Thursday, December 20, 2012

The season, in search of a reason.


I know I promised a bunch of posts about Christmas, and I started on them, I really did.

But as I was getting ready to write about how this year my office Christmas party would be this or that or the other thing, something happened that made me pause and decide to write about something else.

That thing that happened was this:

Mr Bunches said "tractor."

The word tractor doesn't seem, at first blush, to be the type of word that could cause me to spend a lot of time pondering Christmas and parenthood and religion and life, in general, but that's because it's out of context, there.  Let me put it in context for you:

We were taking a ride, about 8 o'clock at night.  We take a lot of rides, lately; Mr F has been having kind of a rough time and we're not sure why.  Sometimes he's very crabby and sometimes he's very tired and when he's any of those things, we mostly just have to guess at what will help him be less... so... and to do that we run through the solutions we have for him.

"Puffs?" we'll ask him.

"Swing?" we'll offer.

We give him medicine, or we let him take another bath because he can't swim and he misses swimming so much that every Saturday morning he gets up and puts on his swim trunks and comes downstairs looking hopeful, but he can't swim until January, at least.  It won't be a wet Christmas for Mr F.

And as a last resort, or sometimes a first resort, we'll take him for a ride, because rides usually calm him down and get him thinking right again.  That's our best guess for what's wrong, sometimes.  When nothing else works, when all the puffs and chocolate and blanket swings and squeezes don't shake him out of his mood, we sometimes think he's just discombobulated, and we try to recombobulate him.

So we were taking a ride, driving around a nearby subdivision and looking at the Christmas decorations, combobulating, and we passed a house that was more decorated than most, a series of inflatable Christmas decorations, reindeer and snowmen and Santa riding a tractor for some reason even though I've never heard of Santa doing any farming, up there at the North Pole.

"Look," Sweetie said.  "Look, boys."  We slowed down and let Mr F and Mr Bunches take in the display.

"Who is that?" I asked them.

"Tractor," Mr Bunches said.

That's when it occurred to me that at age 6, Mr F and Mr Bunches didn't have any idea, really, who Santa was.

And then it occurred to me that they might not know who Santa was, ever.

That seemed really sad and it sunk in slowly, that Mr F and Mr Bunches, who'd been taken to see Santa every year (with mixed results) don't really know who he is or what Christmas is about.

And then I realized that the same was true of God.

****************************************************************

I don't remember how old I was when I first knew who Santa was, or who God was. 

I remember when I stopped believing in Santa, when my parents told me Santa wasn't real and that they were responsible for Santa presents, that they were the ones who bought them and put them under the tree.

I cried and cried and cried.  In my whole life I bet I've never cried that much.

I wasn't like some of the other kids, kids who kind of suspect that Santa isn't real, kids who kind of suspect that Santa might be their parents, the kids who note the wrapping paper they have on their Santa presents is the same paper Mom bought at Shopko earlier that week, the kids who say "Thanks, Santa," with a kind of smirk and look at Mom.

I believed, and it wasn't until I couldn't believe any more that I even had any idea how much I'd believed.  I had taken for granted all my life that Santa, this wonderful guy who lived at the North Pole, ran a toy shop, consorted with elves and talking reindeer, and flew, that this guy was real.  It wasn't even a question, to me.  He just was.

So when my parents told me that there was no Santa, it wasn't like "Oh, I'd guessed that.  I guess it's kind of sad but now I'm an adult and ready to move on to other things."

Being told there was no Santa was like one day waking up and gravity doesn't pull things down anymore: it was the complete absence of something that had always been there and it shook me to my core.  I'm 43 now, and I can still remember sitting at the kitchen table, the little brown table with the dingy overhead lamp in our orange-and-white wallpapered kitchen, and being told that Santa wasn't real, and running into the living room where the fancy green couch sat across from the lit-up Christmas tree, and laying down on my stomach, crying for what was probably only minutes but which felt like days.

I can still remember looking up at the Christmas tree and seeing the lights blurred by my tears, which I felt would never end.  And when I think about it,what I remember is that I wasn't sad about Santa, as such. 

I was sad that the world wasn't what I had taken it to be.  It wasn't a magical place, after all, where men could fly around and give toys to people, where elves could live in snowy villages, where reindeer could talk and snowmen could sing.

True: none of that had ever happened to me, but the existence of Santa made it seem like someday they could.

Santa, to me, didn't represent presents.  Santa wasn't free stuff.  Santa, to me, was the existence of wonder, of possibility.  Santa was the proof that the world was going to be magic, someday.

***************************************************************************

I do remember, though, how old I was when I found out God was real.


I was 19.

I was 19, and I'd been in a car accident about six months before.  A drunk driver had slammed into me from behind while I sat at a stoplight.  It was about 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night in February, not a night that you'd figure you should be watching out for drunk drivers.  I was in the middle lane of a three-lane road, at a red light, and I remember leaning forward to change the radio station -- I kept the seat pretty far back because I have bad knees and driving is uncomfortable -- and then I remember a paramedic asking me if I knew my name and address.

I told it to him and asked where I was, and it turned out I was on an ambulance headed to a hospital where I would lay in an emergency room for a while in shock, covered with blankets, and then eventually be put into a room with a large collar around me to keep my neck from breaking worse.

I'd broken my neck, something my mom always feared I'd do, and was still able to walk and talk and do everything else.  While it was painful, and it was hard to recuperate, I wasn't paralyzed.  I just had a lot of pain and numbness in my arms and back and difficulty doing things, so six months later, they'd -- I say they because it was really a decision made by my mom and my doctor -- decided I would have surgery to fuse the two previously-broken bones together and see if that didn't help things.

So when I realized that God was real, that He wasn't just a concept, it was one day before I had to go in for that surgery, and I was sitting on a hillside near Pewaukee Lake.  We'd gone camping the night before, a few of us, and I'd woken up early and gotten outside the tent and was sitting on the edge of the hill, smoking a cigarette (I smoked then, but it was the 1980s and smoking was still cool) and looking at the sunrise and worrying.

I was worrying because just two days before, a doctor had told me that I was going to have surgery and that there was a 5% chance of paralysis or death from the surgery I was about to have, and I was tired: I'd spent six months in pain and neck collars and visiting doctors and hospitals, and now I was going back again, and I wasn't sure what to do and while I knew, intellectually, that 5% isn't a great deal of percents, it's hardly any percents when you get right down to it, it still seemed like a lot, and it was the first time I'd ever been given an odds of survival.

A 19-in-20 chance of survival seems pretty good, but in most things I do in my life, my odds of survival aren't even spelled out and don't need to be measured, at all, so I was worried.  Unnecessarily worried, perhaps, but since when does necessity factor into how worry feels?

I'd been raised Catholic, and gone to Catholic school until third grade, and gone to "CCD," which was some sort of after-school Catholicism we gone once a week, and we went to church all the time when I was a kid, so I knew about religion.  Like Santa, God had always been there.  Unlike Santa, nobody had ever come along and said of God, "He's not real," but still, at 19, God had faded a bit, for me, too: I hadn't voluntarily gone to church in a couple of years, and religion was something that you just were, in the background.  I was Catholic the same way I was Polish: by descent, and not by thought.

The sun was coming up that morning, near Pewaukee Lake, and I listened to music on my Walkman and worried about the surgery and thought about God and life and without any prompting whatsoever, I just whispered to myself:

"God, just let me know it will be all right."

*************************************************************************************

In our family, when I was older, Santa came back and maintained a bit of a presence. 

Marrying Sweetie mixed things up a bit: when I was a kid and before I knew about Santa, all the presents were brought by Santa.  We would go to bed on Christmas Eve with the space beneath the tree bare but for the tree skirt, and would wake up to a living room overflowing with presents.  Sometimes literally overflowing; I didn't realize we were well-off, and maybe we weren't well-off but we were better off than almost everybody I've ever known.  I think back to the plethora of presents we got as a kid and I can't even remember most of them, and when I think back on those Christmas mornings, I understand, completely, the phrase embarrassment of riches, especially when I contrast them with Sweetie's childhood.  She only got about one present per year, and tells me stories of how she had to make paper dolls by cutting people out of the JCPenney catalog.

Once we were married and had to meld our Christmas traditions, we compromised, by which I mean we did things Sweetie's way: she put the presents out early, once they were wrapped, sitting them under the tree for a week or more before the actual day, something I found sacrilegious. 

"Santa brings the presents," I told her, our first Christmas together.

"Not all of them," she said, and Santa didn't.  Instead, on Christmas Eve, we'd stay up late and put out the "Santa Presents," the best present each kid was getting, wrapped in paper that Sweetie had deliberately bought secretly and hidden from the kids for just that purpose, and when the kids woke up, there were the Santa Presents, the best ones of the bunch.

The Santa Presents outlasted even belief in Santa; after Oldest had turned 19 and moved out and was living on her own, she was planning on coming over for Christmas Day to open presents early in the morning, as we always did -- it was rare to make it past 5 a.m. before the presents were all opened, so excited were the kids -- and she asked if there would still be Santa presents.

At that point, the boys were only three months old, and the older kids were 19, 13, and 12, respectively, so there was nobody who believed in Santa anymore in our house.

"I don't think so," we told Oldest, about the Santa Presents.

"But the Santa Presents are the best ones," Oldest complained, and Sweetie reminded her that we bought the Santa Presents, they weren't really from Santa.

"I know, but still..." Oldest said.

I got her drift: Oldest, like me, didn't want to let go of Santa, of the idea that you could get anything, that your list was wide open and whatever it was you wished for, there was a chance you would get if you were good enough and wished hard enough.

We might have always bought the Santa Presents, but we bought them as Santa, and that is a legacy to live up to.  Santa doesn't give kids clothes, or school supplies, not in our world, at least.  Santa gives kids the good stuff, the stuff they want: Razor scooters and DVD players and once, a kitten.  Santa brings his A game to Christmas, and so long as we, the parents, were charged with getting not just presents, but Santa Presents, we had to live up to that standard.

Oldest, unlike me, had found a way to keep Santa alive, just a bit -- the idea of Santa swirling around in the snow at Christmas time, not unlike Frosty the Snowman's ability to still be there, in spirit, even after he melted away, to come back the next year with a magic hat and dance and play again.  Santa might not have been real, but Santa Presents were, and Oldest wasn't giving up on those.

*************************************************************************************

Sometimes, I can't believe that I actually tell people the story of that morning on the hill, because when you tell people stuff like this they think you are crazy, as crazy to believe in something that happened when you were 19 and sitting, scared and lonely, on a hill, as if you were to be an adult who believed that Santa was real.

When you grow up going to church and taking classes and generally being exposed to religion, it never seems as though God is real.  God is less real to most kids, I bet, than Santa, because what does God ever do that is tangible?  Santa shows up at the mall, and leaves presents, and eats a couple of bites out of each cookie and drinks some of the milk.  God, on the other hand, doesn't ever seem to do anything until he makes you get up and go to church in uncomfortable clothes.

"God, just let me know it will be all right," I prayed, that morning, sitting on a hill in the fog and worrying about the surgery I was going to have.

Nothing happened at first and I shuddered a little in the cold, the damp seeping into my skin.  I put my arms around my knees and stared at the edge of the hill, and then I felt it.

It's hard to describe what I felt.  It was sort of like someone putting a friendly arm around my shoulder, and sort of like an electric shock running through my skin, and sort of not like either of those things at all, somehow the opposite of those things while it was also those things.

But I felt...

...better...

...and not scared anymore.

**************************************************************************************

I took the boys shopping, as I always do, every Christmas, to pick up Sweetie's present.  We make a day of it, heading off to the mall on the other side of town where we never shop otherwise, and stopping for pizza and Skee-ball and hitting all kinds of stores to look for stuff on Sweetie's list and pricing things and getting ideas, and stopping at the mall playground to go on the slides and then doing more shopping and sometimes heading to the food court for some French Fries.

We had just left a store where we'd tried to find a Packers shirt for Oldest Daughter, who said she doesn't have one and therefore wants one -- as good a reason as any-- and we were standing outside a store window in which a billion toys were stacked, shelves 12 feet high filled with trucks and planes and basketballs and dinosaurs.

"Toys," Mr Bunches said.

I had him and Mr F sit on the chairs while I adjusted our bags and checked my list.

"I need toys," Mr Bunches said.

"You already got one toy today, the planet set, remember?" I told him.

Mr F tapped his spoons and hummed and Mr Bunches said "I need toys."

So I tried this:

"Don't you know who's coming soon?" I asked him.

He just stared at me.  All around us people hustled by in their winter coats and lugged shopping bags.  Mr F tried to get me to pick him up.

"Santa," I said.  "Santa is coming and if you're good, he'll bring you toys."

Mr Bunches gave a nervous laugh, the kind of thing he does now when he can't figure out how to respond to something you've said, a sort of half-laugh that's not quite a chuckle, and said "Not quite," which is what he says when he doesn't know what else to say.

He was right.

***************************************************************************************

About two years ago, my uncle sent us a book of Bible stories for kids, watered-down, simplified versions of the Old Testament stories like Noah, which is just about the only Bible story kids grow up knowing, if you ask me.  Religion, when you are young, goes like this: Adam & Eve; Noah; Moses; Jesus.

I nearly threw the book away, because I don't really go in for organized religion.  We haven't been to church in a couple of years, now.  I think the last time we went was on Christmas Eve, when we tried to take the boys to the Christmas Eve mass.  Sweetie has always liked going to mass on Christmas Eve, and I didn't mind it too much; I like the lights and the peaceful feeling it gives me and Christmas Eve is particularly a chance to feel religious, plus it's not a bad idea to take a break from shopping and parties and presents and cooking and Christmas specials, to take a break and sit quietly and think about the spirit for a while.

But we didn't last long at that Christmas mass, because the crying room was all taken up and the boys wouldn't sit still out in the lobby where the overflow crowd sits in chairs arranged for that purpose, watching church on TV (a closed-circuit setup): watching church from just outside of the church.  We hung near the back and tried to distract the boys with a few of their toys while we attempted to get some religion into us, but the boys wanted to walk around and then Mr F took a small dinosaur and began tapping it loudly on the radiator, and the more we tried to stop him from doing that, the more he got obsessed with doing that and we had to leave before we even got to the part of the ceremony where we all shake hands as a sign of peace, the part I particularly don't like because I don't like touching other people's hands and I'm never sure just who around me I'm supposed to shake hands with; it always ends awkwardly with me or someone else holding out our hands and looking for someone else to say "peace" to and then sheepishly going back to picking up our missalettes.

Not long after that, I decided to read one of the stories to Mr F; I read to the boys about four times a week, trying to teach them to read.  With Mr F, I mostly read to him and ask him to say a word from each page, usually the last word of each page.

"I do not like them, Sam-I-am," I will read, and add "Say am."

"Am," Mr F will sometimes say, but it takes a while.


I read Mr F the story of Noah, as you'd expect, telling about the two animals on the ark, two of every kind of animal, and the rain, and the rainbow, and wondering what he made of it.

I don't remember, as a kid, being too amazed by God, or wondering how it could be that two of every animal fit onto a boat, or how a single man could round up two of every single animal in the world, including every single bug.  When you're a kid, that stuff just happens.

Just like a guy flying around the world in a single night and giving presents to everyone.  Just happens.

It's not even magical.  It's just the way things work.

When you're a kid, there's not reality and magic.  There's just the world and how it works and magic can work because it can

Like on Thanksgiving, when we were trying to get Mr Bunches, who was worried about people coming over, to feel better.  The Older Kids were coming for Thanksgiving, and Mr Bunches wasn't happy because he thinks when the older kids come over that Sweetie and I are leaving and he will be babysat, which he doesn't mind once it's happening but fears in advance.


So when we told him The Boy was coming over, he said "No, he's in his home."  And he said the same for Oldest Daughter and Middle, too.

I then said "What about Spongebob? Can he come over?" And Mr Bunches said:

"No, he's in the ocean."

As Sweetie pointed out, it's not that Spongebob couldn't come because he's a cartoon.  According to Mr Bunches, Spongebob couldn't come because he's in the ocean.

It's easy to believe, when you're a kid, in things that just happen.

If you know about them and understand them happening.

************************************************************************************

When you can't see them happening, and you get older, you can stop believing, too. 

Of course, I was okay after that surgery. 

I figured I would be.  I went into the surgery the next day, after sitting there on that hill the morning before, and I wasn't scared, not really, not anymore.

Well, maybe a little.

I remember being in the recovery room and sitting up and feeling all the aches and pains that come with having someone slice a five-inch-long swath through your neck and then go in and clamp everything in your neck over to the side so that he can drill two small holes into your 5th and 6th vertebrae and insert a tiny bone chip into that, and then put everything back and staple your neck back together, and I remember saying this:

"I'm alive."

It wasn't so much with relief, or amazement, as with a sense of... certainty.

It was, I imagine, much like what it would be like to be in one of those movies where a man is too busy at Christmas to pay attention to his family and is working all the time and his wife is about to leave him and his kids are turning into punk rockers or accountants and even his dog, that old dog he's had for seventeen years, won't look at him anymore, and then the man stumbles downstairs one night to get a drink of water and he falls into the living room, knocks his head on the coffee table, sits up, and there is Santa Claus, eating a cookie, the cookie paused halfway to his mouth as they stare at each other, and the man realizes that everything in his life is pretty much the way he always knew it was but he never really believed in it.

It was like that.

Without the cookies.

************************************************************************************


I don't know how much Mr Bunches, and maybe Mr F, have absorbed about Christmas from movies and TV specials.  Mr Bunches likes to watch the Spongebob Christmas episode where Spongebob learns about Santa and all of Bikini Bottom writes letters to Santa, except for Squidward, who laughs it all off until, on Christmas morning, Santa has not come and Squidward, at first happy, sees Spongebob sobbing and so Squidward dresses up as Santa and gives all his stuff away to the people (?) of Bikini Bottom, convincing Spongebob that Santa is real.

Then, at the end, a demented looking Santa actually flies over Bikini Bottom, so the message is somewhat mixed.

Mr Bunches watched that for about two solid weeks, and in terms of learning about Santa, I suppose it was the equivalent of my learning about God, as a kid, hearing about God and religion through half-listened-to stories in church that I was forced to attend.  I remember that one year we had to make felt ornaments for a tree in Christmas, but the tree wasn't a pine tree, it was a regular, bare-branched tree that we hung our ornaments on.  Mine was the apple that Adam and Eve ate, a weird mix of symbolism for Christmas, one I never figured out.  Another year, we had a pageant and I was the Christmas star, charged with making the big speech at the pageant, kind of like Linus in the Peanuts Christmas special.  I did so well with my speech that my mom made me put on my star and recite the speech again at my family Christmas party.  There's a picture, somewhere, of me, with my slightly-mussed hair and thick glasses, standing with a three-foot-wide tinfoil-and-garlanded star held in front of my chest, talking.

We learned, in church, that God wanted to leave us peace and that he gave his life for our sins through Jesus and that we should give up something we liked during Lent for some reason, to relate I guess to Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days, and we learned, in church, to hate church because we had to go to church, and we learned that God is everywhere and is always listening to us, which made it seem like perhaps we didn't have to go to church but we still went.

And nearly twenty years in, it would all leave me sitting on a hillside wondering whether praying would do any good. 

But, still, praying.

I can't tell what Mr Bunches and Mr F think about Santa Claus.  The times they've gone to see him, they sometimes didn't want to get too near him or they cried, but mostly they didn't pay him any attention at all, just treating him the way they would treat any other thing in their life, where everything is of equal importance, more or less, people and blankets and Matchbox airplanes and the Mousetrap game all being more or less the same thing to them, the people on Youtube being called friends and them muddling through, somehow, with us trying to help them as best we can.

And we take them to see Santa, every year, or we did up to this year, when we haven't taken them to see Santa.  For my part, I haven't pushed them to go see Santa Claus because I don't think they understand anything about him, and so we would be taking them just for ourselves, and I don't believe in Santa Claus, either, so why bother? If they don't miss him, and we don't need him, is it important that they know about him?

*********************************************************************************

And I can't tell what Mr Bunches and Mr F think about God.

I read Mr F that story about Noah, and I held him close, afterwards, and kept him still.  This is what I said to him:

"Do you know who God is?"

I paused, then.  Mr F did not answer.  He understands, we think he understands, almost everything you say.  Our take on Mr F is that he understands pretty much everything, he just doesn't care; he's in his own world, somewhere, listening to us like we're the television on in the background, absorbing our information and only occasionally pausing to say what was that last part again?

"Do you know who God is?" I asked him, and I paused.  Then I said:  "God is who made the world.  And he made you and me and everything in it." 

I was trying as much for myself to figure this out, because it is easier to feel things than to tell them to others.

"God made the world," I said, "And he made you and me and the entire Universe.  He lives in Heaven, and he watches us. And he takes care of people like you.  God is always around you, watching you and making sure that you are okay.  And all God wants is for you to be good in exchange."

*******************************************************************************

Ever since that morning on the hill, I have talked to God, from time to time.


I only know four prayers by heart: the "Our Father," the "Hail Mary," and a prayer for penance that goes like this:

I confess to Almighty God
And to you, my brothers and sisters,
That I have sinned through my own fault.
In my thoughts and in my words
In what I have done
And in what I have failed to do
And I ask the Blessed Mary ever virgin
The angels and saints,
And you, my brothers and sisters, 
To pray for me to the Lord our god.

When I feel stressed out, and when I am worried, and when I am in pain -- when I was laying on a stretcher having a heart attack and waiting to go into surgery so they could get rid of the blood clot that was trying to kill me -- and when I wonder what will happen to my kids in the future and when I have a big case I'm working on and when I read about sad things happening to people, or when I read about rich people who make me mad with their selfishness, I talk to God.

Sometimes I say one of my prayers, or more usually all four, right in a row.  Sometimes I just talk.  Not out loud, but in my head.  I sit and think about what it is that is troubling me or on my mind and I pray for understanding, and for strength, and for the ability to do whatever it is that is asked of me in the days and hours and months and years ahead.

I never ask for anything specific, not for me.  God isn't Santa Claus, not least because Santa doesn't exist and God does.  What I ask for is for me to understand, and for me to be able to keep going in the face of adversity.

I know that God listens, because every time I do that, every single time, I get that same feeling again, like someone is telling me:

I am here.

I don't get answers, not right away.  I don't get explanations, even though sometimes I imagine that when I am dead I would go up to Heaven and stand in front of God and ask him why... why... why...

So many whys.

(I, who doesn't even confront the McDonald's cashier about giving me the wrong sandwich, imagine I would demand of God: WHY?)

But I get comforted, and I know that God is there, and in a universe where God exists, nothing too terrible can happen.

Every time, I get that:

I am here.

That's answer enough, for me:  The existence of something magical and wonderful is enough to keep me going.

************************************************************************************

I know that God is there for Mr F and Mr Bunches, too.  He is there for them the way Santa is there for them, right now, whether or not they know it.  This year, Santa is bringing Mr Bunches a big marble-maze set, a track-contraption that he can build and run marbles through, a toy that he has played with at the Rich Mall near us every time we've gone there.  And Santa is bringing Mr F, who is not as into toys, a complete set of the Baby Einstein books he likes, with all the bells and whistles and mirrors and things that he likes.

They didn't go see Santa this year, and Santa is not quite, but he will still bring them presents.

So I know that God is there for them, too, but I wonder: do they know that?

The other night, Sweetie and I went to my office Christmas party, the one I was going to write about.  We had Oldest and The Boy babysit, and that always upsets Mr F and Mr Bunches, who don't like changes in routine.

I kept telling them "We'll be back in two hours."  They don't really grasp time yet and so I break it out this way:  Two hours is "long."  "Ten minutes" is kind of long"Five minutes" and "two minutes" is "almost ready to go."

They seemed a little upset when we left.  We went to the office party, and then we came home, back by 10:15 or so, and we found them both wide awake in their room.

"Daddy!" Mr Bunches yelled.  Mr F came downstairs and leaned against Sweetie for a half-hour before going back up to bed.  Like they hadn't believed we would come back.

So I wonder: do they know that God is there?

Does He talk to them, the way I talk to them, and the way He talks to me?

Would they understand him?

If anyone can get through to Mr F, if anyone can calm Mr Bunches, it would be God, I suppose.  After all, if I can, with some work, get Mr F to say "Bye, Daddy," if my own human abilities can break through into Mr F's world and get him to communicate with me, then God must be able to do that, if He wants.

But I don't necessarily trust that God is doing that, and so I worry that I should be doing more.

There's a story I know, that I heard as a joke but it isn't, and I like to repeat it:

A man is in his house when it begins raining, hard.  Flood warnings come on the TV and the man is warned to evacuate.  A friend calls and asks the man if he wants a lift to a shelter.

"I don't need to leave," he says.  "God will take care of me."

The flood waters rise and the man has to go to the second floor of his house.  A neighbor with a boat comes by and offers the man a ride to safety.

"I don't need to leave," the man says.  "God will take care of me." 

The waters continue to rise.  The man goes to his roof.  A rescue helicopter comes and lowers a rope, telling the man to get on.

"I don't need to leave," he says.  "God will take care of me."

The waters continue to rise and the man drowns.  He goes to Heaven and meets God.

"Why? the man asks God.  "Why did you let me die? I trusted you.  I kept telling people I didn't need to be rescued because God would take care of me.  Why DIDN'T YOU?" 

And God looks at the man and says "Who do you think sent the neighbor, the boat, and the helicopter."

***************************************************************************************

What if I am the helicopter?

***************************************************************************************  
 Maybe it is up to me to explain to Mr F and Mr Bunches who God is.

I know that the feelings I get when I pray... when I talk to God... could be caused simply by natural processes.  People will think that, I'm sure, as though that negates the existence of something holy happening, of something good happening.

When I think about how people say evolution proves there is no God or how science proves religion wrong, or that some normal biological process could make me think I am having a religious experience, I think about the leaf-cutter ants.

Leaf-cutter ants do not eat the leaves they cut.  They cut the bits off the leaves and take the bits back to their ant hill, which is a burrow.  In that ant hill, they have fungus growing, fungus that they are cultivating and which they use the bits of leaves to fertilize.

The fungus will not grow without the fertilizer.

I wonder how the ants learned to cultivate the fungus, to cut the leaves and carry them back and fertilize it, and I think about how wonderful that is.  

The natural doesn't disprove the existence of God.  The beauty of the world proves He does exist.

So maybe I was put here for a reason.  Maybe we all were.  Maybe ever single person in this world has a role to play, or more than one role, and maybe I am here to teach Mr F and Mr Bunches about God.

Or maybe I just want to, because I want to make sure they know.  I know that God can reach them, but I want to make sure they reach God.

Because I cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a world without faith.  I know, or at least I believe, that God takes care of everyone.  You do not have to be able to pray to God to be taken care of, to be watched over, to have the blessings of religion on you.  You still get it, just like you get sunlight whether you know about the sun or not.

But that is only half the equation, for me.  That's 2+2 with nothing on the other side of the equal sign.  Because while that is true, I don't doubt, it leaves one empty.  

I sometimes joke that when my cell phone dies, I feel as though I have lost one of my senses.  Something I rely on to communicate, to get information, to keep notes on, is gone and I can't get it back, not right away, and I feel a little crippled.

I have a lazy eye, and so I have trouble seeing in three dimensions.  Much of the world looks to me as though it is a painted backdrop on a museum diorama.  When you look at the horizon and see three dimensions stretching off into the distance, I see a poster.

So I have some idea what it is like to be missing something, because I can, if I try really hard, see in three dimensions but mostly I don't.

Can you miss something if you don't know it exists?  If you were born blind would you regret not being able to see?  

What if you didn't know about seeing?  What if you were born blind and nobody ever told you that you were blind, nobody ever told you that there was such a thing as sight, that there were colors and depth and that people looked different and that you could read words on a screen and watch movies? Would you regret then, or would you simply not know?

In some ways, the answer is academic: in either situation, you cannot see.  It's just a matter of whether you miss it actively.

**************************************************************************************

Mr Bunches sees Santa, when he looks at decorations.  He just doesn't put any real emphasis on him.

The other night I tried again.

"Do you know what happens next week?" I asked him.

"Kindergarten," he said.

"No, I mean do you know who is coming here?  Do you know what is in six days?"

He looked at me.

"Christmas," I said, and he looked at our Christmas tree with its star on top signifying, to him, the solar system, and not the directions to find the Baby Jesus.

"Okay," he said.

"Santa Claus will come and bring you presents," I told him.

"He's in his house," Mr Bunches told me, and went back to playing.

*************************************************************************************

How, I wonder, do you explain to a little boy that a man might be coming to his house to bring him presents, sneaking into the house at midnight to take some cookies and leave some toys?  What a weird legend.

 *************************************************************************************

How much harder to explain God?

I do, from time to time.  I hug the boys and tell them that God loves them, and remind them that God made the world and made them.

And then I hug them and tell them that I will always be there to help them, and to explain things to them, and to take care of them, because maybe I am the helicopter.   They might never understand who God is, but they know that I am Daddy and they know that I can make pancakes and drag them up the hill on the sled when they get tired and I can tickle them and I can read them the hard words in the solar system book, and I can sit next to them when they are in the hospital and I can catch them when they jump into the deep end even though they can't swim.

What I can't do is imagine what it would be like to live in a world without knowing, without believing, in the extraordinary good that is God.

God and Santa Claus are sort of the same concept: they are both mysterious men living in faraway realms, both with a cadre of helpers, both visiting us at odd times and judging us, taking tiny offerings from us in exchange for great piles of gifts back.     It's appropriate, I think, that Santa has become a sort of secular God, a symbol that even people who do not think they are religious can believe in and offer up as a sign of good will, as a reason to be good to others, as a force to believe in.

Santa Claus might be a stepping stone to God; maybe it is easier, when we are young, to believe in a man who only does one kind of miracle, flying around the world and giving presents to the good, than to wrap our tiny minds around the kind of concept that is required to imagine God, eternal and creating all things, setting into motion forces that will take a spinning ball of fire that will mold and harden and spread and light up and cool down and one day will produce a walking collection of carbon atoms that will think deep thoughts about ants in South America and worry about his children.

It's difficult to imagine that, and far easier to think of a man sitting in a cabin at the North Pole, making a list and checking it twice, but they're both the same idea and they're both doing aspects of the same job: giving us things to believe in.

When you're a kid, you believe in Santa.

That gets taken away from you.

If you are lucky, you replace it with a belief, for a belief it can only be until you die and learn the truth, in God.  Even for me, even with what I think of as proof, it is still a belief, because I have never seen God or heard His voice.  The proof is indirect, abstract: it is proof only in the loosest sense of the word, a validation of my belief via further belief.

*************************************************************************************
I don't only pray when I am upset.  I don't only pray to ask for help.  I know a fourth prayer, one I say all the time, even when I am upset.

The fourth prayer I know is one I learned from reading Lake Wobegon Days.  It goes like this:

Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life.
And forgive me if I do not love it enough.

*********************************************************************************

I cried when I learned that Santa was not real.

But then I picked myself up and got through that Christmas and every Christmas after that, with no Santa but with plenty of other good things.  

I did that on my own, nobody helping me to understand that even though Santa was gone, that he had never been, that there was still magic in the world, if you only listened hard enough, and asked the right questions, and waited.

I wouldn't realize that until I was 19 years old, sitting quiet and scared on a hillside.

That's a long time to live with only the mundane world and no miracles.

************************************************************************************** 

I have a tradition of my own.  Every Christmas Eve, I sit quietly, after everyone else has gone to bed, and I look at the Christmas tree, and I listen to the song O Holy Night, and I just think.

I just think.

I cried a little, too, when I first thought that the boys would never get to lead what I thought of as a normal life, when I thought that they would miss out on all the great things I know and did and felt, when I wasn't sure how they looked at things or what they could understand.

And I cried, a little, when I thought the boys would never know who God is, even though God knows them.

But then I picked myself up, and got through that.   

I don't want to let them go nineteen years, or longer, without knowing that the world is magical, and that God is real and that there are Santa presents and that everything can be all right no matter how scared you are.  It's up to me, I figure, to make sure they know that all those things are there, to explain to them what colors are even if they don't know that colors exist.  

*************************************************************************************

Have a merry Christmas, and whatever you believe: Believe.  

 
 
             

6 comments:

Rusty Webb said...

What a touching post. I feel like being snarky wouldn't be appropriate now. I used to make superhero action figures out of notebook paper. I would make superman fly by tying him by string to my grandmother's heating vent - when the heat kicked on he went up, up, and then flopped around about 18 inches above the floor until the heat cut back off.

Briane P said...

Good thing you avoided the snark.

Andrew Leon said...

There's just so much here, it would take me a post to be able to respond adequately. That said...

We struggled, my wife and I, struggled a lot with whether we should let our kids read "Christmas on the Corner." The two younger ones, 11 and 9, still believe in Santa (the older despite the fact that -none- of his friends believe. He chooses to believe anyway), and I didn't want anything I wrote to erode that belief. It ended up being fine.

It's not that I want them to believe in something that's not real, but, see, I do believe in Santa. Not that he's some old dude sitting in a cabin at the top of the world but that he is an Idea, and, in many ways, Ideas are more real than the physical. I want them to transition into the Idea without having their belief wrecked first.

Ironically, I never really believed in Santa as a kid. I think when I was 5 was the last year I thought he might be real.

Rusty Webb said...

Was I snarky? Not on purpose - I was just thinking of the dolls your wife made from JCPenny cutouts.

Also - I believed in Santa until, well, I'll just say that I was older than most... By a lot.

Briane P said...

No, Rusty. You weren't. Somehow my completely nonsarcastic reply came across as sarcastic. I liked your story.

Andrew: I agree. I dead CotC as I wrote this over the past week. Ideas are important.

Lara Schiffbauer said...

I loved this post. I call Santa and God and miracles and joy and kindness that makes you cry Everyday Magic. I couldn't live without Everyday Magic. It's too important.

I was in third grade when the other kids told me Santa wasn't real and I fought with them and refused to believe it. Then I went home and my Mom let me down easy. My Mom had to tell me the story because I don't remember any of it. The trauma must have been so great I blocked it out. :)