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Christmas Stories

Our favorite Christmas stories often revolve around death, unhappiness, and the possibility of a painful, even tragic, loss. This is odd since we also think of Christmas as “merry,” a season of bright lights and jolly good cheer. But in their darkness, these stories tell us something important about Christmas and how we can prepare, through Advent, for the coming of Our Lord.

Christmas tales can be, in fact, pretty grim. In Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge sees his life as three different kinds of death—past, present, and a possible future, complete with his own funeral, horribly cold and lonely. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey literally stands on the brink of suicide, on a snowy bridge in December, staring down at the black waters where he once saved his brother from drowning. In “Miracle on 34th Street,” little Natalie Wood loses her faith in Santa Claus. In “White Christmas,” the warmhearted General Waverly is in full danger of losing his country inn and all his life savings to boot.

The theme of loss is found in children’s books as well, with a Grinch who steals Christmas, with “Christmas Lost & Christmas Found,” and with a little boy in “The Polar Express” who is heartbroken when he loses the reindeer bell that Santa gave him, the “first gift of Christmas.”

None of these stories end in tragedy. They take us into the darkness and sometimes to the very brink, but they always bring us back. They have a double movement, turning and then returning. Both darkness and light are necessary for the plot, and we cannot understand the season without passing through a quiet darkness—including the darkness inside us—that leads to Christmas.

This is why Advent makes all the sense in the world. Advent helps us to slow down and ease into the darkness. Like Lent and Good Friday, Advent reminds us that Christianity teaches the deep wisdom of Lost and Found, that as human beings, we cannot appreciate, in fact, cannot even understand any gift that we have not lost or been in danger of losing.

How many Christmases have gone past us without understanding? How many times have we ignored or given slight notice to the quiet darkness of Advent? It’s a good thing that Christmas comes every year. Like Scrooge and George Bailey, we, too, get another chance. But our Christmas stories also remind us that there’s always a catch—we have to believe. And with this belief comes understanding that Christmas is a brilliant miracle, a gift from God, even at the darkest time of the year.

“Opening Prayer”

I’m happy to announce that I’ve finished my third book of poetry, “Opening Prayer” (formerly known as “A Brief History of Prayer.”) The book represents work from the late 90s until now. I let it rest for a long while as I wrote a memoir, built up my commercial writing business and generally let life get in the way. About two years ago, I returned to the manuscript, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time on it this year, especially over the summer.

The first section was written before conversion; the last three sections reflect more the Catholic perspective I have today.

Drop me a line if you’d like to see samples.

The Beauty of a Strip Mall

I’m working on a new book of poetry called (so far) “A Brief History of Prayer.” The book is partially based on my business career, including six years as the communications guy in four software startups. But most of the work is the result of a religious conversion that I talk about in “I Have Wonderful News,” the memoir mentioned in this blog. The themes of work, faith, prayer, spirituality and art are intertwined to reflect what I think of as a sacramental view of the world where the physical can’t be separated from the divine, where objects burn from within, and where God is everywhere and always unexpected.

The first poem in the book, The Beauty of a Strip Mall, appears in Ruminate, a very fine magazine devoted to “chewing on life, faith and art.”

Digging Up the Yews

Over the years, I’ve planned several layoffs. It’s not a simple thing to do. You have to follow legal guidelines and the timing has to be right, with basically everyone hearing the bad news at once and then ushered off the floor. “We can’t have people sobbing in their cubicles,” as one HR director once told me. I’ve also been the manager who laid off those people, and I’ve been laid off myself. Twice.

I wrote this in New York as I felt the storm clouds gathering.

Digging Up the Yews

They laid off two more writers today. I still have a job at the agency, but this time I felt the ground shake. So far, we’ve gone through four rounds of “management-initiated separations,” as in “you’ve been Missed.” The first rounds were directed at other departments. But now the cuts are getting closer, and I’m beginning to feel like a dandelion on a lawn. Each time the mower passes, a few more of us fall, and nobody has a clear sense now of what will happen next month or even next week.

In the hallway, I talk to a manager who’s been dismissed after 28 years with the company. He’s 54. He’s taking it, as we say these days, “very professionally,” which simply means he’s being stoic about accepting what he can’t control.

When I come home, I’m still rattled. I have a wife and a two year-old son, and we live off what I make. Right now, I want to do something very simple and hard, something entirely physical, so after telling my wife what happened and giving my son a hug, I take a garden trowel, rake and hatchet and go out to the backyard to clear away the yews.

A cherry tree stands in the center of the yard. It completely dominates the area, but it also has to compete with a bushy row of yew trees left over from a previous tenant. The cherry tree is beginning to bloom, but some of the limbs are diseased, and our landlord says the tree may not last another year. Something about bugs. I clear away the twigs and leaves at the base of the yews and start to dig and hack away at the knobby roots.

From where I’m working, I can see Lauren standing at the kitchen sink, making supper. Harrison’s head is bobbing around at her elbow. He’s probably asking her about everything that she’s doing—he’s at that age. These days, I sometimes stand back and look at myself, at what I’ve become. Father. Husband. Provider. It still seems strange. Almost every day in the shower, I say to myself “I support a family.” And I do this not so much from pride—I’m only a fair provider—as from the need for a little help and orientation in the morning, like checking a compass or reaching automatically for the railing as I mount the stairs.

I never imagined a future like this. For years I only lived for myself. Now I have two dependents on my 1040 form, and I can’t take anything in the future for granted.

I remember when the stock market crashed in 1987. I was in a planning meeting with our clients. I expected to look out the window and see Forty-second Street filled with debris and paper, with office workers wandering through the traffic, dazed and gibbering. Of course, the street looked like ordinary business, and I remember we made jokes about bread lines and flying stock brokers. At that time, the issues seemed confined to Wall Street, and we hooked our thumbs in our vests and continued discussing our next five-year marketing plan.

The yews are stubborn, and as the sun goes down, I stop and catch my breath, then start to pull the smaller trees up by the roots, knocking the dirt away and cutting the branches into stove lengths. Yews can be attractive as an ornamental, but for some reason, I’m thinking of the word “selfish” as I cut. A selfish little bush starving this cherry tree.

The sky is almost dark, now. I can smell the magnolias blooming in the yard next door. It’s springtime. I’m scared. I’ve been through an acquisition, two mergers and three years of a major recession. I know that if I lose my job, I have all the advantages for getting a new one. I’m male; I’m white and middle class; I have a college degree and a marketable skill. I also know that people who look just like me have disappeared, and I know that advantages by themselves don’t pay the rent.

For a second I see us as a poor family, like Okies from the Great Depression, living out of a car. Lauren is sick and exhausted. The back seat is filled with silent, dirty kids in ragged t-shirts. I’m standing beside the highway, holding up a sign: “Will Work For Food.” I shake the image away. That’s stupid. Still, I’ve never felt so uncertain, felt so many things in my life become tenuous, as I have this year.

I brace myself against the cherry trunk and grab the roots of the last yew. It gives a little, stretching, then snaps underground with a deep, satisfying pop. I draw the roots out and stand up, sweaty. Lauren points out the window, asking Harrison to do something. It’s strange, but at the very time that I’ve felt most confined in my life by forces I can’t control, I feel the calmest. I stand in the yard, and, out of the blue, I say “I have chosen this life.” I like the sound. It’s comforting. I keep repeating the words:

I have chosen
this life. I have
chosen this life.
I have chosen this
life.

At first, I think the words mean that I determine the course of my life, master of my fate, captain of my soul. But no. That’s not right. What they mean is that I have accepted this life. I can make decisions, but only as a part of something larger, and that something will always, naturally, be beyond my will.

And as I lean against the cherry tree in the darkness, I’m surprised to have a dim, unwavering sense that I’m exactly where I should be, doing what I should be doing. If things go bad, if our fortunes sink, I’m sure I’ll see things differently. But for tonight, this acceptance, this embrace, is what I feel, so I hang on to the feeling as a gift. That’s enough for one day. That’s quite a bit.

Harrison appears in his bare feet. He walks to the edge of the bricks and scrunches his toes on the cool moss. Our prayed-for child. I gather my tools, and he asks me to come inside. Well, actually, he tells me: “Come in! Come IN from the DARK!” So I take his hand, and I do.

Vocation

Google “corporation” and “surrealism” and you won’t find much. I’ve always been puzzled by this because the corporate life can be quite surreal. Odd things happen, especially when the business starts to decline. We start looking for help in foreign places even as we know that help isn’t going to arrive.

Vocation

I’m going upstairs to the CEO. The elevator doors open, and I enter the management wing. Deep, plum-colored carpets. Mahogany doors. A receptionist is talking low into the telephone. She looks up, still talking, and her eyes follow me as I pass. I wander down hallways big as a landing strip. The floor is quiet and filled with light. Each room is empty as I walk by.

When I reach his office, the secretary is gone. I push at the steel door. It slowly swings open like a vault. The CEO is sitting behind his desk at the far end of the room. As I walk across the thick carpet, I can see that his eyes are flat and milky. The wind whistles faintly at the windows. He stares at the horizon, head tilted to one side, thoughtful. Like a desert king, his body has dried into a question mark, fragile and papery, the skin pulled back from his teeth. His hands rest lightly on the desktop. Through the broken skin, I can see the hollow bones in his wrists—small bones, like a bird’s.

I’ll have to rethink everything. I look out the window. Far below me, on the sidewalks, tiny figures are crawling back and forth, too tiny to be heard, too tiny to scream. I rearrange his arms. He’s about my size. There was something I was supposed to do, but I slip and the whole body abruptly slumps to the carpet. For a moment, the office slowly rises and falls, like the deck of a ship. Half in, half out of the world. The secretary appears cautiously at the door with a question. I tell her not to worry. I smile. I tell her to hold all my calls.