Christmas Has the Best Stories…Bring on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Every Christmas story has its seed in the very first one, told by Luke, a Gentile and Evangelist, who gives the most detailed account of the birth of an ordinary Jewish baby who grew up to be extraordinary indeed. It is found in the Bible, Luke 2:1-20. No matter what your beliefs, you can hardly escape knowing this story, which begins with a conqueror’s or-else demand: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken…” I first read these astounding words in the third grade, when I narrated my class’s Christmas play. It astounded me that a Roman emperor thought he had conquered the world. Christmas aside, it was my first lesson in political perspective.

I hope you’ll be reading a Christmas story or two during the holidays. Here are three of my favorites. I love them because their main characters run the gamut of personalities that can show us the way; lead us back; push us gently to think on the mystery that came to Earth in that little stable of Luke’s first Christmas story so long ago; a mystery we have yet to fathom, even after 2000 years of its retelling.

The first story is “Annabelle’s Wish,” a Little Golden Book, published in 1997, that is based on a story by Don Henderson. It was made into an animated film by Ralph Edwards Productions, and I envy you if you’ve seen it. I’m sure it’s a treat.

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I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the story of this little calf, her friend Billy, and Santa Claus, but I was surprised to find in this rather obscure and humble Little Golden Book three profound truths that you may enjoy reflecting upon with a child at Christmastime:

First: When you’re afraid, doing a good deed for another may help you master your fear.

Second: Loving someone can make you forget your own desires, or at least send them to the back of your heart until a more proper time.

Third: If you have the patience to wait for it, a good deed from your past may come back to reward you with unexpected joy.

Annabelle the calf is good through and through from the start, unlike my second favorite:

Scrooge    www.telegraph.co.uk

Here he is, possibly the baddest, grumpiest, tightfisted meanie in classic English literature, Ebenezer Scrooge. Mean, yes, and it’s Christmas! So why can’t I wait for him to get into action in the book, on the stage, or on the screen? Why is this old story still popular with so many people? Well, I think it’s because if he can be redeemed, so can I. So can you. So can the meanest bully of a baddie in your life make a turn-around and bring out the good that is buried in his heart. Here are a few more truths I find in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens:

First: No one is beyond redemption and forgiveness, no matter how awful, and the sooner we all behave as if we believe it, the happier, more merciful, and more just the world will be. Notice how quickly and warmly Scrooge’s nephew welcomes him on Christmas Day.

Second: No one is all good or all bad, and the sooner the goodies get down from their high horses, and the baddies stop reveling in the belief that they can never change, the better off we will all be.

Third: You can’t tell a book by its cover. Most frowns mask a pain of some kind. I always fall apart when Scrooge sees Fan, his long-dead sister.

And YES I KNOW! PLEASE don’t repeat for me the latest theory–that Scrooge was suffering from food poisoning or dementia–Bah! Humbug!

My third favorite Christmas story stars a protagonist whose mug is as ugly as the character he presents to the outside world:

How-The-Grinch-Stole-Christmas-Animated-Rebootfrom the animated movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

I have loved this story ever since I first read it, soon after Dr. Seuss published it back in the 1950s. Who would dare consider such a dastardly deed? Who would ever forgive it? Well, the Who’s would. They’re better than we are. Here are a few truths I find in this story:

First: People’s behavior in the face of loss can bring out the best in others. Notice what the Who’s did that made the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day.

Second: Nothing is gained by holding a grudge. You may even get your stolen goods back.

Third: Forgiveness makes Peace and Good Will go viral.

Whatever you’re reading this season, MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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White Sands National Monument, The World’s Permanent “Snow”

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My parents-in-law, Pauline and Bob, are in the foreground; I’m the speck on the dune.

If you are suffering from the frigid weather and heavy snow in the eastern U.S. and Canada, here’s something to take your mind off your cold feet. This is White Sands National Monument. Untold years ago, these dunes of gypsum sand engulfed 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest dunefield. The National Monument was established in 1936 and is located about 16 miles southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico, at an elevation of just over 4200 ft. The Monument preserves a portion of the dunefield, along with its plants and animals.

We were too awestruck with wonder to notice any animals or plants when we were there in 1994–White Sands has that kind of effect. The staff are kept busy plowing roads through the dunes, as the constant wind keeps shifting them around. The packed sand looks just like the translucent ice on a winter road, and we crept warily along until we got used to the idea that it wasn’t the least bit slippery. The gypsum sand was once transparent, but the grains continually collide and scratch each other in the blowing winds. It’s the light reflecting off the scratched grains that makes the sand appear white–and it was a hot, windy, glaring, “snowy” scene on that sunny spring day when we visited. The National Monument is surrounded by a missile range, so there are safety rules in force when something is going on there, but it’s a wondrous place where you can’t help smiling, even with the marked absence of expensive rides and cartoon characters. People laugh and climb the dunes, kids play and shout with glee, even though they can’t throw snowballs, and the rangers host a variety of nature programs just as they do at the other National Monuments. If you’re ever in New Mexico, be sure not to miss it. There now, don’t you feel warmer already?

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Burma, The Witch’s Familiar? Not!

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Burma and His Halloween Pal, 1984

Almost time for Halloween again! Since we’ll soon be off visiting friends and family, I thought I’d share another cat from our past before October flies away on a broom. This is Burma, 30 years ago. At the time, we lived in a one-storey fourplex apartment building. She came prowling straight across the church parking lot in back of us one day, looking for all the world like a miniature panther, and decided to hang with us. We liked cats, but since I was allergic, she was going to stay outside. Also, we thought we knew what we were doing.

Notice I referred to Burma as “she”? Yes, when we first saw poor Burma strolling toward our little abode, we thought he was a girl. Where is that wide, thick neck and muscular torso? we asked. Our neighbors were no help on that score. The cat went over to eye Sugar, the indoor cat next door and promptly sprayed on the patio door. Sugar’s owner, a big band station disc jockey, therefore swore (not literally, he was a religious man) “she” was a boy. The lovely disabled woman on the other side of us didn’t take a stand, but said the cat looked like a Burmese she had once. So finally, we figured he was a neutered male, though I didn’t think they sprayed. (Duh, what did I know?)

We couldn’t settle on a name–Midnight, Ashes, Sooty (a British dog puppet TV star from the 60s), Licorice, Blackie, Coal? All seemed too indicative of a certain personality type, and this cat wasn’t cool, suave, sophisticated, funny, cute, or playful. In fact, he had all the personality of a schoolroom blackboard, except you couldn’t write on him.

“Burma” made no sense at all, either, but since our neighbor said he might be part Burmese, and we had to call him something, “Burma” it was, and “Burma” it stayed, the name eventually evoking a sense of his particular outlook on life, which the English language has no simple word for.

Burma kept his own counsel and his minimal remarks were off the cuff. A “meow” was considered a State of the Feline speech. He viewed the world with an acceptance that wasn’t quite jaded, but slanted that way. He was fine with staying outside, so he took up residence on the patio, sleeping on or under a chair or the plant stand made of concrete blocks and eating cat food or table scraps, which he appeared to enjoy, though that’s a strong adjective for Burma where food or anything else was concerned.

We were thrilled when he decided to pose with the jack-o-lantern one year and snapped the above picture fast. That’s when it occurred to us how much he looked like a witch’s familiar, sitting there. Look at those slanty yellow eyes and that total lack of emotion. By the Middle Ages, black cats were already considered evil in Europe. People thought they were humans who had been turned into black cats to do a witch’s bidding, a non-scientific analysis that lives on in literature today. In real life, I’ve heard that black kittens and cats are the least likely kind to be adopted from animal shelters, which is just plain sad.

Anyway, witch’s familiar or not (I say not), Burma moved with us to a house a few years later, and though he was not happy about it at first, he settled in. Several years later, we moved around the corner, and he came with us there, too. He had grown thinner and frailer over the years, but didn’t seem to be in pain. If he didn’t feel well, he slept longer and moved less, and eventually, he slept nearly all the time and rarely moved from the back patio. One day, he crawled under the rose bushes in front, and when the water came on, I lifted him out, amazed at how light he had become. That was the last we saw of Burma. He apparently tucked himself under an obscure bush in a neighbor’s yard and passed on. We missed him a lot, since he’d been with us for at least twenty years.

For most of those twenty years, we’d had a parade of stray outdoor cats that we humanely trapped, took to the vet, and released in our yard. And always, there was Burma, giving everything and everyone that “Burma” look. It seemed he could to take or leave other cats, just as he had no particular preference in matters of sustenance or shelter. For a cat who had no attachments to speak of, he stayed with us longer than any other. We would love it if he’d show up here one day again, maybe in a younger guise. And not cute, or playful, or suave, or sophisticated, but just good old “Burma.” He was a cat in a million.

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A Tuesday Sunbeam on the Road to Joy: Victor Hugo on Growing Old

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“I feel myself in the future life. I am like a forest which has been more than once cut down. The new shoots are livelier than ever. I am rising toward the sky. The sunshine is on  my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but heaven lights me with its unknown worlds.

You say the soul is nothing but the resultant of the bodily powers. Why, then, is my soul more luminous when my bodily powers begin to fail? Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses, as at the age of twenty years. The nearer I approach the end, the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the world which are inviting me. It is marvelous, yet simple.”

Victor-Hugo-2-Quotes

This outstanding French author lived and wrote at the same time as Charles Dickens in England. Both were unfailingly optimistic and believed in the eventual triumph of Good over Evil in human society. Both sought to explore the good in people and wrote about it over and over again. The translation of Hugo’s powerful and sweeping novel “Les Miserables” was a best seller in America during the Civil War, and was, after the Bible, the book most commonly read by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. At the time of his death, Hugo was the best known and most highly admired man in France. All of Paris turned out for his funeral, which was the largest in French history. So when people tell you that novels about good people are boring, tell them not to give up yet–go read something by Victor Hugo. Even beneath Evil’s dirty face, heinous acts, and chilling heart, Goodness endures.

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Following the Union Army: On the Trail of My Great Grandfather

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Sunrise on Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Since traveling to the beautiful place in this picture, and to cloud-shouldered Missionary Ridge to its east–shown in my Heading photograph above–I have been thinking a lot about the individual soldier’s experience of war, and what kind of person my great grandfather was. Samuel Rohrer was a 20-year-old private in the Union Army when he survived the bloody, vicious Battle of Chickamauga, one of the largest conflicts of the War Between the States, and retreated with his fellows to Chattanooga.

In a letter he wrote to his family in October, 1863, a month after that battle, Sam says only, “We have had some pretty lively times since you heard from me before…” He mentions the “Rebs”, too, saying about the experience of being on picket at the encampment, “We are pretty close to the Rebs on picket. We are about thirty yards apart, but there is a little creek between us. We don’t shoot at one another. We have made a kind of an agreement not to shoot pickets unless one side or the other advances, so we trust to each other’s honor.”

(Please click the link for my post on Aug. 6th to the right if you wish to read Sam’s letter)

Standing on the Chickamauga battlefield myself, I was hard-pressed to imagine the even-tempered, honorable, and practical young man of this letter, shooting at others his own age all day long in constant, ear-splitting noise and noxious smoke. Just at dusk, when Sam’s commander, Colonel Philemon Baldwin, received orders to withdraw, the brigade was attacked anew and fought until an hour after dark, with no light but discharging rifles to identify friend or foe. Colonel Baldwin was killed, as was Sam’s regimental commander, Colonel Hiram Strong, who was from Dayton, Ohio, as Sam was. Then, no doubt, exhausted and heartsick, was he to set grief aside, rise early the next morning, and do it all again with the men who survived? Yes, he was, and he did. They all did.

The brigade fought through the second day, too, until ordered to retreat about 5:30 P.M. Sam mentions picking up a revolver from the battlefield for his father, and adds, “If we had not been forced to leave the field, I should have procured several, for they were plenty enough. But as you have heard, you may judge, it was not very healthy to stay and look for trophies.”

It was a trek of several miles from Chickamauga to Chattanooga, where 80,000 weary Union survivors retreated and set up camp on a bend of the Tennessee River. They were effectively trapped, as there were no bridges, and the Tennessee was a wild river then, its present dams still far in the future.

The Confederate Army pursued the Yankees, but did not engage them. Despite the Chickamauga victory, the Union still outnumbered them. The 35,000 Southern troops, though, gamely climbed with their wheeled Napoleon guns (like small cannons) to the top of Lookout Mountain, southwest of the city, and Missionary Ridge to the east. With their guns trained on the Union encampment below, and the memory of victory fresh in their minds, perhaps things didn’t look so bad to the Confederates from on high. However, the range of their Napoleons was not long enough to reach the Union encampment two miles away. They fired at intervals, anyway, perhaps to remind the Yankees they were ready, anytime they decided to move  south into their sights. Then they sat by the guns and waited…and waited…and waited–for two months.

Was that enough respite from the hell of battle to restore spirits on both sides? I suppose no one knows, but Sam did not write his calm and steady narrative of rain, pickets, trust, and honor until October, a month after Chickamauga, when neither army was yet prepared to renew hostilities. No doubt the rest revived his spirit and resolve, as it must have for his comrades. During that time, Union Army engineers were building a pontoon bridge over the river, finishing about the first week of November.

Sam remarks wryly, “From the appearance of things around this place, we will have another time of it worth mentioning.” Then he adds, in the practical manner of a well-rested, seasoned veteran, “When they come, we will do as we have done before, give them the best we have got in the shop.”

Then things happened quickly. General Grant arrived a week later, ousted General Rosecrans, whom he held responsible for the debacle at Chickamauga, and took charge himself, placing his headquarters atop a small hill called Orchard Knob, near what is now downtown Chattanooga.

General William Tecumseh Sherman’s division arrived, and as General Hooker approached the river to the west with his division from Alabama, Sam’s 93rd Ohio regiment was deployed onto pontoon boats and floated down the Tennessee to cover their arrival. What followed on Lookout Mountain is called “The Battle Above the Clouds.” Hooker’s men took advantage of the cloud cover the next morning and surprised the Confederates, who, being short-handed, had no choice but to retreat. Other Union brigades, including Sam’s, fought in the low clouds on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and, after severe losses, forced the Confederate Army south.

A plaque in a front yard a block from Orchard Knob attests to the fact that Sam’s 93rd Ohio Infantry defended General Grant’s headquarters there. Then they joined General Sherman’s division, bringing his total troops to some 110,000 men. Without delay, they  dispatched the Confederates at Kennesaw Mountain and during several smaller engagements, until at last Atlanta fell into Union hands, assuring the eventual complete Union victory over the South.

Visiting the National Military Parks in Tennessee and Georgia is an eye-opening and emotional experience for a descendant of a Civil War veteran who fought there. I found myself mighty relieved to learn that, although Sam marched to Atlanta with General Sherman, he did not continue on with him to Savannah and the sea. Sam was mustered out at Nashville after the war, in June of 1865, and returned to Dayton, where he farmed and led a quiet life until his death at age 65, in 1908, not long before my dad, one of his grandsons, was born.

I suppose those of us who’ve never been to war cannot begin to fathom the mark it leaves on the souls of those, both military and civilian, who are caught up in it. Perhaps it has always been so. Yet now, 150 years after our own most devastating conflict, after even General Dwight D. Eisenhower himself cautioned that we could not go on this way, war continues. What the Roman historian Tacitus observed 2000 years ago still seems sadly true: “The passion for glory is the last from which even wise men free themselves.” And the steadfast, honorable, and loyal foot soldier must follow.

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The Giver: Thoughts on the book and the movie

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I read Lois Lowry’s intriguing YA novel The Giver shortly after it was published in 1994, and immediately adopted it for my 8th grade Literature classes. My students were as taken with it as I was, and we had some lively and thought-provoking discussions about it. Imagine our excitement when we heard that the author was coming to speak at our library, just two blocks from school. We gladly walked, skipped, bounced, and jogged over to join the large audience of other middle school kids to listen and talk with Ms. Lowry. She did not disappoint us, as she is an engaging speaker for young teens. Also, she told us that a movie was in the offing, and that Elijah Wood was being considered for the role of Jonas. We returned to school energized and happy to have a movie to look forward to.

Well, it’s been a long wait, but The Giver is finally in theaters. I wish it had not been so  delayed. If it had hit the big screen in 1996 or so, it would have had much more impact, but the innovative sci-fi movies of the last 20 years and the rise of dystopian video games have, unfortunately, dulled some of The Giver’s sharp edge.

The human society portrayed in this Newbery-winning novel is recognizable as our own world in a future time. A group of humans apparently left their imperfect fellows behind long ago to set up a utopian society where everyone is perfectly equal. The society today has kept the memories, both good and bad, of what the world used to be like. They reside in the mind of a designated person called simply “The Giver.” Once this person grows old, he or she must pass these memories on to a chosen young person, and so the story centers on Jonas, whose job it is to receive all the memories and eventually replace The Giver.

It isn’t easy to tailor a group of humans to perfection, and docility is achieved through a daily dose of an unidentified drug. You cannot get out the door to begin your day without your “injection.” There is no emotion to speak of, but babies are still well-cared for, and the kids are still lively, but they grow into adults who are creepy caricatures of humanity. They speak only in memorized platitudes and ask only formulaic questions. “The Giver” is the story of what happens when the keepers of this society make a mistake.

The Elders, the group who watches and judges, grossly underestimated Jonas. He is appalled to find out from The Giver what human joys, and sorrows, too, have been denied  his community. He’s more sensitive and intelligent than anyone knew, and brave enough to decide to flee to what he hopes is a better place, taking Gabe, a baby he has come to love, with him.

The movie speeds along at a breakneck pace, hitting most of the book’s main ideas too superficially, even though it’s not a long book. Jonas’s evolution from nice, go-along guy to infuriated rebel seems more an erratic decision than the result of deep, thoughtful insight, as in the book. I suspect the movie may have had financial constraints, as it fits too neatly into a 90-minute frame.

I also found the movie visuals confusing and distracting in places, though this may not be a problem for those who haven’t read the book and visualized the scenes for themselves. Still, it’s a good movie for young teens, and encourages them to venture outside the comfort zone of their beliefs and values, just as Jonas does.

This is a movie you should see with your children, and I hope you will read the book together beforehand so you can compare the two. Be aware that it is rated PG-13 for its depiction of a “weaker” twin baby being killed by injection and dispatched in a little box down a chute to “Elsewhere.” This is a sad enough scene in the book. In the movie, it is heartbreaking to witness, as Jonas discovers along with us.

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Sunbeam by Snail Mail

Yesterday I received an unexpected sunbeam that arrived by snail mail. My young friend Sovanreach, who lives in Cambodia, sent me Khmer numbers that he printed himself–and he’s only 4 years old. Here’s his picture, too. The world is full of beautiful surprises I did not even know existed (like Khmer numerals) and precious little children just waiting to bless us with their unique gifts. 

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Sovanreach, a Friend Along the Road to Joy

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 Numbers 1 through 5, written in Khmer

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