Tree of Life

IMG_1108 (2)It´s late November, and we are warm, soon to be hot.  Our fake plastic Christmas tree sparkles in the corner of our living room, while all the rest of our previous years´ Christmas decorations sweat it out as perpetual hostages in the storage space where I used to do business.  Unless we can take everything out at once, we don´t dare ask the landlady to sort through for individual items.  It´s a small thing, but it´s also a big thing.  I now have a significant quantity of items stored in two different countries, and I never really know if or when I´ll be able to have them again in one place.  They are a fine analogy for my life.  All the people I love are now spread across 3 continents, and it is a guarantee that I will never have them in the same place at the same time.  Sadly, this is the recipe for Christmas failure.

H, my daughter, sparse months from reaching 13, has finally realized that Christmas ¨here¨ is not the same as Christmas ¨there.¨  Here is hot and sandy, where pine trees are as exotic as milk in a gallon, and our relationship to extended family is limited in actuality to my father in law, H´s ¨Tata,¨ who has some inexplicable aversion to spending time in any house but is own.  (I recently learned the fun fact that he leaves work and goes home when he needs to use a bathroom, so he can use his own.  I feel less offended).  H asked her dad last week, ¨Dad, is Tio Lucho really your brother?¨  Her question was mildly baffling, because who else would he be? But understandable, because she has never seen the two of them share so much as a handshake.  That´s as much love as is lost between them.  My husband calls his niece here ¨the little girl.¨ Not sure he knows her name, but then again, I won´t read too much into it, because he also does not now how old I am, how long we´ve been married, or what my maiden name is.  Just for the record, 9 years (that we´ve been married). Not long enough, apparently.  I digress.

When we were about 12 and 14, my sister and I laid in bed together one Christmas morning and realized that it had happened.  The Christmas magic has dimmed.  What WAS the big deal, we asked each other?  We both knew that we´d spent a good decade being thoroughly thrilled by the event, but somehow, that year, the thrill ran thin.  And as another Christmas is on us, one in which we will stay in our desert town for the holiday, my daughter is keenly aware that there is a big difference between celebrating with Noni and Papa, Nini and Jeff, and all the cousins, and staying here.  What pleases me is that she hasn´t had the ¨oh crap, it feels wrong,¨ moment about Christmas yet.

She has however asked me if Jesus is real.  And I don´t wish to be disingenuous with her.  Recently, in a rare moment of introspection and doubt, she said to me with emphatically, ¨but how do you know he´s not just something made up?¨ And the honest answer is, I don´t.  Because that is the whole point.  There´s no scientific method that can make a proof for or against him.  And when I think of what to say on the topic that will be meaningful, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can´t help but cringe at a mental reel of Will Ferrell dressed in a Wonderbread jump suit in Talladega Nights, praying a monologue to ¨dear little baby Jesus…¨ And worse, (now that I´ve googled it), I can´t help but think how accurately his monologue captures our decadent approach to ¨dear little baby Jesus,¨ and the commercial spirit of the holiday.

Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the South call you: ‘Jee-suz’. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family: my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome striking sons, Walker: Texas Ranger, or TR as we call him. And, of course, my red hot smokin’ wife Carley, who is a stone cold fox, who if you would rate her ass on 100, it would easily be a 94. I also want to thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr, who’s got my back no matter what…Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. It smells terrible and the dogs are always botherin’ with it. Dear Tiny Infant Jesus…Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists…Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the $21.2 million dollars… LOVE THAT MONEY, that I have accrued over this past season. Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just wanna say that PowerAde is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to PowerAde’s release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you, for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God, Amen.”

The theology of champions.  Instead of being grateful that we can hope for a greater future and truer happiness than the finite and frayed pleasures money or beauty can deliver; instead of understanding that we can´t take it with us, we pray earnestly for them, as if God is interested in our bank accounts and emerging wrinkles. And by we, I do mean I.  It´s hard to remember or even believe that the concerns and desires consuming us daily don´t have eternal value.  That is supposed to be a consolation when everything goes to shit, and yet, it isn´t always.  I feel like a fraud with God all the time.  Of course we want stuff and money, and pretty kids and easy lives.  Because it´s so much easier!  But what do those things make us? Wonderbread believers I suppose.

Hookie asked me last week why God doesn´t ¨do miracles anymore,¨ and I gave her my usual rhetoric on the topic, thinking as I always do of Dostoyevski´s Alyosha.

SOME of my readers may imagine that my young man was a sickly, ecstatic, poorly developed creature, a pale, consumptive dreamer. On the contrary, Alyosha was at this time a well-grown, red-cheeked, clear-eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health. He was very handsome, too, graceful, moderately tall, with hair of a dark brown, with a regular, rather long, oval-shaped face, and wide-set dark grey, shining eyes; he was very thoughtful, and apparently very serene. I shall be told, perhaps, that red cheeks are not incompatible with fanaticism and mysticism; but I fancy that Alyosha was more of a realist than anyone. Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

This was my answer to her; God doesn´t have a reason to do miracles, because they don´t compel belief and we as a generation are prone to discount the miraculous. But I of course had to contradict myself immediately after.  Look at your hand, I told her.  Think about the earth´s distance to the sun.  A few miles closer, we´d burn up.  A few miles further away, we´d freeze.   Those are miracles.  Think about a single cell splitting until it turns into you.  People who don´t want to believe in miracles will find reasons not to; to explain and justify them as a trick of the natural world or the mind.  I added that we are prone to forget miracles, even if we do accept them as such,  and my sweet, not so little inquirer said to me ¨well, I won´t forget that there are miracles mommy. We got a yes for our brother or sister, and that is a miracle.¨

To give some context, we are six months into a process of being approved to adopt here in Chile, after many many years of ¨someday.¨ And just a week or so ago we finally finished a battery of mandatory counseling sessions with a psychologist who has the power to approve or reject us as suitable.  And, as H noted, we got approved.  To H, who has been campaigning for years for a sibling, it is nothing short of a miracle. We´re not at the finish line, but she is ready to cheer.  And so she should.  One of the things that makes Christmas ¨Christmasy¨ are the kids.  The sisters (or brothers) and the cousins.  Subtract them and it´s a sad affair.

But I am still trying to solve the problem of how to explain what makes Christmas miraculous, without talking just about tiny little baby Jesus and his golden fleece diapers.  Because that is where we focus at Christmas; even she knows that.  She keeps stealing baby Jesus from our little Holy Family, leaving Joseph with his arms open wide in surprise, and Mary praying in a panic (I imagine).  She scolds me that ¨he can´t be there until Christmas.¨ At least she understands the power of expectation.

I have been forcing her to sit and read devotions with me, before I let her rip into her tiny chocolate advent window, for the not so chocolate advent chocolate.  She protests, and I ask what exactly does she think the advent in ¨advent calendar¨ means? It is as much for me as her.  I´m trying to work it out-how to talk about what Jesus means to us and for us, without invoking the dreadful ¨invite him into your heart,¨ rhetoric that makes me wince and every 8 year old imagine an action sized figure of hippy Jesus baking flat bread in her aorta, nicely adorned by an exterior finish of Valentine heart.

Until Terrance Malick rescued me.  If you haven´t watch Tree of Life, don´t, at least not after about 7:00 at night.  It is too slow and beautiful, with Jessica Chastain whispering deep thoughts as she ushers you into REM.  It´s like a movie for a lava lamp.  That said, do.  Watch it, when you´ve had your morning coffee and you´re feeling pensive.  Watch it in parts, watch parts with your kids.  Better yet, head over to Vimeo and watch this:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

This is what I want my daughter to know about Christmas, and the baby she keeps hiding.  When around the world people and places are blown up in the name of God, we have this promise from him, left in a story and the grace we show each other, that he sent himself in the humblest way to be a servant to us, individually.  He took off his crown, took off his robe, made himself an ant for us to step on and spit at; it is hard to comprehend the message without really dwelling on this detail.

1) IN the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2) He existed in the beginning with God.  3) God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. 4) The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. 5) The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

John 1: 1-5

He was bigger than the universe; he spoke it into being, and yet he made his way into the world in a single cell. He followed the rules of the natural universe, until he became a man.  It´s like the plot from an Ursula Le Guin novel.  He tells us that if we are going to accept him, we have to do more than believe the story-we have to get inside of it. We have to give grace also, which is truly against the grain of human nature.  He washed his disciples feet, he prayed for forgiveness for his captors, he protected an adulteress woman from shaming.  He touched lepers; he loved and valued women and children.  He hated hypocrisy and corruption.  I tell you that, like Dostoevsky, I want to believe in the story and the man as much as I don´t.  I don´t really want to be like him, to forgive freely and love stinky people.  I like my stuff and my space, and most days I agree with Bill Maher; I want to be a ¨spend¨ timer (on earth), not an end timer. If you´re not a refugee, if you´re not in a politically or socially oppressive country, life can be good.  So this call to think beyond the good here, to believe in such a thing, is taxing.  Like my daughter says, what if none of it´s real?

But what if it is?  I want the gift of faith, for myself and for her, for everyone I love.  Because it is a light in a dark world, and that is where the magic comes from. Charlie Brown knows it, and I want to believe it.

¨I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.¨

¨I believe in Christ and confess him not like some child; my hosanna has passed through an enormous furnace of doubt.¨

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Age of Innocence

I overheard my daughter talking with two friends yesterday about their classmates who *pish posh*;) don’t believe in Santa.  With world weary sighs, they gave each other “the look”, and began to come up with proofs that Santa is.  These included staying up as late as possible on the stairs with a computer and built in video camera-until of course it got very late (and the camera operator succumbed to sleep); empty cups of coke (apparently, in one house, Santa gets sick of the milk and appreciates the variety), and-the topper, a friend saw him, and reported it.  I think the eye witness takes the cake.Christmas 057

David Duncan wrote a marvelous short story in his collection River Teeth called “The Garbage Man’s daughter”.  It’s about a wary little girl who doesn’t believe in any of the usual suspects-not the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, nor Santa.  However, what she does believe in the garbage man’s daughter.  More specifically, she believes that the garbage man’s family subsists on the items he picks up from people’s homes, and thus begins a campaign to make sure said daughter is properly clothed and fed by leaving small well wrapped bundles of quality stuff on the top of the garbage can.  I love this little story, because it so accurately captures the inner workings of a child’s mind, and the elaborate logic that children employ to make sense of their worlds.  It is just like my daughter being absolutely convinced that faeries exist, and in the same breath disdaining unicorns.

Almost as much fun as the questionable logic of 9 year olds are age old traditions that are so familiar, we rarely stop to ask why.  In his gift to long road trips, David Sedaris wrote a brilliantly funny collection of short stories called “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” which includes an essay called Jesus Shaves.  (Click the link to read the whole thing, but make sure you don’t have any liquids in your mouth when you do!).  This little gem narrates Sedaris’s trials and tribulations learning french with a sadistic teacher, and in particular, their discovery of the absurd practices we take for granted.  My favorite section is when the students begin to compare holiday traditions, and find each other’s equally confounding.

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “To give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One, too, may eat of the chocolate.”
“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.
I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”
My classmates reacted as though I’d attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.
“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears.

“You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”
“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods.”
The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country.

“No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome.”
I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”
“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?” (Sedaris, 2000).

It’s a good question, right?  I mean, we all know the bunny doesn’t really bring the eggs, but why did we decide it should be a bunny?  Why not the easter lamb, or donkey?  Wouldn’t it make more sense?  At least France’s mythology makes sense!  Rome=church=resurrection=celebratory candy from Rome!  I don’t recall Jesus ever being referred to as the great bunny of Judah.  Here’s another thought to contemplate-why the tooth fairy?  In Chile, where we currently live, it’s the tooth mouse.  (And right here, I’d like to give a shout out to Disney for the addition of Cheese the mouse to Tinkerbell’s back story.  It has made our cross cultural transition much smoother;)

I should admit at this point in my rambling that I have strong suspicions about the origins of these stories.  When my daughter was smaller, she was a prolific “artist,” and while I appreciate her efforts, I do not need a painting a day, no matter how sentimental I may be.  And so I created a little convenient fiction for her (i.e. a big fat lie!) to get those paintings out of my house sans tears, that she continues to believe to this day.  Are you ready for it? (You just might want to take notes here, moms and dads): I told her about the art fairies.  You know-they pretty much live in the same time zone as the tooth fairies, only they collect art.  In fact, they probably hold exhibitions in conjunction, exhibiting the best art and teeth they have collected.  And the really great part is that they collect all this world class art for a very small fee-less than they’d pay for a tooth, and sometimes as little as a piece of gum.  It works, its fun, and it adds to the little canon of fantasy that already populates her childhood. Now, just in case you are taking notes, let me tell you what NOT to do.  Don’t leave those little teeth or pieces of paper where little hands and eyes can discover them “after.”   I made the mistake of keeping my kiddelinks teeth with my jewelry (does that seem creepy?)  and one day when she was rooting around to make mommy fancy, her eyes got very big.  Our conversation went something like this:

H: “MOMMY!  HOW did you get my tooth?”

Mommy: “Well, um, H, the fairies know that mommies are sentimental, and sometimes leave us teeth as a little  momento.”

H: “Nah uh mommy-this is MY tooth” (as a Gollemesque greedy little glint stole into her eye).

Mommy: “Nah uh H-you got your money, fair and square.  Tooth’s mine.”

H goes away for a little while, and comes back later.

H: “Tell you what, mommy, let me borrow that tooth, and I’ll share the money with you.”

Mommy: “H!  You can’t scam the tooth fairy!  That’s a mean trick, and you’ll never get money again if they find out.”

So, later on that evening, as I’m checking on my sweaty, sleeping little scam artist, I find a tiny note in tiny print right next to the tooth. “Deer tuth farie, this is my real tooth but I already gaved it to yu, but pleez give me just a little money.  Love H.”

My small criminal will soon be 10, and is still a naïve, gullible, whimsical kid.  Just yesterday, we were going down the street and she handed me her “leash” so she could be my baby dragon.  These are behaviours that the “too cool for school” crowd will slowly erode sooner than I would like.  I’ve seen it already, when H walks into a group of kids holding a baby doll.  It’s like sharks, as they sharpen their teeth and get ready to attack the soft one.  And equal parts of me want her to be calloused and hard, so they can’t hurt her, and open and vulnerable, so she is her authentic self.  What solution is there to this conundrum? We are going home in just a few short weeks to spend some long anticipated time with our American family-including Haley’s much younger cousins, who for a few wise and sensible reasons, do not believe in such nonsense as Santa Clause.  And I am bracing myself for the beginning of the end, as it seems unlikely the 4 year old will “keep the secret” from the 9 year old.

The wonder years set for each of us, but I suppose I can look forward to conspiring with my kiddo some day when she tells her own children about the “art” fairies, and be reminded about her own wonder years.  And perhaps that is why some of us take so much pleasure in the shine in our own children’s eyes when they talk about “el viejo pascuero” or the tooth fairy.  When H asks me if “he” is real, and I ask what do you think, I love the little light of possibility that illuminates her face-it’s the light of innocence. It makes me think of the lovely Emily Dickinson poem on the topic.

I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior–for Doors–

Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–

Of Visitors–the fairest–
For Occupation–This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–

May we all dwell in possibility this holiday season!

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little,

Brown, 2000. 166-173.