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Matt Geiger

I was interviewing a woman last week, when she said several things that struck me, like fists of gentle profundity. She was talking about 2020, but unlike so many people, she was laughing. Not an insecure guffaw or an affected chuckle, but a real laugh that bubbled up again and again, in the manner of the pure white froth on a freshly poured flute of champagne. 

“Stories are like prisms,” she said. “They allow us to see different perspectives.” These stories, she added, “work their magic” upon us, time and time again. 

As this year comes to a close, it is again time for our many stories to put on their most incredible magic shows. Not tricks or illusions; but real magic, transcending the many pains and joys we feel, and showing us that we are each unique but not all that unlike our friends and enemies. These stories show us that we are simultaneously of the utmost importance (which makes us feel special) and infinitely unimportant (which eases our anxiety, and our grief). And while it is always time for good stories and warm, hearty meals with loved ones, that is especially the case right now, as the talons of winter poke and prod through our sinews, groping for our bones, and families all over the world turn to stories of the solstice, the epic journey of a life-giving celestial orb; to tales of jolly elves who dine on cookies and milk as they fly through the night air in a sledge pulled by flying cervids; to memories of modest candles that miraculously burned for so long on so little oil that they toppled a mighty god named Zeus; to the idea that each year, just when things are cold and dark, people are allowed to stop, look around them with clearer eyes, and see the people with whom they share a planet with love and compassion that are miraculously reborn each year despite all the very logical reasons there are for them to crumble.

Each year, in December, going back many, many years, I republish my favorite passage from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a story about a bad person who, in the twilight of his life, wakes up one morning, Christmas morning, and decides to be good. If it were written today, by a lesser scribe, it would be a tale of revenge and suffering; a violent book about all of the people Ebenezer Scrooge had wronged stabbing or shooting him, or at the very least stealing all his money. Instead, it is a reminder that, as Tolstoy said, there are no “good” or “bad” people. There are merely people, about eight billion of them at the moment, and each has the capacity to be good or evil, kind or cruel, in every moment of every day of every life. Most of us vacillate wildly. It is the time of year when I try, hard as it may be, not to wish that those I dislike, or fear are punished. Instead, I hope that they wake up better, tomorrow morning, and that I will wake up better too. 

Toward the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is in his counting house, morosely tabulating figures, when his nephew, who is both poorer and happier, stops by and wishes him a Merry Christmas. Scrooge is offended, because he does not celebrate Christmas. He berates his nephew for wishing him well, and for wishing him a Merry Christmas. 

“Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

“Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

“There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round-apart from... the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that-as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

We revisit this story every year, and in truth I spend much of the year waiting in anticipation to hear those words again. There is another story that we read each year, too. It’s a bit less famous. Written by Truman Capote, “A Christmas Memory” is a true-ish account of a childhood drenched in southern poverty. It is the story of a little boy, his best friend (an elderly relative who is, in one way or another, odd), their little dog, Queenie, and the moonshine-infused fruitcakes they make each year and give out for Christmas. They use their entire year’s savings on the cakes, and in the end have to make paper kites for one another as presents. After opening their presents, they take them to a blustery field, where they watch them on their too-brief journeys across the sky:

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we’ve run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I’m as happy as if we’d already won the $50,000 Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

“My, how foolish I am!” my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. “You know what I’ve always thought?” she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. “I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are “–her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone–” just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

This is our last Christmas together.

It’s tempting to think that this year–with its pandemic, its isolation, its violence and animosity–does not count. That it is somehow not part of our lives, and not part of the world. But that is not true. Because every year, people die. Every year, people suffer. Every year, people lose the things that mean everything to them. I’ve done this job for nearly 20 years now, and I believe I have seen the obituaries of children and infants in every one of them. There is something about being the one who puts it on a page that will be printed thousands and thousands of times that makes it stick in my head. Yet here we are, you and I, again, if only for a short time. 

“A Christmas Carol” is an uplifting story populated by ghosts, told about a greedy man and showcasing those who have nothing. It is told by an author who died of a stroke 150 years ago. 

“A Christmas Memory” is an urgently beautiful story, not a single word or comma out of place (it really is immaculate) about a woman who is long dead, and a little dog who is long dead, too. It is told by a writer who was abandoned by his parents, growing up with nothing and finding an immensity of meaning in it. He became rich and famous, and died at a fairly young age, a sorrowful and famous alcoholic. 

And yet his words remain etched in a story and written on my mind as another Christmas approaches: “As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”


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