A Pair of Christmas Miracles

Last night, Christmas Eve, at about 7:20, I got the best Christmas present I can think of. There was a Joseph (or at least a Joe), but no Mary. Instead, there was a Tracy with Joe, and together they lifted me higher than I’ve been in a long, long time.  Let me explain.

For five years—until the Tiny White Box in late August–I was director of Liberty House in Manchester, NH, which provided transitional housing for 10 formerly homeless veterans and offered food, clothing, tents, sleeping bags and other necessities to anyone who came to our doors, regardless of veteran or non-veteran status. Although I understand things have changed now, when I was there we welcomed anyone who wasn’t obviously drunk or high and met their needs. Through this, the veterans who lived at Liberty House were immediately able to serve and help keep alive folks living on the streets, under the bridges or in other marginalia. Joe and Tracy were regular visitors and regular customers. I saw myself in them.

When I was at the end of my drinking, I’d dissolved my personality in a cocktail of booze, self-pity, anger and despair. People who met me then likely couldn’t see the man inside—I was a variety of well-fed depressio and hunger for booze.  Ditto for Joe and Tracy. Each time I saw them, and it was every few days at times, I threw up a prayer that they’d find a way to get sober. Of course I probably shared my story with them, but it must have sounded like I’d been given the winning lottery ticket for sobriety instead of little by slowly learning how to live as a man without booze.

Last night, after I’d spent the day doing last-minute shopping, brunching with two of my daughters and my ex-wife and catching up with old friends, I stopped by a church in Manchester hosting a thing called an Alcothon—basically 24 hours of meetings and fellowship to help drunks keep from drinking. When I walked in, I saw a clear-eyed, dignified woman who looked vaguely like the booze-bag I’d known two years ago—Tracy!—standing beside a smiling, clean man who didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d ever bunked in the bushes with a bottle of booze—Joe! After hugs, they told me they were still together, had lengthy and hard-won sobriety, and would be speaking at a meeting in 20 minutes.

Yes, I went to the meeting. Yes, they told their stories well. Yes, their focus was on who they are today, not on who they used to be. One thing they didn’t mention, because they couldn’t know it?

I am proud to know them, and seeing them made Christmas real and, honestly, brought the tears that stream down my face right now. Tracy, Joe and I got sober—proof anyone can. Even you.

Merry Christmas!

Drinking from a Dead Guy’s Cup

For a non-religious agnostic, I write about spiritual matters a lot.  As I’ve said before, I pray about 47 times a day, and always the same prayer, “Thank you, God.”  This prayer is uttered, internally or externally, with no concern about whether there is any receiver for the message.  Expressing gratitude seems to make my life more content, more serene and happier, so I do it with the same attitude I eat bananas—they do me no harm and seem to prevent leg cramps.  Could it be prayer as a form of spiritual sustenance is a not fully explored avenue?  Perhaps some religious nutritionist would like to explore this and include me in the acknowledgements portion of her journal article.

Despite my agnosticism, I do find holiness in some objects in my life.  Without knowing much about animism, I have the sense some items in my daily life have a significance well beyond their physical existence. For a few reasons, I drink coffee throughout the day in the Tiny White Box, as much as a pot a day while here, far more than I ever drank before or suspect I will ever drink again.  First, my choices here are either water or coffee.  I know this is an artificial choice, for I could buy V-8, pomegranate juice or Diet Coke, three liquids I’ve regularly drunk before, but I’ve chosen not to buy a refrigerator, so those liquids would either be room temperature or solid depending on whether I stored them inside the Tiny White Box or left them to the elements.  Still, I drink a pot of coffee a day, and drink it from a dead man’s cup.

(That last paragraph ended too portentously, I think, sounding perhaps like I had a corpse in the corner—which sounds like a fun game for kids. Instead of “Red Rover” or “Mother, May I?” children would love a rousing game of “Corpse in the Corner.” Perhaps the child playing the Corpse would lean against a tree or wall, eyes closed, while the other players tried to sneak up on him and “tag the stiff,” who would have had a chance to reach out a hand and grab the wrist of the tagger, dragging him or her down into the bowels of hell.  Please write me if you’d like to workshop this game and begin a Kickstarter campaign.)

When I say “dead man’s cup,” the term is a bit misleading. The cup never belonged to Chuck—he never used it—but it is the brownish handmade pottery cup I bought at the Sunapee Crafts Festival specifically to spread Chuck’s ashes around the backyard of Liberty House, where I’d worked, he’d lived, and we’d become friends. I’d like to say I think of Chuck with every sip I take. I don’t. But I think about him often enough to feel some of his spirit may have seeped into the spirit of the cup. Oddly, I found Chuck’s dead body in his one-room apartment a little less than a year ago, and ended up spending about 20 minutes alone with him while I waited for the ambulance to arrive and declare him dead. During that time, I noticed the smells of feces and urine, for he’d been dead a couple days, the eerie silence, the slackness of his flesh as I checked his pulse and rolled him over. I didn’t feel any spiritual connection with Chuck the man, just the physical sensations connected to his corpse. His soul seemed to have flown the coop, a fact that surprised me. Today, my explanation is that the spiritual part of Chuck was repulsed by his abandoned soul-holder, the body that was already breaking down into its chemical components. That soul, having little else to do, skittered off in search of potter’s field, where the indigent are buried. Instead, it ended up in a potter’s shed, and was trapped and transformed into the cup from which I drink coffee.

I know this explanation is silly, but no sillier than any orthodox theology, and it fully explains why my cup reeks of holiness in a way no Sunday sermon can.

A Child’s Christmas in Agnostica

I was a different person 21 Christmases ago. I was director of an alternative school in Henniker. I was a married homeowner. Libby, my youngest daughter, was only five weeks old, and her mother was recovering from burned feet, one of medical history’s strangest complications from an emergency hysterectomy. Because of those injuries, we had a nanny, known as “Jello Eyeseed” to the older girls. She is now dead, and that makes me sad. (I know these nuggets invite way more, but that’s not a trail I’m traveling today.) Mary (now Meri), my middle daughter was two-and-a-half, a nearly perfect age for her. Becca, my oldest, was five years old and starting to ask questions about the universe. At about this time, Becca, who had always wanted to be a firefighter, recognized firefighters have to risk their lives running into burning buildings and amended her career goal, “I want to be a firefighter teacher,” preparing those women and men from the safety of a classroom.

I haven’t written a ton of poetry of which I’m proud, which is sad given how much poetry I’ve written. Still, I wrote the following for Becca, trying to explain how I viewed Jesus, they guy whose birth we celebrate this season.

Christmas, 1996

(for Becca)

 

The kid, they say, was born in a manger.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The boy, they say, astonished the scholars.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The man, they say, had a huge midlife crisis

and decided that he was God’s son.

The prophet, they say, could walk upon water.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The messiah, they say, could bring back the dead.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The man, they say, offers a model

of humility, kindness and love.

The Lord, they say, could multiply fishes.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

His blood, they say, has washed away sin.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The man, they say, was a poor carpenter

who laid down his life for a cause.

The annointed, they say, can offer salvation.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

The Son, they say, is living today.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

Jesus, they say, gave good for ill.

Frankly, this I believe.

Jesus, they say, said heaven’s within us.

Frankly, this I believe.

Jesus, I say, resonates meaning,

and he never intended to lie.

No one else who’s read it has liked it particularly—in fact many people actively dislike it. So be it. No one else has recognized the opening line as lifted whole from Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. So be it. No one else has pulled it out every Christmas since 1996. So be it.

No one else was me 21 years ago.

Bits of Shiny Glass for a Christmastime Mosaic

I got back to Manchester two days ago.  In those two days, I’ve been busy almost every minute until now—each day has had a series of gear-shifting meetings and plans.  Rather than a regular column, I’m just going to spread a few glimpses of those days, and leave you to put them together into a theme.

Wednesday, 5:30 p.m. Dinner with daughter Becca, who is smarter and a better writer than I, but, I think, a less subtle political thinker. (Full disclosure: if patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings, “subtle” is the final validation of the political moderate. Doubtless my conservative friends see me as spineless at times and I know my more liberal friends believe me a lackey of the power elite.) Becca was a strong Bernie supporter, and the topic tonight was wealth redistribution, with Becca proposing the country had so much wealth that if it were divided equally everyone would have enough. Even if that’s objectively true, in my view “wealth” doesn’t equal income or assets, it’s the ability to create more income and assets, so dividing the pie we have now would lead to one day of pie-fest, followed by a long period of pie-drought.  Still, I enjoy the back-and-forth, especially since my position is not one of conservatism but, I think, realism. (NOTE:  Add “realism” to “subtle” above. Guilty as charged.

Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Secret meeting time!  In addition to seeing my daughters, getting a chance to dress up in costume and go to this secret meeting is one of the reasons I return each month.  I’d like to tell you more. I can’t. It’s secret.

Thursday, 9 a.m. An unnamed friend invited me to speak to a meeting of the Manchester Continuum of Care, one of the worst and most misleading names for a group ever. They are folks who work with homeless folks in Manchester—their name is mandated, I think, by the federal government, which supports many of the agencies involved. (My friend remains unnamed because of sentences like that last one. She is very smart and very professional, and I’m sure she would write an accurate description of the group. Of course, because she is very smart and professional, her description would likely be longer and include footnotes.) While I’d written a speech earlier this week—and may use it as a column in the future—my talk was about what I do now—lighthearted and funny—and how hard it is to be broke and homeless—with more anger than I usually bring.  The anger wasn’t directed at the group, but at the goddamned hard work it takes to be poor.

Thursday, Noon. Lunch with a friend, who has been a reader of this column and who was angry about something I’d written. While I don’t like to anger my friends, I did feel good that my writing was enough to stir emotion and way more, that she and I are good enough friends that she could say, “I was really pissed off at you when you wrote . . .” By the end of the conversation, I’d explained why I’d written what I’d written—and stood by it!—but agreed that I should have published it at a slightly later date than I did. I’m not trying to be coy—the issue I wrote about doesn’t matter here. What does is having friends like Dee.

Thursday, 7 p.m. Dinner with George—who still needs a new job, by the way. We ate at Daw Kun Thai, a new Thai restaurant on Brown Avenue in Manchester that I can recommend highly, not just for the food but for the service and management. Granted, it was a slow Thursday evening, but George and I were treated like royalty by the owner, and even better by the waitress, a delightful young woman named Sidney, although I’m surely spelling her name wrong. Scidnie? Cydknee?

Sidney is a 16-year-old with an interest in photography, a rock ‘n’ roll drummer father and an interest in all kinds of music. We even talked about how overlooked Alice Cooper is when talking about great music and how Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner are now unknown guitar gods. It restored my faith in the youth of America, enough so that when she recommended a song by a band called The Coathangers. I immediately bought “Captain’s Dead,” enjoyed it on the way home and finished a fine day indeed.

Sally Piper Had a Peck of Unplanned Pregnancies

Sally Piper “has less common sense than her five-year-old son.” That sentence, written in 1958, sounds harsh, but my biological mother’s judgment was questioned by the social worker who visited her while she was carrying me.

“Questioned” may be the wrong word.

“Correctly described” is closer to the truth, since Sally Piper seems to have drifted from marital crisis to medical crisis to romantic entanglements without much concern for her son, Richard, or her self-respect.  Flipping through the social worker reports, I’m struck by how little Sally Piper seems to have wanted out of life, although she’d grown up a child of great privilege, or so she haughtily reports on a number of pages.  Like some mad queen, her tone expresses expectation she will be removed from her two-room apartment over a hardware store and returned to her childhood mansion of rolled lawns.  It never happened.  She died in 1965, age 33, in Lowell, MA.  I was six at the time, and didn’t learn of her death for another 40 years, allowing me the fantasy she was out there somewhere, and maybe we’d eventually meet.

The only literary work I know that gives me some sense of her life is Peyton Place.  While at the time it was shocking for its portrayal of small-town scandal and sex, Peyton Place is really a study of what semi-rural poverty can do to people of intelligence and, to some extent, good hearts.  Unlike the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, though, this poverty didn’t heat its victims, drawing off impurities and leaving gold behind.  Instead, it left them as cold and slimy as lunchmeat left out on an October back porch.

As it happens, I know one of the characters from that book.  Really. I didn’t meet him until years after the steamy novel had been turned into a movie then a TV show then included in a Jeannie C. Riley song then disappeared off the national radar.  “Little Joe” was his name in the book, although he never uses either diminutive as an adult.  He is Joseph and Peyton Place was written by his Aunt Grace. He is (was?) a good man, although one whose life has veered downward over time.  We are roughly the same age, although Joseph’s rougher life for the last decade makes him look a bit older.  The last time I met with him, we had lunch in Concord, and he was, I believe, back to living down by the river in a camp with other homeless folks.  I wish him well, and would love to buy him lunch again.  Joseph was taken from his mother as a child, placed in an orphanage, went into the Army, and filed his life with some successes followed by abysmal failures.  In short, he led the life I could have had.

As Baby Number Two (aka Baby-Boy Newell, my birth name, the last name taken from the man to whom she was currently married although not my biological father) in a single-parent family in 1958, I could easily have ended up another dead-end kid, doomed from the womb.  I might well have ended up left on a church step at dusk and taken into an orphanage.  Likewise, I could have been dragged through a tenement existence with a round-heeled ne’er-be-realistic mother and a series of men, with only my older brother as a guide, and he one who had no more sense of the world than I would have.  Finally, I could have ended up not ending up at all, my existence snuffed out in the womb by an illegal abortionist.  Since Sally Piper had a peck of unplanned pregnancies, and dropped children out on a regular basis, placing them with adoption agencies, I assume at least one of three things was true.  Either she had an aversion to abortion, she was too stuck inside her own fantasies to notice she was pregnant until it was too late for even a back-room procedure, or she liked being pregnant because it got her lots of attention and a chance to be treated well by prenatal providers. Regardless, she got pregnant twice more after me, having an adoption-bound stillbirth girl and another daughter placed at birth.

Instead, I got the royal treatment and was swept off, Queen-for-a-Lifetime-like, to live as low-rent royalty, the first-born (or first-adopted, at least) to Beverly and Richard Howard of Durham, NH, my parents. We had boarders when I was little, college students who’d lived with my parents on Faculty Road before they brought me home.  To my knowledge, though, my mother never slept with any of them.  Except for the adoption workers doing background and adjustment checks before and after my placement and, I imagine, before and after my younger sister’s adoption a few years later, we didn’t have social services keeping an eye on our family.  My parents were good, responsible, decent folks about whom no one would declare a lack of common sense. In short, they were the opposite of Sally (Piper) (Newell) Hughes (her name at death), an opposition that helped make me the man I am today.

Joseph may be down by the river behind the ice arena in Concord or, I hope, have crawled out of the bottle and rejoined the land of the fully alive.  In the other land that was the late 1950’s, two women were unpreparedly pregnant with boys.  Two women faced the choice of a dangerous and illegal abortion or giving birth.  Both chose to complete their pregnancies.  Both women had to choose between holding those babies or placing them for adoption.  Joseph’s mother chose to keep him, dragging him through an early life in a tragic novel before having the state step into separate them.  Sally Piper chose to set me free.  I’d like to think she did it for my sake, praying there was a childless couple out there that could give me the love and guidance and support she couldn’t—unless she was granted her crazy dream of a return to childhood wealth.  I’d like to think she asked that her newborn be brought to her bedside so she could kiss his forehead and wish him good luck.  I’d like to think those things, but I can’t, since there is zero evidence Sally Piper was capable of such feelings or performing such actions.  What she did was walk away from a complication, only to search for new balls of string to tangle.  Joseph’s mother preferred to hold her baby boy tightly, snarling his insides in ways that may take more than a lifetime to sort out.

If Joseph had been raised by my parents in an affluent college town, surrounded by an intellectually curious and emotionally supportive community, instead of, first, by a distracted alcoholic mother and, later, hourly-paid workers at an orphanage, would he have turned out differently?  Of course.  How could he not? If I’d come into the world of Peyton Place poverty, instead of Durham, would I be who I am?  Of course not.  How could I?

Two little boys breathing their first breaths of life.  The coin gets flipped.  Neither gets to call it in the air . . .

 

Fat Cat Christmas

When I have little kids in my life, I like Christmas more than the average man, but significantly less than the average woman of my experience.  I’ve never grumbled about the expense and bother of a real tree, complained about choosing and purchasing gifts for kids.  In fact, when my own kids were young, I vicariousized a childhood, every year trying to build up excitement among the girls for a gift I never got but always wanted:  a rock tumbler that would turn stones found on our walks into shiny objects worthy of oohs and aahs.  If Becca, Meri or Libby had exhibited even one scintilla of enthusiasm, I would have purchased them a rock polishing contraption fit for a gemologist.  None did, so now I patiently wait for grandchildren, hoping to share my unfulfilled passion with them.

Remembering my own childhood, my third-grade Christmas sticks out.  Having turned eight the month before Christmas, I was now old enough to beg and wheedle and moan for a particular gift.  Before this, while I may have made a half-hearted plea for a toy that had caught my eye, I lacked the socialization and media immersion needed to transform a child from a happy recipient into a voracious claimant.  I now knew my rights, including the right to drive people crazy with my Christmas demands.

I’d like to say this Gimme List grew out of a close examination of the toys I owned and liked and a reasoned exploration of what gifts might increase this enjoyment.  It didn’t.  My Gimme List was driven solely by my desire to be one of the guys and included just one item, the toy demanded by every other boy in my third-grade class:  a Fat Cat.  With a name like Fat Cat, you might imagine a purring stuffed animal that could be taken to bed—if you’ve never met a third-grade boy.

The Fat Cat was a plastic truck with oversized tires and an insatiable need for “D” batteries. Fully charged, the Fat Cat, at least in the commercials, seemed capable of performing most construction transportation with ease.  Groups of amazed little boys watched as the truck easily passed over a fallen branch, climbed a sand hill of monstrous angles and carried tools from one small carpenter to another.  This truck was not just COOL, it was transformative.  With it, a boy would become a contractor, a builder, practically a god of construction.

Here, I must digress and confess I was not then (and am not now) a carpenter, an architect, a builder of any kind.  Oh, I can swing a hammer and it will occasionally hit a nail.  I can turn wood into dust with a saw, then break it off at the cut when I get tired of cutting.  I can even rewire a lamp, sort of, although I’ll be careful to take it outside before plugging it in—just in case.  I’ve never longed for tools, never cursed myself for not wanting to be a carpenter, never gazed lustfully at a truck, any more than my friend, Gavin, who designed and built the Tiny White Box, judges himself poorly for never having written a villanelle.

Even in third grade, I was no ironworker wannabe or jackhammer-dreaming kid. I wanted a Fat Cat because everybody wanted a fat cat. Forget that I’d had Tonka trucks since I was five, and never found them fun. Ignore my quick boredom with previous electronic toys—they had no soul, were not imagination-generators and always ran out of a charge within 10 minutes. The Fat Cat would be different, and might even make me different.

I begged my parents, wrote Santa a pleading letter and tried to enlist my kid sister, six at the time, to encourage my parents to scratch my fat cat itch. By Christmas morning, I had worked myself into a lather, my emotions equal parts joyous excitement and preemptive disappointment, waiting anxiously to spew out of me. When we finally opened our presents and, indeed, a Fat Cat was there, I shot off the rocket of excitement and danced giddily around for a minute or so. Before my father had even begun feeding batteries into the belly of the beast, though, I saw the Fat Cat for what it was—a hunk of plastic that would move itself across the floor a few times before I grew tired of it and left it under my bed for weeks at a time.  This reckoning could have transformed me into a wiser boy, one who recognized that joy doesn’t come in brightly-colored boxes with pictures of laughing children on them. It could have, but it didn’t.  I had one thought and one thought only:

Why didn’t I ask for a goddamned electric rock tumbler?

I still ask myself that as I wait for grandchildren that have not been conceived of, much less conceived.

 

How Not to Create A Christmas Tradition

We used to put electric candles in our windows to guide the Christ child, or that was how my mother told it.  Why, exactly, a newborn infant needed guiding—or what he was doing in Durham, New Hampshire, in December, was never explained.  It was a tradition.

We put fresh evergreen cuttings on the mantel, along with a variety of animals, a cradle and three magi.  Why Bethlehem in 4 BC would have coniferous ground cover went without comment.  It was a tradition.

We sang Christmas carols around the piano with my mother playing her favorites—“Adeste Fidelis,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”—occasionally throwing in more upbeat fare—“Deck the Halls” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—for my sister and me.  It was a tradition.

My favorite Christmas tradition, though, was spending hours in front of the TV, watching Christmas shows. More than the birth of Christ, as a child the Advent season meant holiday media fare. From the Friday after Thanksgiving until December 24, almost every day would include some Christmas show, special or movie.  In fact, I’ve never thought of that last Friday in November as Black Friday; it was the day “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol” aired in the morning on a channel out of Maine.  Like a baby bird imprinting on the first living creature it sees, I still believe Mr. Magoo was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge, and no other actor is capable of indwelling the sense of greed, loss and ultimate joy.  I understand younger readers may have the same feelings about the Muppets ensemble presentation. They are wrong.

Weeknight evenings presented a variety of shows.  I consumed “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with its Herculean task of choosing the right tree, Charlie Brown’s nostalgia-laden sadness and the singing and dancing. Oh, the delight of watching those dancers snap their heads up and down in counterpoint to their arms! No “Nutcracker” troupe could match them. I suffered along with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” as he struggled to discover his place at the North Pole, terrified of the evil power of the Abominable Snow Monster and cheering for the bravery of Yukon Cornelius. I picked at “Frosty the Snowman,” since even as a child I knew that story had everything to do with winter and nothing of Christmas.  While Frosty might have relied on magic, it wasn’t the deep magic of Christmas.

Alas, I am too old to have spent my childhood with Ralphie and the other characters of “A Christmas Story.”  This is one of my life’s tragedies—further proof my life is now pretty damn good. Had this classic been around, it would have been my favorite by far.

As a father, I viewed all these things with my girls, them watching the screen and me watching them, taking joy in their excitement. When they were young, their mother and I loved Christmas morning with them—until their unmarried uncle would show up with a pickup-truck load of toys to bury the gifts we had purchased.  After Cindy and I divorced, the girls would be with me for the evening part of Christmas evening, then returned to Cindy so she could have them for the morning, then picked up mid-afternoon to be with me.  In retrospect, Christmas for the girls involved a lot of time in seat belts.

Without wanting to lurch readers out of this idyll, for a period of my daughters’ lives I drunkenly drove my life off the road, and was living in a homeless center for veterans when the girls were 17, 14 and 12.  Still, Cindy and I kept the same schedule for Christmas, and on Christmas night, 2008, I wanted to institute a new family watching tradition.  I was an idiot.  Even now, I can’t truly understand what I was thinking.

This movie I tried to introduce into the Christmas firmament does have laughter, romance and, ultimately, hope.  Unfortunately, even that “ultimately” is soured by:

  • A child torn away from his mother
  • To join his father in a Nazi concentration camp
  • Where the father tries to convince the boy it’s all part of a game, whee a prize will be awarded the boy if he “wins,”
  • And his mother willingly goes to the death camp to be as physically near as possible to her husband and son.
  • Oh, yes, in the penultimate scene the father is gunned down by guards.
  • The hope that arrives “ultimately” is the boy is reunited with his mother and gets the prize-a ride in a tank away from the death camp holding his father’s corpse.

We watched Life is Beautiful, the late 90’s Roberto Benini film about Nazism in Mussolini’s Italy. Before the movie was 30 minutes in, with the introduction of anti-semitism toward a Jewish waiter, the girls were staring slack-jawed not at the screen but at me.  This was no Christmas tradition, no celebration of the joys of consumerism, no wrap-up to the season of joy.  This was a turd in the punchbowl.

Since then, I think I’ve watched Life is Beautiful with each of the girls, and I think they were enraptured by the power of the human spirit. Life is Beautiful is one of my 20 favorite movies of all time, and I’d recommend all of you watch it or re-watch it.

Just not on Christmas.