Travelers

Immigration is a hot topic these days. I am using the word “days” here as a comfortable euphemism to disguise the fact that immigration has become a never-ending topic of debate, which seems – like God – to have had no apparent beginning and no obvious end. Or maybe I should say that it is like some neurotic version of hell since it seems to come with its own inescapable form of condemnation and punishment for those engaged in the debate as well as those in torment awaiting a peaceful resolution.  

At times it seems to have the same caustic effect on our nation as slavery did in the decades prior to the Civil War. No matter what the explicit topic is under discussion, immigration influences positions taken and the virulence of the antagonists, who somehow manage to construct a connection between it and all other issues. Hence we have a budgetary driven shutdown with a border wall being the immovable object proving that our government is in all actuality a stoppable force.

Personally, I am opposed to building a wall across the southern part of our nation which borders Mexico. Such walls took on a sinister presence when the Russians put one up in Berlin. Its fall was a humiliating defeat for its contractors and a cause of universal celebration with everyone else. We seem to be tempting the same fate, which would truly make us deplorable, but as a nation, not as a single person or a minority of blind followers. Walls do not make good neighbors, but they do make for divisive politics internally and the loss of trust with needed allies externally.

I think it is time that we remove the onus attached to the topic of immigration or more precisely to the people we label as immigrants. We do, after all, celebrate some occasions where large numbers of people moved between nations to great effect. Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and into the promise of the America of his day. The nation of Israel came about as a result, which today serves as a beacon of democratic rule surviving in the midst of totalitarian regimes. 

Think of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad secretly bringing undocumented workers north during the Civil War era. Think of those anonymous heroes, who helped the people of Hebrew heritage and other undesirables escape persecution from Nazi occupied Germany before and during WWII. The US benefited both times from the new influx of labor and knowledge brought within our borders by those seeking asylum, allowing us to rightfully accept the mantel of being liberators from ethnic, political and economic oppression.

For those of us who follow the Christian faith, we often forget that Jesus told his followers, before his ascension into heaven, to migrate across the entire planet, preaching the good news and immersing people into the new faith. We are a people of missionary endeavors and pilgrimages, which perpetuate the original concept of Christians being transient representatives of a spiritual nation and not one confined to definable borders.

We have a genius in this country of effectively renaming toxic and divisive issues in order to make them more palatable. One case which I admire, but do not agree with, is the name evolution for the concept of viewing abortion as a woman’s exclusive choice about – of all things – the termination of conception. They were once chastised for their pro-abortion stance, but the a-word has its own sinister connotations; murder being one. So the label migrated (pun intended) into that of pro-choice, which eventually settled on the brilliant designation of being about women’s reproductive health. And who can be against such a progressive and humanitarian proposition? Name changes work wonders on our collective psyche. So let’s indulge in a new one.

I wish with this week’s message to take my own stab of repositioning the immigration topic by giving its participants a new title to enhance their image and make them more desirable as neighbors. Let’s take the sting out of the issue of immigration by giving all those people, who are passionately crossing various borders on our planet, the new and innocuous name of Travelers. We are, after all, a nation of travelers of one kind or another as exemplified in our own transportation history.

On this continent what were once deer paths became foot trails. Wagon tracks became rail lines. Dirt roads begat paved roads, which begat freeways and divided highways, which ultimately led to the creation of the entire interstate system, which is still under construction, by the way; an infrastructure in need of more support, while providing greater value than any border wall. Trains, planes and automobiles keep us on the move at a pace of which our ancestors could not even imagine. We migrate. We just don’t call it that. Instead we travel and have even found a way to get perks for the number of miles we accumulate chasing after the enticements offered by commercial behemoths profiting from our mobility. Therefore, let’s use our native ingenuity to find the means to address an unfortunate imbalance between classes of travelers. We don’t have to give up going first class by making sure others have access to steerage. My European ancestors got here that way.

We already make use of the term Dreamers for some of our fellow travelers, but that term is generally applied only to children. What about the adults? They need a more gracious, more forgivable nom de plume to make them acceptable as aspirants for a better life. I have written before of my own conviction that as long as America is the Beautiful, immigration will be an issue for us. So let’s launch this idea of a simple name change for those seeking entry onto our super highways and see how well it travels.

Heart and Home: An Internal Affair

Everyone is likely familiar with the time honored cliché Home is where the heart is. My understanding of that comforting aphorism allowed home to have the priority in my thinking, inverting the sequence by putting the heart into a tangible residence.

Home for me was a place, a house with a yard and a neighborhood full of friends; all of which provided the safety and security I associate with a happy childhood. I grew up there with the assurance that I was loved and would be provided for in terms of food, clothing and shelter. Home was where my heart resided as a consequence of all these good things, with the outside world providing an increasingly less friendly alternative the further away I wandered from the boundaries of my affection.

The home of my youth is the one I tried to replicate for my wife and children, with the assumption that their hearts would find their comfort in another well-worn phrase, a sense of place. For the heart to be at peace, in my understanding of well-being, a physical location was essential. Having an address, a means of providing directions to others that one desired for companionship as house guests of any duration, was foundational for providing a home where the heart abides. But with age and an uncompromising change in personal circumstances, my perception of this sentiment has undergone its own radical transformation.

I no longer have a home. What I mean is that I am no longer the owner of a place where food and shelter are prominent features of all that I have worked for in providing for those who share my name and – for a time – my aspirations for us together as a family. Now everyone is grown and gone, having attained their independence. This left the need for a physical property with little of value beyond the financial return on investment to be gained from maintaining a property in a marketable location. And so I sold what became an antiquated asset, leaving me a guest of indeterminate duration elsewhere.

Heart has now taken pride of place in my thinking. Home and all its salient features is where I am, my heart defining value in a world that cannot be purchased by paper currency and coin, or plastic either, for that matter. Observing this reversion from things past to a more appropriate understanding of the affair between heart and home, I am left with the conclusion that I had the sequence wrong all along. Heart always defined home, not the other way around. The tangible entity was just that; walls, roof, windows, lights and their furnishings. What mattered most was metaphysical not solidly physical; spiritual, not temporal.

I can now more correctly say that Solomon had it right when counseling his own children about the heart’s supremacy: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.

I Am My Own Student

I was recently asked by an acquaintance about why I write. You will have to take my word for it, since I alone can see my website statistics, that my reach, in the case of my weekly messages, does not exceed my grasp. In other words, my audience is extremely limited.

Therefore the why I write question would appear to be valid as I have no substantial audience to admire my work. And I agree about its validity, but for a different reason. When asked, I had no easy answer for why I do this. The question subsequently took on what was probably an unintended diabolical life beyond its validity, thereby attaining the status of being truly haunting. No matter how much time elapsed from the day of my inquisition to the present moment and no matter how many other activities were available to me in supplying convenient distractions, the question continually intruded on my thinking as I lacked that simple and above all honest resolution.

I started writing a web log when I was an employed administrator at a nonprofit organization. My reasons were clear enough then. I needed to have free access to my audience of members, donors and other influencers as opposed to limiting myself to the house organs controlled by people not always aligned with my thinking. I needed the free rein in order to advocate for my governance philosophy of providing vision, transparency and accountability concerning the organization I managed. Otherwise, all three goals were at the mercy of those who were in opposition to me, even though passive in the absence of face-to-face aggression, if I remained content to subjecting my messages to their wielding complete editorial indiscretion. Anyone interested who had internet capabilities could know the why of my actions as well as the customary what, when, how and where of them.

When I retired, I continued writing and posting messages, somewhat out of habit and somewhat to satisfy the personal joy I get from the process. So if the euphoria of composition is a private indulgence, why not just keep a diary or journal? Why go public? The answer to that question has come to me in a convoluted way, but just in time to quality as a resolution coinciding with the start of a new year.

I am a reader as well as a writer and both seem to come at a plodding pace. If I have read many books it is due to my persistence and my advanced age, which has produced a significant catalogue of completed good (and not so good) reads. And it is to my most recent come to closure reading endeavor that I owe a debt of gratitude for helping me understand myself in my daily pursuit of the written word; my own as well as the words of others.

The book in which I found some intellectual as well as emotional salvation is entitled While It Is Day, the autobiography of Elton Trueblood. A noted author, teacher, pastor and philosopher of Quaker ancestry and allegiance, he divided the story of his life into different themes as opposed to a strict adherence to the chronology of years and experience. Each theme constituted a chapter in his book, one of them focusing on his formal education. He wrote with regards to the twenty-eight year period of his student status that it was the longest “chapter” of his life. And then he concluded But of course it never really ended. I hope to remain a student as long as I live.

Pondering those words I found my own resolve as to why I write and more specifically why I submit to this weekly pattern of messages and postings. Step one was the realization that I, too, hope to never stop learning. As miserable of a student as I was through all of my years of primary and secondary education, I eventually matured into someone who values knowledge and became willing to submit to the discipline of acquiring this openly accessible treasure. Reading remains my primary means of attaining it. However, to make the leap to the writing aspect of my public pursuits, there has to be a step two or corollary to the desire to learn. And what I have found is that I have a need to teach.

This need has been present all my adult life as seen in the way I raised my children, guided staff and volunteers at work, and in the ongoing habit of writing these messages. The discipline of writing drives both the learning and the teaching processes. This message provides a good example. Seeking knowledge about the philosophy of Elton Trueblood obviously informed the content of this message. And if anyone cares to delve into the backlog of my messages, the evidence will be clear that so much of what I write is inspired by the intellectual path laid down by others.

As a teacher, I am my own student. What I acquire in the way of knowledge is always internalized to some degree as I value the personal benefits such information brings in forming my character and thereby my practices and performance. But I cannot rest content in hoarding what I believe to be true. Just as I sought to guide my children at home, my staff at work, and all other acquaintances through example first and instruction when necessary, I will continue to write these messages even if the size of my audience remains in the single digits. There is joy to be found in both the acquisition and in the sharing. Writing is my means for doing so.

The Kind Hand Trembled

The title of this week’s message is a quote from the book I have been writing about all month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The challenge for anyone familiar with the story is to determine whose hand, from all of the characters populating this familiar tale, was subject to such a tremulous impulse. There are several possibilities as nearly all of them are portrayed in various stages of animation for reasons appropriate to their role in the story. But whose kind hand is said to have trembled? And why?

The answer is not something you are likely to know from watching one of the many live action or animated versions of the story. But the fact that it is just the hand that is referenced in this quote should provide enough of a clue to solve the riddle, even for those whose only exposure to the story is through one of those many televised adaptations of the Dickens classic. For the hand in question is the only visible part of the third of Scrooge’s spectral visitors, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The voiceless, formless apparition is all the more ominous for its lack of definition save this one important feature by which it communicates its intentions to Scrooge, leading him and us – as an eager audience – through the concluding scenes, which ultimately guide the old man to his redemptive destination.

Sinister is the word we might likely choose, however, over the representation of the hand as being kind, if we base our perception on the usual fearful portrayal we see in each annual telecast. Dickens, himself, prompts us to regard Scrooge’s future in this way as the Ghost appears at the stroke of midnight, dressed in a black hooded robe, which renders it hardly distinguishable from the darkness surrounding it. Bells toll the hour as the specter’s approach is described by Dickens as gliding like a mist across the ground, causing Scrooge to kneel before its presence for the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. And then there’s the hand in question, first pointing at Scrooge and then in the direction they are to go on the final terrifying path to restoration.

How many of us fear the future? Or view it with ominous apprehension? Dickens tests us in this way by playing up the obvious aspects of our fears; the dark, the loss of control, the journey into the unknown. But along the way he makes one of his intrusive speeches, which is the prerogative of any author, as the means to express thoughts which cannot be easily conveyed through any character in the story. It occurs at the moment when Scrooge is bidden to uncover the corpse lying on the bed in an abandoned bedroom; a setting shorn of the usual comforts we associate with someone’s final repose. There are no mourners to grieve the loss or a single bouquet as a token of someone’s sympathy.

It is here that Dickens tells us of the difference between the death of a good man and that of a bad one. It is in the legacy each one leaves that we see this distinction. One is cold, rigid and alone as is the case with the corpse lying before Scrooge and his spectral guide. The other, though his heart is just as still and the lifeless hand just as heavy, Dickens eulogizes as a righteous man, whose hand was once open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal! Even in death the great soul works for the care of others.

So where does that leave us with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come’s kind hand that is said to tremble?

At different times Scrooge is said to feel the Ghost’s attention through the movement of its shroud, as if its head is inclined towards him in an act of assessment, evaluating Scrooge’s response to each scene. By this slight movement we cannot truly know the Ghost’s thinking for it is only by its hand that we can clearly understand the Ghost’s intentions; where to go, what to look at, when to leave. And even with this bare physical manifestation of the spectral body, Dickens must ultimately help us out by specifically stating that the hand is kind just in case we did not see the correlation between the open, generous hand of a righteous man and the guiding hand of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

That the hand is seen trembling when Scrooge makes his final capitulation to keeping faith with all three Christmas spirits presents us with an image of approval at the remorse being openly shown by Scrooge. It is as if there is some regret in having subjected an old man to this type of treatment, the image of its trembling hand an act of sharing in Scrooge’s own trembling condition as he clutches at the Ghost’s once forbidding robe. The Ghost pulls itself free and Scrooge is left clutching at a bedpost.

We know the rest of the joyous story. Good triumphs over evil once again. And we can all conclude the reading with a happy heart. We can also conclude the reading with a bit of insight that the future need not be dreadful based on the condition of our hearts.

We are at the end of a calendar year, which is the popular time to reflect and things past and make current resolutions for a better future. We do not need to fear what lies ahead, as Dickens’ story helps us to understand. The hand of fate can be just as kind to us as the hand that trembled in The Christmas Carol. The point is to be the kind of person Dickens described as one whose deeds sow the world with life immortal. We have the opportunity at hand to make life what we will and know that our legacy will have a positive impact on others for many years to come.

Keepers

If you have been reading my December series of messages then you know by now that I have been relying on Charles Dickens and his classic story, A Christmas Carol, to keep me inspired and on track for posting these snippets of personal insights on a timely basis.  Keeping, in fact, is the theme of this week’s message, drawn on the profession made by Ebenezer Scrooge near the story’s end to be a keeper of a specific kind. Clutching the hem of the robe worn by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the reformed miser ardently proclaimed:

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.  

Many of us profess to be keepers as well; not in the popular fashion of being someone else’s personal possession as a woman might say of a good man she’s met that he’s a keeper, but in the traditional sense of maintaining our integrity by being true to our word. Like me you may have once upon a time pledged allegiance to our country’s flag, pledged to uphold a scouting motto, or pledged yourself to be ever faithful to a significant other. These types of gestures were earnestly made as we willingly accepted the responsibility that comes with being a keeper of our oaths, pledges and promises.

Like me you may have also reached a stage in your life where you can look back and see that some of those promises have been long forgotten as if they became no longer relevant to our lives, while others assault our sense of duty for being completely broken. Fortunately for us Scrooge can serve as our example as one who found out in the appropriate course of time that the damage done is not always irreparable. And just as fortuitously for us there is hidden in his pledge to be a keeper of the Christmas spirit a few hints about what it takes to remain faithful to such open ended commitments that by rights should prevail for a lifetime.

The first is a perception of what it means to be a person of honor in order to project that character quality on to the object or cause we intend to keep. Scrooge vowed to honor Christmas, but in order to do that a sense of honor had to reside within him in order for it to be projected without. He found it through a kaleidoscopic sequence of experiences in which he learned about his impact on others and how they viewed him for it. The revelation was quite humbling. Honor requires humility. Otherwise we will be incapable of holding another person, place, or concept in high esteem, which is an intrinsic aspect of honoring. We must lower ourselves to regard something other than ourselves as being great.

Second, we must consider the need for consistency. Christmas is, after all, a once a year thing, but Scrooge’s solution for not dropping back into his old habits during the off-season was to keep the spirit of the event year round.  In essence the joy, fellowship, and generosity associated with December the 25th was to become a daily habit, a life style, and not an occasional observance. The same remains true for us. Keeping must become a daily habit. Otherwise what has often been called the tyranny of the urgent will easily and certainly displace our well-intended resolutions.

Third is perspective. Scrooge vowed to live in the past, the present and the future, which is to value both one’s heritage and one’s prospects in order to make conditions better for everyone else in the present. A person of character draws strength from every past experience as a means to inform his present actions to shape a more promising future. For Scrooge it was the memory of his sweet sister Fan, the beauty of his sweetheart Belle, and the exuberance of his generous employer Fezziwig that allowed him to put into a proper perspective the harsh conditions that had originally corrupted his soul and formed him into a miserable miser in need of redemption. The prospect of helping the Cratchit family escape their dire circumstances was his route to finding a cause greater than himself; a promise kept thanks to the past and the future serving to shape his behavior in the present.

Fourth is conviction.  All of us need some type of creed on which to base our convictions. For Scrooge it was the lessons learned from all three Christmas spirits, which continued to strive within him as the prime motivator of his new found life. Most of us have managed to internalize some set of standards formulated outside of ourselves, upon which we base what convictions we hold dear as a catalyst for our role of being keepers. Others, perhaps, have chosen a cafeteria approach, picking what pleases them and rejecting what does not, which is typically the standards that demand a sacrifice. Scrooge’s “all in” gambit is one of content as well as duration, vowing to never – over time – shut out the lessons imparted by the Christmas spirits. Learning, therefore, is perpetual and will subsequently, continually inform our success as keepers.

There is a point five in this scenario, which is the virtue of transparency. It becomes evident at the story’s end, when Dickens writes of Scrooge that:

… it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

Seeing is believing is a well-worn adage we have all heard invoked at some time in our lives about someone, if not ourselves. Seeing is the consequence of someone living openly, creating transparency regarding their words and deeds and even their motives.

Transparency by default creates accountability, so maybe I should include the “a” word as point six in the lessons taught in A Christmas Carol about being a keeper of one’s commitments. When our behavior is candidly on display for others to see, they will, also by default, assess our performance. It is human nature to critique, if not to criticize, others. Gossip often ensues. For Scrooge it was the gossip of laughter, which bothered him not at all. People found it amusing to see the change in Dickens’ redeemed rogue. In fact Scrooge laughed at himself, if only for the joy of witnessing his own transition and the benefit it brought to others, even the mockers, who at least had a good laugh at Scrooge’s expense.

Humility – not to be confused with humiliation – motivated Scrooge to live a life of care, concern, and compassion. His emergence as a keeper has provided ceaseless, if only annual, entertainment for us all. And now we know how the gift of keeping can best be done.

Home: A Reflection of the Soul

He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his partner. They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be ….

Any idea what a “lowering pile of building” might be? How about the appearance of a “locomotive hearse” ascending a broad staircase? You needn’t understand these archaic terms in order to apprehend the ominous aspects of a house inhabited by someone we are to view as possessing these same repulsive qualities. A home, after all, is the reflection of the owner’s soul and in this case the sole inhabitant of this disquieting structure is Ebenezer Scrooge. It is a house, as we all well know, where haunted dreams do take place in the dead of night.

I am a fan of Charles Dickens and indulge in an annual reading of his most popular seasonal story, A Christmas Carol. This practice, in turn, has afforded me an easy means for writing out my own thoughts under Dickens’ tutelage, so to speak. I enjoy his over the top descriptions of inanimate objects to tell us about the less visible features of the characters they mimic. Consider his poetic defilement of the entrance to Scrooge’s home as a supplement to the gloom of the “suite of rooms”he will ultimately enter for his encounter with his spectral visitors. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

 All these features provide us with ominous tidings bereft of comfort and joy. Even the doorknocker has a part to play in portending what lies ahead for Scrooge as it momentarily transforms into the face of his deceased partner and former resident of this same dreary mansion, Jacob Marley.Bare of any other ornamentation the house can be said to be careworn, which isan odd way of saying that it is indeed worn out from being inhabited for too many years by men, who lacked aesthetic tastes, leaving it without any care for its condition. The setting, therefore, perfectly reflects Scrooge’s treatment of people. They are used, but not cared for, their subsequent economic poverty as obvious to any of us as their emotional straits are dire.

 One of the things we might miss in the reading – or the viewing if you are limited to watching one of the many adaptations of this novella – is the way the house reflects the school of Scrooge’s youth. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back to the scenes of his childhood his initial awareness of his surroundings is one of glee as he sees all of his youthful classmates exuberant over their holiday reprieve. But that all changes as they come into view of the house, which served as a school for boys.

 It was a large house,but one of broken fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables; and the coach houses and sheds were overrun with grass. Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open doors of many rooms,they found them poorly furnished, cold and vast. There was an earthy savor in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candlelight, and not too much to eat.

Scrooge, of course, is once again the lone inhabitant of a dismal structure, having been denied the joy of going home for Christmas due to the harsh neglect afforded him by his father. While the remembrance of things past prompts him to regret his own treatment of a boy singing – appropriately –a Christmas carol outside the door of his counting house, the scene slowly changes as Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrank, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead ….

Plaster crumbles. Hearts do too.

Scrooge’s wealth did not lead to the opulence we might expect of a prosperous man. Instead of making a better or more comfortable life for himself, he used his money to replicate the misery of his childhood. What we get is the suggestion that we all tend to recreate what we know. Scrooge’s dismal surroundings as a child are salvaged from his brief respite as an apprentice under the pleasant and generous spirit of Mr. Fezziwig, reflecting our tendency to replicate the past rather than replace it. . Only the new setting is constructed on a grander scale, which is to say with a meaner scope and more resolute exile from humanity than that which was forced upon him by a heartless father.

By these words and images Dickens bids us enter into an otherwise very private and solitary domain, reflecting the soul of a man who administers universal misery. Scrooge endures a harsh redemption, as he must. The rigidity of his gloomy confinement in heart as well as in home requires a traumatic transition in order to attain normalcy. Death is part of it; a death enlivened – ironically – by the callow treatment of the deceased’s legacy by those,who only see personal gain from what should be regarded as a tragedy. They are Scrooge in miniature and this final revelation disheartens the old miser to the extreme. Only in his case, losing one’s heart is a good thing as it finds a replacement embedded with a more compassionate spirit.

The Saving Grace of Beauty

As much as I am a curmudgeon when it comes to resisting the commercialization of Christmas, I do have my own traditions to follow, costing me little but still held by me as dearly precious because of this lack in marketable value. One of these is my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I came by this story as a child the way most of us do, watching one of the many adaptations of the novella available to us on television – and that once again coming to me at no cost.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I took up a softcover copy of the book and worked my way through its circuitous route to redemption; a change you could say was mine as much as Ebenezer’s.  I was amazed at how much of the text for such a short work still had to be excised in order to fit the many characters and scenes into a celluloid time capsule. Discovering the true scope of the work was a transcendent experience, marking me with a sense of loyalty to Dickens’ original vision and purpose in creating his marvelous composition.

Last week I posted a lament about one of the failings of the film versions of this story, the loss – intended or otherwise – of the Christian message inherent in a miser’s transformation from a one-dimensional impersonation of a human being into a multi-faceted participant in society with a humbled, compassionate and generous spirit. Without quoting chapter and verse, Dickens gave Scrooge the soul of a disciple, whose actions befit the description offered by Jesus of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

We credit Scrooge’s going through the change of life to the visitations and administrations of the three spirits foretold by Jacob Marley’s ghost. But the role of these three apparitions is little more than that of supernaturally endowed tour guides, expertly revealing the necessary scenes to induce an internal sense of shock and awe in the old fellow’s crusty and thoroughly calcified heart. It is the people who inhabit these scenes, who induce the feelings of remorse and repentance which lead to Scrooge’s reformation.

For my part I find three of these characters essential to the story’s success, though you may have ample cause to disagree with me on this point. All three are female and all three exhibit the one external quality that makes the internal virtues they possess (which we are supposed to prize above all) perfectly appealing. And that is the quality of beauty; gentleness, compassion, joy, perseverance and affection follow.

The first of my three beauties is Fan, Scrooge’s younger sister. We see her only when she arrives at her brother’s school with the glad tidings that their father is so much nicer now and has consented to her pleas of allowing Ebenezer to come home. She brings color to the otherwise drab appearance of the school before she departs with her prize. We see in this contrast a clear distinction between living and merely existing. And it is here that Scrooge takes his first tentative step towards redemption.

My second choice is Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée. We have no basis for believing that this is an affectionate shortening of a longer proper name like Maybelle, Clarabelle, or Lulabelle. Therefore we can take her literally at face value (pun intended) and understand that Dickens was relying on our knowledge of French to understand that her name represented her captivating features, for Belle means beauty when conversing a La Francaise.

She makes a sudden appearance during which she terminates her engagement to Scrooge because he treasures money more than he does her. We see her a second time in an episode many years after the fateful denouement of her romance with Scrooge, only this time she is the centerpiece of a happy home; married with exuberant children and a supportive husband about her. Check out the illustrations of A Christmas Carol by Arthur Rackham and you will see that my assessment of her was shared by this impeccable illustrator and why seeing her in her happy estate she is the cause for Scrooge’s extinguishing the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past. A step back, perhaps, from the two steps he had taken forward.

My third and final choice is the one you may find easy to refute due to its tenuous hold on reality, even for an examination of a work of fiction. It is Fan reborn in the persons of her son Fred and his charming, anonymous wife. Fred has all the virtues of the persistent and loving person his mother was with regard to her older brother Ebenezer. Fred’s wife has Fan’s physical frailties, which make her exquisitely delicate as she serves as an overseer but non-participant in all of the Christmas Day festivities. It is her approval Scrooge seeks to secure when he appears at their home following his total reclamation as a responsive and responsible human being.

This fantasy merge of personalities may be overreach on my part, but it allows me to press home my personal interpretation of Dickens’ masterpiece as a means to express an opinion about the meaning of life as I see it.

Without beauty life would have no meaning. In a world devoid of the delectable décor of landscapes, habitations and the human heart, we would forebear the pursuit of living as there would be no inspiration for attaining possessions, prestige, lovers and the offspring who perpetuate our self-image. Love may be a many-splendored thing, seemingly capable of making the world go round. But without a beautiful, transformative object on which to bestow our affection, love would simply be another four-letter word and hardly worth the effort to make in any way, shape or form. We would all be as stubbornly selfish and intransigently tightfisted as misers, simply marking time until our meager lights are extinguished as the only benefit to bless an otherwise benighted world.

Resurrecting Marley’s Ghost

It’s a given. It’s December and the ghosts of Christmas spectacles have come to life in their lavish and extravagantly brilliant manifestations. Crass commercialism is an obvious specter, haunting every advertising avenue imaginable in order to convince us that purgatory awaits those who fail to spend excessively on everyone we know; the magnitude of our spending proffering a materialistic view of salvation. Carols, having been played since the end of October, are already wheezing from exhaustion and will be the first to drop dead again with the stroke of midnight on the 25th. No mourners will be in evidence at that late and sated hour.

Christmas themed movies abound. The Hallmark Channel alone can elicit the coming of all ye faithful to a redundant feast of characters and plots in these tailor made for TV addiction stories. Their sameness includes a cast of impossibly young and beautiful people caught up in seasonally appropriate romantic confusion. The similarities amongst the scripts offer up a series of one-dimensional characters, who must first hate or distrust each other in order for the magic of  Christmas to transform them into happily-ever-after couples, radiating joy to the world, while defining White Christmas as an affluent, ethnic luxury. Pardon my own Scrooge-like cynicism here.

Speaking of Scrooge, his own story has gone through many interpretations and tis the season to see them all. My own introduction to this woeful character, who  – like his Hallmark counterparts – also undergoes a magnificent transformation but without the benefit of a beauty queen paramour to aid his transition, was through one of the televised accounts being played on a Christmas morning. The first actor I can recall in the role of this forcefully redeemed misfit is Reginald Owens in a credible 1938 adaptation of the book by Charles Dickens. Apparently on another local station, one that I did not watch out of loyalty to some other brand, you could find Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 classic, which is often regarded as the best telling (or retelling or is it retailing?) ever made.

Such movies comprise the ghosts of my own Christmases past, but I have laid them to rest in preference for the real deal. It is only in the pages of the written word that you can get the complete Dickens logos, pathos and ethos – with even a mild touch of eros added in for good measure – which no live action or animated feature has ever willingly captured.

Part of the reason may be due to the inexplicable complexities of his story. For instance watch how the various versions try to cope with his convoluted accountability for time. The ghostly visits are foretold to take place over three early morning encounters and yet transpire in just one. For another look at the vast array of sites visited however briefly by Scrooge and his spectral tour guides in order for Dickens to effect the old man’s rehabilitation in a rational (for a fantasy work) way. Then you can get a sense of why the respective producers made cuts to the fabric of the story in order to maintain a rational, if not sufficient, budget; storyline, in most cases, be damned.

My own conspiracy theory about exclusion of scenes, characters and sentiments is due to the heavy dose of religious (aka Christian) influence in the Dickens text needing to be eradicated in order to make the production marketable and thereby profitable. And to justify my perspective I must here resurrect the image of Jacob Marley, the character whose name will be forever stamped with the ignominy of being deader than a doornail.

Marley admits that he does not know how it is he has been allowed to be seen and heard by his former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. But he makes the best use of it by terrifying the poor rascal first with loud wails and the clashing of the debilitating chain he forged in life and then lamenting about his own flagrant disregard for the needs of others. When told that he was always a good man of business, Marley delivers his best remembered line that “Mankind was my business.” This statement is universally included in every live action and animated version of A Christmas Carol but without ever telling anyone the reason why this charitable obligation was so. Profit is the only motive for doing business, not benevolence, but this point is blithely ignored in every retelling (retailing) of the story in the belief that the audience will not question Marley’s logic.

One must read the book to find out why his dispirited proclamation and his perpetual travail make sense. It stems from the fact that in Dickens’ world the Sermon on the Mount not only makes sense, it and other admonitions by a young, itinerant rabbi were mandates for one’s behavior; profitability being displaced by faith, hope and charity. Marley’s most anguished speech is subsequently excised from the adaptations as his lament over his lack of spiritual knowledge is too firmly rooted in the Christian worldview to be palatable even in a Hollywood paean to seasonal tidings of humanistic comfort and joy. But I will give Dickens, in the person of Marley, his due by closing this paean to dissent with these unexpurgated words:

“Oh! captive, bound, and doubled-ironed, not to know that ages of incessant labor, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

A Gettysburg Moment Lost

Cemeteries have their own form of celebrity. They are gardens planted with a peculiar type of seed, producing a forest of stone, metal and wooden markers in various configurations, but all with the same solemn message: Sorrow resides here. No matter how green the landscape, how well tended its attempt at grandeur, the beauty of a cemetery is merely a distraction from the bleak truth of its existence – death and our confrontation with an unyielding separation.

Such permanence ends dreams for those bound deep beneath the earth’s grasp as well as for those still upright yet clutched by grief’s unrelenting hand on the heart, relinquishing one’s desire only as the cruel ethereal dross of despair. In a world devoid of sin we still regard it as sin to deface, defame or denounce the sanctity of an exactitude we can only revere.

Beware, then, the fool who trespasses on its forlorn supremacy as an exemplar of our fate, ignoring the collective anguish of all survivors, for only hate ensues. It is best to consider the routine rituals of respect – laying wreaths, somber dress, bowing deep, bare-headed and contrite – if one cannot aspire to the heights of a Gettysburg moment.

President Lincoln set the benchmark for solemn commemoration of both a cause (a government of, by and for the people) and the individuals who gave “the last full measure of devotion” to that cause. His words are enshrined in marble halls, on bronze plaques and within the most humane of hearts, his own tomb a place of pilgrimage for those who know honor as a virtue and a debt.

One does not need to be president in order to express an honorable sentiment about the dead. And a president does not need to be as eloquent as Lincoln to attain a favorable comparison with his display of practiced character. But a president must be willing to go through the motions, even when it is raining, in order to avoid something far worse from descending upon him with the benighted grace of a raven instead of a dove.

The chosen emblem of respect, a plastic poppy for a boutonniere, can shield even the falsest heart over which it is placed. But absence can become an unforgiving presence in the hearts of others, who prey on such omissions as carrion for a scavenging beast. Sadly, in their desire to gorge, honor from any source is neglected in preference for other tantalizing morsels.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.  So wrote John McCrae, who made a dire warning about those who break faith with the dead. His sentiment concerned those who exemplified the truth of Lincoln’s words about devotion, but the obligation to keep faith with the dead applies to us all. Yet another Gettysburg moment was lost on an anniversary made all the more preeminent in our awareness for its centenary attainment. Maybe in 2045 we will see a rebirth of sacred duty to those who lay buried in other fields but for the same cause that governments pledged to freedom will not perish beneath the burden of human greed and the lust for power.

The Profits of Personality

During the writing of this series of messages about our political disorder and my own preference for developing an independent mindset versus being lost to a pathological lockstep with any political party, I was introduced to two books that have helped to shape my further thinking on the subject of character. The first of these was written by James Davison Hunter entitled The Death of Character, which was published in 2000. In it he made a passing reference to the second book, published in 1985, and written by Warren I Susman, entitled Culture as History.

Susman’s contribution to the discussion is the premise that America went through a transformation during the 20th Century, moving from a culture of character to one of personality. The old Puritan-producer order, with its emphasis on the development of the moral qualities we call character, was displaced by the new, custom made for a consumer society dynamic of personality, with its emphasis on being “liked and admired.”  He quotes a line from French writer Henry Laurent’s 1916 book Personality: How to Build It as being truly representative of that new age of self-aggrandizement, who stated, “Personality is the quality of being Somebody.”

Ironically Laurent’s title informs us that personality, like character, must be formed in keeping with the accepted social order of the moment. Self-help books like Laurent’s abounded with their emphasis on developing the most appealing face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude. The ultimate sign of one’s success in becoming Somebody could be found in having followers or, in 21st Century terms, a posse.

If I understand Hunter’s thesis correctly – and by the way neither book is an easy read – then I would say he is in agreement with Susman’s claim about the transition from a character culture to one of personality. But despite his book’s title, Hunter does hold to the belief that character is not dead. It is still present in our society, just confined to the small enclaves where creeds still exist, which help members of these isolated communities form convictions, which in turn help shape one’s character. The overwhelming problem, in his view, is that our institutions have succumbed to the cult of personality, making it hard, if not impossible, for the role of character to resume its once dominate place in the American way of life.

My reason for writing this lengthy preamble to my intended message is not to go intellectual on anyone. That would, after all, put a dent in my acceptability, which would work against any attempt at enhancing my personality. But this Hunter-Susman collaboration in my reading formed a perfectly timed example of just what their academic acclamations look like in real time. My example is the reporting via Yahoo (that wonderful source of non-news) of Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin foregoing the usual strikingly costumed celebrity celebrations of Halloween in order to attend a church service.

First of all, that I was looking at a Yahoo headline was not my fault. I still have a Yahoo e-mail account and as any user knows, when you sign out from your account you exit through Yahoo news. This is the internet equivalent of exiting a ride at Disneyland, where one must pass through a gift shop in order to breathe fresh air. And this is where I learned about the escapist attempt at holiness promulgated by this famous pair of media darlings.

What I know about the Biebs, besides this affectionately shortening of his name by his fans, is that he is the male counterpart of Taylor Swift, both being musical juggernauts in terms of popularity and sales. But being a father of two adult children, one who favored heavy metal and the other country music, neither Swift nor Bieber ever laid claim to the hearts and minds of my children, leaving me deprived of hearing their songs emanating from the juvenile confines of my household. This means I am clueless about their musical catalogue as well as the sound of their voices. I am definitely not a camp follower, but that does not diminish their popularity and therefore the evidence of their personalities in any way. With regards to Hailey Baldwin, I had to do some further research to discover which Baldwin brother she was descended from. It’s Stephen, the youngest, if you are as culturally deficient as me.

But this deficiency in my own awareness of today’s pop culture only heightened my interest in the story behind the headline about their church attendance. So I did what any curious soul wielding today’s technology would do. I clicked on the link, which took me to a website boasting of a couple of photos with captions and a description of what the Biebs and the Babe wore on their outing. There was no mention by name of the church they attended, what the message was – if any – that held more appeal for Bieber and Baldwin than a Halloween-themed outing, or an insightful quote from the couple about the meaning of their faith in their life as recently weds. But you could follow another link that would tell you how you too could get Ms. Baldwin’s “look” by purchasing the right style of clothes; affirmation of Susman’s claim that personality is the perfect expression of a consumer society.

The kids deserve better, but this is the price of personality. The qualities of face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude touted as essential in the early 1900s has proven to be paramount more than a hundred years later. And if Susman were still alive, he could feel justly vindicated in his academic assessment of what was taking place with this paradigm shift from character to personality development and its apparent permanence. What is important now is what’s on the surface. It is – to borrow a now popular phrase –  “flipping the script” between character and personality. What you get is what you see and that through the long-distance lens of the digital age, proving that the current cult of personality is no longer personal.

All of this puts me in mind of a rather prophetic song made popular by Lloyd Price during my own youthful development.  In 1959 he sang about his foolish enslavement to the girl of his dreams who had – you guessed it – personality. Its allure was evident in her walk, talk, smile and charm. But at least there was still some aspect of character present as he crooned about her great big heart; a symbol of substance beneath the veneer of what another song of that era touted as poetry in motion.

Rave on, Lloyd Price; you were a prophet without intention, the depth of your insight inversely proportional to the shallowness of our values.