Do you remember two kinds of Christmases?

Do you remember two kinds of Christmases?
'The Adoration of the Christ Child', 18th or early 19th century. Found in the collection of the State A Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Some selected Christmas readings from me while I'm waiting for the roast beast to cook. Written by me unless they were very obviously not.

The bulk movement of air

From my forthcoming collection A Creature Wanting Form available for pre-order now.

We dragged the tree inside from the cold like it owed us money and set a bowl of water out for it so it could drink and pretend it was still alive for a little while longer pretend it had a future and then a few days passed and we still couldn’t find the goddamned box of lights in the wet basement so it stood there in the corner in its nakedness.

Looking up from your phone you said an acre of Christmas trees provides enough oxygen for eighteen people and they say that young trees grow very rapidly and have a higher rate of photosynthesis than older trees which is the opposite of what I would have thought. I thought being old was where it was at in the tree game.

You read to me that for a short while if it’s well fed with light and water the tree will continue to produce oxygen even after it’s cut down but before long the needles will dry and begin to fall off.

Later in the spring when I’m gone you might find some of them lingering in a strange corner of the house or under the flap of the rug and you will think how did this get in here and if you’ve remembered to buy a broom by then you’ll sweep them back out into the out there out where the wind is going to be.

The Magi

by William Butler Yeats

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Do you remember two kinds of Christmases?

by John Steinbeck

New York
Guy Fawkes Day

Dear Adlai,

Back from Camelot, and, reading the papers, not at all sure it was wise. Two first impressions. First, a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental. Two, a nervous restlessness, a hunger, a thirst, a yearning for something unknown—perhaps morality. Then there’s the violence, cruelty and hypocrisy symptomatic of a people which has too much, and last, the surly ill-temper which only shows up in human when they are frightened.

Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, “Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?”

Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—”Is that all?” Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick. And then I think of our “Daily” in Somerset, who served your lunch. She made a teddy bear with her own hands for our grandchild. Made it out of an old bath towel dyed brown and it is beautiful. She said, “Sometimes when I have a bit of rabbit fur, they come out lovelier.” Now there is a present. And that obviously male teddy bear is going to be called for all time MIZ Hicks.

When I left Bruton, I checked out with Officer ‘Arris, the lone policeman who kept the peace in five villages, unarmed and on a bicycle. He had been very kind to us and I took him a bottle of Bourbon whiskey. But I felt it necessary to say—”It’s a touch of Christmas cheer, officer, and you can’t consider it a bribe because I don’t want anything and I am going away…” He blushed and said, “Thank you, sir, but there was no need.” To which I replied—”If there had been, I would not have brought it.”

Mainly, Adlai, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.

Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can’t expect to raise our children to be good and honorable men when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged, Adlai. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?



We can be real again

we can be real again, by no hope / no harm
track by no hope / no harm

I thought I saw you on the stairs,
but I’ve been seeing things for years.
On the snowy boot-stamped streets outside
the muffled grinding gears.

In a year that never ends,
it’s getting harder to pretend.
Well it’s Christmas time in Boston
and I haven’t made amends.

We can believe again.
We can be real again.
I’ll be on time I’ll be on time,
you’ve just got to tell me when.

The nimble dancing feet of youth,
their indifference to truth.
I heard a song from out a window
that reminded me of you.

It’s the plight of the insane.
A sordid trick upon the brain.
The specter of your graceful step,
the force of a hurricane.

It was a glamor in disguise,
the flickered glimmer in your eyes,
on a clinging cutting creeping night
I raise a glass to our demise.

Your beauty tightened like a snare.
The glittered highlights in your hair.
December’s just half over
but it’s been winter here all year.

We can believe again.
We can be real again.
I don’t believe,
I don’t believe
this is how the story ends.

Love’s a vain and crooked thing,
I think I’m due for an upswing.
Maybe not this week or next
but we’ll see what the New Year brings.

Earthrise at 50: the photo that changed how we see ourselves

Originally published in the Guardian

Picture the Earth from space: the striking bright blue of the oceans, the swirls of white clouds. It’s really very easy for any of us to conjure this image in our minds today, but it wasn’t always so.

The Earth in all its splendid majesty was seen for the first time on Christmas Eve of 1968, when it was captured in an image that changed not only the way we think about space, but how we think about Earth and our place in the universe.

The picture was taken in the midst of the space race. Major William A. Anders and the rest of the crew aboard the Apollo 8 mission were keenly aware of the pressures of their mission to orbit the moon, laying the groundwork for the first lunar landing that was still to come.

A few years back, speaking at the Johnson Space Center as part of a BBC documentary on the mission, Anders recounted the experience. As they ascended into space he snuck a glimpse of Australia, he said. He tried to peak at his hometown of San Diego but it was covered by fog.

Once they were a safe enough distance from Earth for further sightseeing, Anders perceived the glowing orb in the distance behind him, but the enormity of it didn’t register.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,’” Anders said. It was “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

After two to three orbits around the moon, he and the crew began shooting photographs.

“I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!’” Anders said.

“And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras. I had the only color camera with a long lens. So I floated a black and white over to Borman. I can’t remember what Lovell got. They were all yelling for cameras, and we started snapping away.”

Earthrise – the name given to Anders’ iconic picture, one of the most lasting and memorable in the history of space travel, if not human history itself – would come a little bit later.

Looking back on it years later, Frank Borman, the mission’s commander, said words failed him and his crew in the moment.

“I don’t think we captured, in its entirety, the grandeur of what we had seen,” he said.

On Christmas Day in the New York Times, the poet Archibald MacLeish, who like everyone else still on Earth had only as yet seen images broadcast on television in black and white, put himself in the astronauts’ seats, attempting to capture the awe of what the Apollo 8 crew other astronauts would later experience, and has been called the “overview effect”.

“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”

Suddenly Earth no longer seemed the center of the universe, he wrote. Logically of course many people had long known this, but Anders’ photograph had a way of confirming it.

Writers and dreamers and scientists would return to that feeling of celestial displacement often over the years. In a 1983 short story Human Moments in World War III, Don DeLillo placed a character in Anders’ viewpoint.

“The view is endlessly fulfilling,” he wrote. “It is like the answer to a lifetime of questions and vague cravings.”

After the mission was complete the photo would go on to grace the final issue of Time Magazine of the year, with the caption “Dawn.”

Broadcasting home, the Apollo 8 crew read from the Book of Genesis as the Earth rose before them, contrasted against the lifeless moon.

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth,” Anders said.

For the astronauts, and the rest of us back on Earth, it was as if something new had been born and we could all perceive it for the first time together. We saw ourselves.

For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio

by W.H. Auden

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

On His Reluctance to Take down the Christmas Ornaments

by John Ashbery

A nice, normal morning:
feet setting out as though in a trance,
doubling the yesterdays, a doubled man
under the stairs, and strange surrealist fish
from so much disappearance, damaged in the mail.

Or the spry cutting edge of another day.
Here, we have these in
sizes and colors
day goes fluttering by.

Like ivy behind a chimney
it grows and grows in ropes.
Mouse teams unslay it,
yeomen can't hear yet.

A shadow purling,
up into the sky.
Silence in the vandalized vomitorium.

It's great that you can be here too.
Passivity rests its case.

How can I love someone I don’t even know?

Originally published in Slate

We have a few holiday traditions in the O’Neil family. We gather around the piano singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” My mother pesters me about when I’m going to give her some grandchildren (never mind that she has five). And then later, once all the other guests have gone, we sit around the kitchen table while my mother cries about the saddest moment of her life.

This year, out of the blue, we got to skip the nagging and the crying. My mother had gotten three new grandchildren all at once a few months before, when a long-lost older sister of mine—the subject of her annual tears—materialized in our lives like a plot contrivance. I know it’s a cliché to say that life feels like fiction, but what else do you call it when a mysterious stranger appears from your past?

Four years before I was born, when my mother and biological father were just 15 years old, they had their first child together. This being the early 1970s, the baby was whisked away before she even realized what was going on, during a high school winter recess. Not that she wouldn’t have placed the baby for adoption, but she never had the chance to discuss it, nor had she ever resolved the matter with her own mother, who died in 2009—almost two years to the day before my lost sister returned.

It wasn’t the first time we’d heard of this story; in an argument about 15 years ago, my birth father had wielded the secret against one of my younger sisters, Amber, like a hammer. When Amber got a little older, she made an attempt to track down the sibling, but was stymied by a Kafkaesque paper trail. I figured it was a cold case that would never be solved, and filed it away in the “family secrets” folder. We rarely talked about it, my two sisters and I, and somehow I never connected the dots between my mother’s loss and each year’s fresh new sadness. I was too young, or too self-involved in the way college kids can be, to recognize that my parents were actual human beings with their own personal lives and long histories.

Then in September, my sister tried again. She put in the details—my mother’s maiden name, the hospital where she delivered, and the date of birth—at a site called Adoption Registry Connect. A few days later she got a response. Just like that, the case of the mysterious weeping mother was re-opened. And into our lives crawled a newborn sister: A 38-year-old, newborn mother of three named Marci.

Now that I’ve got a vested interest in the topic I’m starting to find these stories everywhere. Right after Christmas, I came across the story of an adopted young man from Colorado whose family reminded me of my own. He had posted on Reddit that he was looking for his birth parents. Just hours later, with the aid of concerned Internet sleuths, a match had been found. He posted an email response from his mother “I am here and am stunned! I never, ever in a million years, thought you would find me!” Then, just a few days ago, I found another story about a 100-year-old woman who was reunited with her baby after 77 years, via online phone listings.

“With the Internet, searching has just catapulted to a whole new level,” says Leslie Pate Mackinnon, a therapist who specializes in adoption. In the old days, people used private investigators, or somebody knew somebody who might be able to help you find someone—like you were trying to track down a drug dealer. And it came with a similar stigma: The mother, often unmarried and young when her baby was born, might have been considered a slut, and the child a bastard.

A shift has taken place in the past few decades, though, one in which adoptees and parents have begun reframing the way we think about adoption. It’s their own version of the civil rights battle, they say. Groups like Bastard Nation, an advocacy group for adoptee rights, have even tried to take back the slur against those born out of wedlock. “Millions of North Americans are prohibited by law from accessing personal records that pertain to their historical, genetic and legal identities,” their mission statement reads. “Such records are held by their governments in secret and without accountability, due solely to the fact that they were adopted.” Even worse, many adoptees’ birth certificates, the legal document declaring their official existence, are effectively fraudulent, listing their adoptive parents as their birth parents. Until the 1970s and ‘80s, adoption records were top secret, as a rule. Today 11 states have laws on the books giving every citizen access to his or her own birth documents. More states may follow. The suppression of birth-parent identity has become a lot harder with the flow of information online. No one has quantified the phenomenon, says Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, but “the Internet is revolutionizing adoption in every way.” Social networking has made reunions exponentially more feasible. “People who have wanted to find each other for a long time now have a process where what they wanted is far easier to achieve than ever,” he says, “but we’ll never have numbers because there is no reporting system.”

After that first message sent through Adoption Registry Connect, my mother and sister began exchanging emails and phone calls with the new member of our family (if that’s even what I’m supposed to call her). My first thought when I heard all of this was how my mother was going to deal with it. My second thought was creepier, but predictable: She’s from Massachusetts; she’s around my age … uh-oh. Dodged a bullet on that one, I’m happy to say.

After we’d established that this thing was going forward, this coming together, Marci and I exchanged a few emails ourselves. “Don’t get sick in case I need a liver someday,” she wrote. I was relieved; she had the wise-ass gene, too. I told her she probably wouldn’t want this liver anyway, as it has been put to extremely good use. Things progressed from there. It felt like flirting—the default setting for getting to know a strange woman over email. We were prepping for a blind date that had been decades in the making.

The romance metaphor came in handy as I tried to talk my mother through her anxious few weeks before the first face-to-face. “How can I love someone I don’t even know?” she asked me. Think of it like you’re going on a date, I said. You both want to like each other already, but there’s no need to come on too strong right away. She may be your biological daughter, but at the moment she’s just a woman whom you’re going to meet, and who may or may not end up being your friend.

When they finally met, my mother found herself surprised at the sight of her lost child, all grown up. Somehow she’d imagined that Marci would have stayed a baby forever. For her part, Marci told my mother she was excited simply to find people in the world who looked like her, which we most definitely do. When I first checked out her pictures on Facebook, I thought I was looking at old pictures of my mother. Or maybe they were of Amber, from a few years into the future? Man, this new Facebook timeline thing is amazing!

“I saw the similarities right away,” Amber said. “I felt like I was looking at a different version of myself, with blonder hair. She has the same little crooked tooth. Bites her nails like us.” There’s a lot more we have in common, which I learned the first day I met Marci and her own, separate family a few weeks later. She inherited out tendency to carry around a large Dunkin Donuts iced coffee everywhere we go, although I think most people in Boston are born with that. But what about our personalities—would we get along? Would her kids (my nephews, I guess) like me? Did we really have to do this meeting on a Sunday afternoon when football was on?

In stories like this, as in all love stories, the narrative usually ends at the reunion, or the coming together. There’s no follow-up, though. You never get to see what happens next for the guy from Colorado and his new biological family, or the centenarian and her elderly daughter.

“I talk to her regularly, or at least text with her every other day,” my traditional sister says. “I really like her. There are things where it’s like, oh my god, you are my sister—similar personality traits I see in you and [our other sister] Amanda, but I don’t know, it’s hard. I feel like she’s a good friend, but I haven’t said ‘I love you’ to her yet.”

What’s the rush? Right now we’re all still in the early stages of the relationship, with butterflies in our stomachs, trying to put the best version of ourselves forward. No one wants to be the first to say I love you, and no one wants to scare the other person off for wanting it too badly. My mother and sisters have been waiting to find someone a lot like themselves for a long time, and now that they have it—or think they do—they don’t want to spoil everything.

So what comes next? Will it be a true and lasting love, or will we look back on it someday as a brief moment of intense emotion that quickly flattened out? We’ve all felt the sting of relationships that go wrong, and yet we throw ourselves back into them again and again, hoping that this time things will turn out different.

Personally, I’m looking forward to getting this early part over with, and having the honeymoon be over. I want to find out that Marci is not an idealized, alternate-reality version of us, but rather a boring, old, regular human being. That’s what we all are—just a bunch of people who happened to have been pulled together by happenstance of biology and geography. If we can all appreciate one another all the same after recognizing that, then we’ll know we’re family.

UPDATE: Almost ten years later and it all worked out and we all lived happily ever after. Or at least as happy as a Massachusetts Irish townie family can. :)