Very Important

When I was eight I asked my neighbor Gary if his family had their Easter egg hunt in the backyard, as I’d heard was popular, or inside the house like ours did.

“I’m Jewish, Billy,” he replied.

“So?”

“So Jews don’t celebrate Easter.”

I could not understand what Jewish people could possibly have against chocolate bunnies and hunting for eggs, but religion was pretty mysterious to me in those days. Nine years later, on our second date, I asked my wife-to-be, whom I was certain – certain – was Greek, how her Christmas went.

“I’m Jewish, Bill.”

I had by then learned, very vaguely, about the Son of God issue, not to mention the Holocaust, but my family also had a membership to the Providence JCC (which, come to find out, meant Jewish Community Center) where we would swim every summer, so I remained largely unschooled about the very important difference. When I moved in with Jen seven years after that first date, I explained to her what my professors in Freshman Western Civilization had taught me about the differing theologies – aside from the Son of God thing, which even my un-bat mitzvahed wife was up on.

“So that’s the difference?” she asked.

“Apparently.”

When we were getting married a friend suggested we contact a very progressive (female!) rabbi to perform the service. When I told her I wasn’t Jewish she explained that she wouldn’t be able to help me.

I wanted to tell her about not just the JCC but also the Jewish Home for the Aged where I had worked as a dishwasher one summer. One of my jobs was to wheel the food to the dining rooms in large, heated serving carts. How happy those residents were when they saw me arriving with their meals, though I always felt a little odd seeing the tiny old woman who nodded with childlike delight and asked, “Dinner? Dinner?”

Still, I was glad I got to be the one tell her that dinner had in fact arrived. When she clapped after I told her the good news, it was unclear to me if she knew where she was, if she could remember much about the life that had brought her here, or if she remembered anything at all about the very important difference.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Cheer Up

As I understand it, Paul McCartney awoke one morning having dreamt the entire melody to “Yesterday.” This is as close I ever came to that, literarily speaking.

I was twenty, and I felt as if I had to simultaneously relearn everything, while I also forgot nothing. I believed it was now time to learn to see the world exactly as it was, not as I wished it to be, and that under no circumstances should I ever write or utter a word that might be construed as sentimental.

One night I dreamt I was in a snowy, barren place. It was night, and I came to a friendly stone building through whose windows I could see the pulse of firelight. I let myself in. There were people busy behind me but they didn’t mind me warming myself by the hearth.

It was a fantastic fire, and as I stared into it, I heard a poem:

There is a hearth.
And in the hearth there is a fire.
And in the fire there are coals
The coals burning in the fire in the hearth
Burning and burning as your soul burns—
Burning and burning forever beneath this Christmas night.

Christmas? I thought. Already? And so I turned and now I saw who was working. The elves were toiling at their workbenches, hundreds of elves, all building little wooden toys by firelight. “I’ve found it!” I thought. “I’m here. It’s the source.”

I felt then exactly as I would secretly feel when as a boy I read the words, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” And as I thought this, the man himself appeared, all rosy cheeked and white bearded and red coated. He walked between the workbenches, and as he passed the elves, he waved his hand like a magician and silver dust rained down on each toy.

I could not speak to him, but I had to know what he was doing. This had never been explained, and so I turned to an elf that was working happily beside me. “What’s he doing?” I asked. “What’s that silver dust?”

“Don’t you know?” said the elf. “That’s Christmas Cheer.”

And then I woke up.

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A Generous Eve

Memories of Christmas Eve have always burned especially brightly for me. People who celebrate Christmas usually break into two camps: those who open presents on Christmas Eve, and those who open presents on Christmas Day. My family was of the latter, and so Christmas morning was a torrent of wrapping paper and boxes and then the marathon of play that followed.

Yet Christmas Eve was perhaps even better. The wait, in the longest sense of the word, was over. Now all the potential of what could be stood center stage in my own candle-lit imagination. I placed all this potential on the morning to come and the presents and the fun, but the potential had nothing to do at all with Christmas morning. Rather, it was the promise that all that you wanted could come to you. That what you wanted wasn’t actually presents was the inevitable disappointment of the day itself, but the gift Christmas gave, to me at least, was a glimpse of the inherent generosity of life. I found that truth within myself, and then called it Christmas.

Finding that abiding generosity is a search worthy of a lifetime, and so I seek it still. Now I have children myself and I watch from my perch of middle age their mounting excitement and hold my tongue. They will not get what they want Christmas morning. No matter. They are too young to know what they actually want, that vision blooming still in their own young candle-lit souls. Who wouldn’t be excited catching even a glimpse of that? So I will leave them to their excitement and to the discovery of its actual source.

Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating, and to those not, enjoy the quiet of the day. Silence is the finest place to find what you might be looking for.

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A Generous Eve

Memories of Christmas Eve have always burned especially brightly for me. People who celebrate Christmas usually break into two camps: those who open presents on Christmas Eve, and those who open presents on Christmas Day. My family was of the latter, and so Christmas morning was a torrent of wrapping paper and boxes and then the marathon of play that followed.

Yet Christmas Eve was perhaps even better. The wait, in the longest sense of the word, was over. Now all the potential of what could be stood center stage in my own candle-lit imagination. I placed all this potential on the morning to come and the presents and the fun, but the potential had nothing to do at all with Christmas morning. Rather, it was the promise that all that you wanted could come to you. That what you wanted wasn’t actually presents was the inevitable disappointment of the day itself, but the gift Christmas gave, to me at least, was a glimpse of the inherent generosity of life. I found that truth within myself, and then called it Christmas.

Finding that abiding generosity is a search worthy of a lifetime, and so I seek it still. Now I have children myself and I watch from my perch of middle age their mounting excitement and hold my tongue. They will not get what they want Christmas morning. No matter. They are too young to know what they actually want, that vision blooming still in their own young candle-lit souls. Who wouldn’t be excited catching even a glimpse of that? So I will leave them to their excitement and to the discovery of its actual source.

Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating, and to those not, enjoy the quiet of the day. Silence is the finest place to find what you might be looking for.

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Christmas Spirit

Christmas time is near, and so those must be chains I hear rattling in my attic. Ghosts are as fond of bright lights and happy music as they are of shadows and cobwebs. I loved Christmas as a boy for the star on top of the tree and the songs about Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men because who in their right mind wouldn’t want that?

Even though gifts are disappointing compared to songs, it’s easy to become confused that what you want is wrapped in a bright package. After all, you know you want something. You know that as sure as you know you must eat. You know that you are looking for something, but the search is as frightening as it is fascinating because what if you never find it?

I think a small part of me died whenever I opened a gift and felt disappointed that what I was looking for wasn’t in a box. Except what dies cannot stay buried, and so roams my attic in chains, waking me in the middle of the night or interrupting my gruel. Ghosts never want to leave you alone no matter how kindly you beg.

Yet the more I hear from them, the more I see they hold no grudge. Very generous, considering I killed them once. They just make such a racket. It’s hard to do anything else when they are around, least of all write. I finally invited a few in, and frankly they scared me straight out of my nightshirt at first sight. They tell me graveyards are for the living, not the dead. Christmas is for the dead—so here they are.

I tell them Christmas is about a baby in a manger and Figgie Pudding and a fire in the fireplace and a decent bottle of wine. They tell me I have it all wrong. Christmas is every bit about ghosts. They will haunt me as long as I want know love. Build a tree to love and light a star on top and they come all the quicker. And why shouldn’t they? Love beckons what I need most, and lights the path toward what I have been searching for.

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