The Ghost of Christmas Present

In A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens uses the Christmas spirits to offer a profound change to Scrooge.  Scrooge finds in the age-old tension between the human and spirit worlds a drama of sacrifice and exchange.

The renewing abundance of nature is symbolized by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  But, as we well know, such a fertility god is caught up in endless cycles of life followed by death.

The empty scabbard that the Ghost of Christmas Present wears about his waist suggests the bond between fertility and death.  This bond quickens our awareness that there is only the present in which to live; only the present moment, only the present lifetime.  As we know from the death and rebirth of Attis in the rites sacred to his mother-lover Cybele, blood and death nourish the new life.  For Scrooge, Death comes robed as the dark phantom whom Scrooge welcomes as a messenger of good will–the Ghost of Christmas Future.

In seeing this struggle of elemental forces, this struggle which he experiences in his own life, Scrooge realizes how money has become illusory for him.  He has pursued money for its own sake, but has forgotten the abundance of which money is but a symbol.  When he dies, money will be of no value at all; it will bring no mourners to his graveside.  On Christmas Day, a day of birth (for both the sun and the light of the Christ), Scrooge himself is born into a new life.  His only alternative is death, whether the literal death shown by his name on a grave marker or the metaphoric death of a man who cannot offer his own vitality to the world.

It is a paradox, of course, that Scrooge must die to his old self in order to avoid the death that he has been living and the grave that awaits him.  Once he is able to free the money that he has accumulated, his energy flows into the world.  He can give the turkey, promise to help the poor, and share the season’s joy with strangers on the street and his own family.

Once he can give to others, he is far more generous with himself.  On one hand, he is able to allow himself to receive what others wish to give him — for example, his nephew Fred’s joyous Christmas greeting and dinner invitation that he refused so brusquely at the story’s start.  On the other hand, he gives to himself.  For example, he allows his own sense of humor to reawaken when he pretends to be annoyed with Cratchit’s lateness before giving him the raise.  And then he tells Cratchit to buy more coal for the fires, so that both men will enjoy a greater warmth from the thawing of Scrooge’s heart.

Adapted from The Secret Life of Money: Enduring Tales of Debt, Wealth, Happiness, Greed, and Charity by Tad Crawford

The photograph of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is by Alsandro via Wikimedia Commons and is subject to an Attribution- Share Alike license.

Beware of Man’s Best Friend

“You’re not going?” I called after the dachshund, but he had turned his rear toward me and continued away to the spot where I had first seen him. There the tiny figure paused and pointed his long nose like a compass needle in my direction.

“I’ve brought the lawsuit against you,” he said, “for your own good.” – from A Floating Life by Tad Crawford (Chapter 8)

In The Waste Land T. S. Eliot warns us to beware of the dog that is the friend of men. Sometimes friends disclose more than we want to know or see. For more about dachshunds, visit this link: http://www.akc.org/breeds/dachshund/.

Creating From Within

C. G. Jung, in undertaking his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, said he would not begin such a project unless it was imposed on him from within. That is a high standard that I believe is met by anyone who works for the primary reward of experiencing the creative process and what that process brings forth. But tasks can also be imposed from within that are undertaken for purposes other than the creative process.

I spent a summer between my second and third years as a law student working for a large law firm. My main project was a lengthy research project to try and determine whether the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II was a motorboat under the Florida motor boating statute. Like so much that is done to advance a career or earn money, this task felt imposed from without and not from within.

Early in my work as an attorney I became an advocate for the rights of artists and authors. I did extensive, time-consuming research for the books titled Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Writer’s Legal Guide. The nature of the legal research was much the same as that done with respect to the status of the Queen Elizabeth II, but the research felt imposed from within because of my strong belief that strengthening the status of artists and authors served a valuable societal function.

More recently, I completed my novel A Floating Life. Here the imposition from within is easier to see because the novel reflects the vivid images and encounters of a life journey fleshed out by the play of imagination.

Of course, work imposed from within can be strenuous, difficult, and frustrating. But its correspondence to inner desire also makes it challenging and rewarding in ways that work done without inner compulsion can never be.

C. G. Jung carved the figure above of Telesphorus in stone at his estate in Bollingen. For more information about the carving, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollingen_Tower. The photograph of the stone is by Philipp Roelli [GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Beauty of the Dreaming World

A short story

Morning Glories at small farm (2843771811)

I rouse myself, still lethargic, from my light slumber in the warmth of the sun.  My father and I sit side by side in zero gravity beach chairs that recline to support our legs as well as our backs. In front of us is the blue-green pool and beyond that a pedestal holds a bust of the god called Mercury, the messenger who moves between the heavens, the earth, and the world beneath. Behind Mercury is a bit of lawn, then a wooden fence covered with morning glories whose white-blue blooms have vanished now in the afternoon. Large forsythia bushes whose blooms have long since fallen are on the far side of the fence, then comes a country road, pines and maples on the road’s far side, and beyond that a giant field where each day for such a long time my father has walked a mile and more. We took a walk on my last visit, my father holding my arm for balance, stopping every so often for him to breathe and gather strength. We didn’t walk a mile, but at least we walked.

This summer afternoon, the umbrella above us for shade, we sit with the arms of our chairs together. Sometimes we talk, but for the most part we’re at peace with the quiet. For a while I hold my father’s hand. The birds are winging from branches with needles to branches with leaves. My father drowses from time to time, waking to speak a fragment of some sentence imagined in his sleep. We have nothing to accomplish today. I haven’t the excuse of his age or his cancer, but at times I feel myself pulled under some wave of sleep, my eyelids flutter until at last I allow them to seal shut. My father admits that he sleeps a great deal now, and I find myself freed from the polite inhibition that would keep me awake. I drift in and out of consciousness with him.

“What do you remember of me,” he asks, “from your childhood?”

Here he’s seeking reassurance that I remember him before he left my mother and me. I gather fragments that I hope will please him. After the flood, that long ago day, he and I walked the rocky bank of the stream and found a brown and a rainbow trout trapped in a bowl of rock and pulled apart the rocks to free them. How I watched when with muscles taut on his lean physique he leveraged the large, flat stones from the stream to build a patio that came to the edge of the flowing water.

“How did your mother tell you that I had left?” he asks.

“She didn’t tell me,” I answer, “She said you had to stay overnight for your job. Maybe she was hoping you’d come back. Finally, she did tell me.”

“Did she tell you about the other man?”

“Yes, not then, but much later.”

I look at his wrinkled face, the skin like ancient parchment. His flesh has wasted. Easily I imagine the skull beneath that wrapping of flesh that makes him who he is to me. Even his eyes are strange, beautiful, contemplative now that he sees only outlines, colors, distortions. I’m uncertain whether these eyes look out or in. My mother imagined that she could tell him about the other man and try to save the marriage. It’s such old history. I’m so much older than they were when they married or when they divorced. Looking back, I no longer feel that sorrowful anger that took me over as a child. I have my own marriage, my own son. I don’t dwell on that long ago childhood.

He drifts, forgets what he has been talking about, responds to my prompt, finds another topic that for reasons beyond understanding has surfaced again in his memory, loses a word that he wants to say, is finally able to speak the word and flesh out the memory.

“I keep remembering my younger brother. Alan must have been four and I was six. We were walking in a field that had recently been ploughed. Between the furrows there were large clumps of earth. I picked one up and began whirling around and around until I let it fly. It hit Alan in the forehead. He fell down and he was bleeding. I felt so bad, so guilty.”

“Did you mean to hit him?” I ask. There are stories that I’ve heard repeatedly, and my father must think of them far more than he speaks of them to me, but this story is new.

“No, it was an accident.”

“He was all right?”

“Yes, yes he was.”

“He must have died soon after that.”

“He died when he was ten.”

“No,” I correct him gently, “Your mother died when you were ten. Alan died when he was four.”

My father takes a moment to recollect. His eyes are opaque, green-gray.

“Of course, you’re right. Alan died of diptheria. My father blamed the doctor. He cleaned Alan’s throat so completely there was nothing left to swab for testing. It could have been treated if they knew what it was.”

I heard this story from my grandfather before he died at nearly the age my father is now. All those years had passed, but my grandfather still raged against the doctor who let his son die. My father doesn’t seem to have grief or rage, but I wonder what was lost in that life cut so short. What did my father lose in the brother who was his so briefly? What kind of uncle might Alan have been to me? When my father is gone, only I will remember these stories about Alan. Only I will remember my grandfather’s fury and sorrow that lasted a lifetime. I am like a repository, but after me who will recall any of this? Why gather and keep what will ultimately disperse like ashes flung high to sift and filter down to earth?

“It’s . . .”

He has vanished into sleep while I drifted with my thoughts. Now he returns with an image, a thought that has to cross from that dreaming world to ours.

“It’s so beautiful,” he says.

I wait a moment and finally ask, “What?”

He raises his right hand and forearm and gestures vaguely toward everything in front of us from the pool to the pines and maples to the sky where the clouds have been restlessly shifting between sun and shadow.

“It’s so beautiful, it’s terrifying.”

I know that he means all of creation. I’ve heard this or something like it so many times that I don’t have to respond, but I want to.

“Yes,” I affirm.

We can go on like this for the rest of the afternoon, speaking, drowsing, remembering so much that we have remembered before. His illness has been a long one. I’ve felt the withering of his body in our embraces on greeting and parting. The cancer has been slow, but in this final procession I wonder if its slowness will be kind or cruel. At least I’ve been a faithful pilgrim, coming once a week since the doctors warned us that the end had come near. Only that was half a year ago and I wonder at the love that brings me to him time and again. How long can I bear witness to his disease, the infinitely minute steps by which he deteriorates? If I hold his hand, as I often do when we sit here side by side, the smell of his medicine permeates my skin. When I leave, no matter how many times I scrub my hands with soap and hot water, the odor has penetrated too deeply to be rooted out.

At some point he stirs, lifts his lolling head, collects his thoughts.

“My father died in his sleep. He lay down for a nap and never woke up. I hope that I die like that. I don’t want to struggle and try to hold on.”

“Yes, Dad,” I agree, resting my hand on his and thinking that the little we hope for in the end is still hope, “that would be a blessing.”

Photo of Morning Glories by Jacopo Werther 2008, reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Murakami, Baseball, and Fiction

In a blog post on Shelf Awareness, I suggested that Haruki Murakami’s “mesmerizing fantasies offer a tonic to a culture overly enmeshed in the realities of the day to day.”

A curious facet of Murakami’s life story is how he came to his breakthrough realization that he could be a novelist. One day in April, 1978, while he drank a beer and watched a baseball game between his favorite team, the Yakult Swallows, and the Hiroshima Carps, the Swallows leadoff batter in the bottom of the first inning hit a double to left field. At that moment Murakami knew that he could write a novel. After the game, he purchased a fountain pen and paper and every day after work he would drink beer and write.

I’ve played baseball and coached baseball, so I can say with certainty that baseball exists outside of day to day realities. Every fan knows the joy of being utterly absorbed in the outcome of the game, the heroics of the players, the championship race. Watching a game, or playing in one, we forget the realities of mortgage payments, home repairs, domestic crises, and international tensions. A baseball ticket (and perhaps a beer) transport us to an alternative universe where human striving, heroism, and failure all play a role in the drama.

The unusual source of Murakami’s belief that he could write a novel, that moment when the batter hit a double to left field, remains an aspect of so much of his writing. He isn’t wed to the realities of the day to day, but he lives in the world of the imagination, the drama of the life game. Here he is as free as anyone with a beer and a baseball game to watch to let an imagined sequence of events unfold (last inning, bases loaded, full count, two outs, the batter representing the winning run standing at the plate). He is relieved from accountability to the world outside the baseball stadium. He doesn’t have to pay the bills, feed the pet, or vote for a politician. And, when we read his fiction, we too are freed to linger awhile in the realm of the imagination, in a heightened and deepened experience of our inner realities.

This photograph of Tsubakuro, mascot of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, at Meiji Jingu Stadium is by ぽこ太郎 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons