and never let us be who we want to be; maybe they give us so much freedom that we have no clue what we’re supposed to do. Appearances from the outside may look nothing like perception from the inside, where oddities can be so familiar that we never notice them. There are indeed some families that are broken beyond any point of repair. Thankfully, they are less common than one might think, and with a healthy dose of humility, people from those families teetering on the edge can find, if not love, at least a snippet of wisdom. Even stable families can be draining, and have their share of differences that can be tough to bridge.

And yet, what is Christmas if not a story of family? It’s about a birth, after all. Finding meaning in Christmas can be very difficult these days, especially for those of us who run in circles where most people don’t put much stock in the transcendental side of the holiday. We’re supposed to give and be generous and take meaning from that, but it is so very easy to stress about what we’re giving: is this enough, will it surprise and delight, how does it compare to last year or the other gifts people are giving? Too often, a focus on the giving becomes overly materialist or status-obsessed. That leaves us with the inertia of tradition and the occasional spurt of serendipity, two forces that are flimsy on their own but given meaning when shared with people we know best. The real meaning is brought out in simple facts of existence, of roots that cannot be cut off: the people we come from. It all circles back to the family, no matter how far we wander from the manger in Bethlehem.

This is, of course, far easier to say than to accept in practice, and also can tip into mawkish sentimentalism. Holidays have their awkward moments, especially when shared with those with whom we are not all that close. In those cases, Franzen might offer some wisdom in characters like Alfred in The Corrections, a man who “had shown his faith in [his daughter] by taking her at face value: by declining to pry behind the front that she presented.” There are times when this is the best road to take. People need to coexist comfortably before daring to go any deeper.

But, being human, we get tired of comfortable coexistence before long. We want more. We want intimacy and meaning; we want signs that our existence has value that goes beyond our own myopic desires. For that, Alfred and the other flimsy Corrections characters aren’t of much use. Instead, we need people who cannot stand to be left in the dark, who want to learn as much as they can, even if that means finding a few skeletons in the closet. Impertinent and even dangerous at times, perhaps, but in search of underlying truth. Honesty, sincerity, and the whole backstory; a willingness to let others be stakeholders in one’s own destiny.  If we can’t give that to one another, what can we give?